Rock Art Ramblin’, Searching For Chumash Pictographs

Los Padres National Forest hikingDavid Stillman standing at the base of the second fall in a series of waterfalls which flow when it rains.

So we go and so it is, around this bend and that, up over and down under and around we go again. This branch breaks, that one doesn’t, a slice and a scratch, trip, stumble, slide and on up the dry creek and over the hills we go.

By early afternoon, having been barging and breaking our way through a wildfire charred landscape for hours, I’m streaked in black slash marks and covered in a fine powder of black dust with several red gleaming stinging cuts across both arms .

It’s hot hiking in the sun, for winter. And dry, pretty dry, for winter. But there are a number of pockets of water around replenished if only slightly by the last minuscule rain to fall seemingly so long ago. There’s plenty to keep you alive in a pinch, but not much more than that. And it’s around these few seasonal seeps and channels that drain occasional runoff that we search for tell-tale traces of times long past.

Los Padres National Forest waterfallsThe dry waterfall just below the one shown in the previous photo. Seasonal runoff has carved a deep winding slot through the sandstone bedrock with multiple waterfalls.

The rugged terrane bristles with chaparral and does not lend itself to easy travel or encourage and invite exploration. It quickly reveals weaknesses. To hike even but a few miles off-trail into its midst requires not just physical, but mental fortitude and the discipline to tolerate a fair amount of various discomforts.

The sun’s blistering glare and heat, even in winter, insidiously saps energy while drawing a constant stream of water from the body, initiating a relentless battle to maintain sufficient hydration, which necessitates constant drinking, usually of less than appetizing warm water drawn from one’s backpack.

Clouds of dirt and charcoal dust explode into the air when breaking through the brush and tramping over the silty dry soil. The superfine particulate coats eyeballs in a gritty film and irritates the nose triggering sneezing fits and sniffling.

And there is the general physical strain of lumbering over a wild landscape of loose soil, shifting rocks and big boulders, across and up and down steep slopes, and through bushes that poke, stab and lacerate soft human flesh like needles and blades. These are the dues that must be paid, nature’s abstract gatekeepers that allow only the most determined and fit adventurers access to the treasures of the backcountry.

Los Padres hikingLooking down a miniature gorge. Seasonal runoff flows over the lip of the ledge at the bottom of the photo and falls about ten feet, and then on down the slot over several additional waterfalls.

gorge Los Padres National ForestAnother miniature gorge or tiny slot canyon of a sort. The water flows over the yellowish stone at the bottom of the frame and falls about eight to ten feet before washing down the slot and over additional waterfalls.

Discovering or locating Indian rock art in such a landscape requires indefatigable persistence to press on to the next inconspicuous small cave, alcove or sheltered nook where there may lie hidden a faded, highly eroded pictograph measuring only several inches in size. Finding a pictograph in the chaparral is comparable to locating that needle in haystack everyone talks about.

Looking in every little pocket in the sandstone which may conceal rock art throughout even a small area of rugged terrane is laborious, time consuming hard work. Even if you know the general area where a painted cave is located, you may beat yourself to a bloody, tired mess and not find it or not even cover the entirety of the area in question due to insufficient daylight or depleted energy and waning interest.

Los Padres hikesLooking over the edge at Stillman scrambling down a dry creek.

Los Padres National Forest litterVintage beer can.

We finally found a single pictograph in an outcrop holding several bedrock mortars. Etiquette dictates that I not provide so much as a single clue to its location and any photos shared be limited in their scope so as not to reveal distinguishing features of the surrounding landscape, which may disclose where the archaeological site might be located.

There exists a contingent of rock art enthusiasts out there who believe it’s their personal duty to enforce such unwritten rules and to protect the exclusivity of such sites for none but the select, chosen few. And if these rules are infringed upon or violated they will not hesitate to inform you of your transgression. No doubt some even grit their teeth over the mere mention of the existence of such archaeological sites in a post entitled such as this one.

Meanwhile, the fragile ever-eroding pictographs and petroglyphs continue fading into oblivion from exposure to the elements. If not intentionally destroyed by vandals or unintentionally by increasing numbers of respectful visitors unknowingly panting moisture laden breath into the caves and kicking up dust, nature will erase these delicate traces of a mystical time long past once and for all. It’s now or later, but it is indeed inevitable.

bear scratchA bear scratch inside a cave. Presumably the bear found the inclusion in the sandstone strangely out of place and pawed at it out of curiosity.

Los Padres National Forest cavesThis here’s a deep, completely dry cave. Nice one. There is plenty of space to sleep inside with a lot of extra room, was my first thought. It’s maybe like ten feet long, two to four feet high and three to four feet wide. It has another slightly larger entrance at one end. It very well may have been used as a dry cache by the Chumash. Who stacked those rocks?

Los Padres National Forest hikesThe outcrop holding the mortars and pictograph.

Chumash rock art pictograph paintSometimes all that remains is a tiny spot of paint such as this centimeter wide dot. The Los Padres National Forest spans some 1,752,400 acres.

Chumash rock art pictograph Los Padres National Forest

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10 Responses to Rock Art Ramblin’, Searching For Chumash Pictographs

  1. Cynthia says:

    Another wonderful post. How I love your website! Thanks again for sharing without revealing too much, and for continuing to foster appreciation and respect for the wonders of here. Best wishes for the new year.

  2. David Shearer says:

    Way cool, Jack. You and Spillman are true modern day explorers. And some day Little Miss E will join you on these off trail adventures?

  3. Tom Lopez says:

    Always great, keeping the beauty alive and sharing it

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing, the beauty,the hard to get to places and for protecting the sacred sites.

  5. To says:

    Thanks for sharing, the beauty,the hard to get to places and for protecting the sacred sites.

  6. Pat says:

    Great post! I read about it first at David Stillman’s blog. Great photos also. It seems that you two are a great match when off-trail and on the hunt for something. A few days ago I had to move hundred pounds of rocks (and then replace them afterwards) to gain a crawling access into an awesome cave full of pictographs. It wasn’t in the same area as this, but your photo of the rocks partially blocking the entrance really reminded me of it. I have to admit that I’m conflicted about whether or not secrecy about these places is a good thing. I can’t image that a person who is enough of a turd to vandalize a place like this one, would have the inclination to go though so much just to get there first. The one I’m talking about is known by very few people, yet there are people very close to it on a regular basis. In that case, I think it needs to be “kept on the down-low.”

    • Jack Elliott says:

      I’m sort of conflicted over the matter, as well, and as a result I’ve made very few posts on this blog about the numerous sites I’ve been to.

      I think pictographs need to be protected and I don’t think it serves them well to openly advertise the locations of these sites. But I also think, and this is more to the point I was trying to get at, that some people take that notion of secrecy way too far and freak out over the slightest revealing of information or photos. I’ve had some nasty comments left on my blog for merely just mentioning some sites in a limited way that doesn’t even reveal anything about where their locations are.

  7. John Mellor says:

    Hi Jack Elliott –

    Congrats to you and David for being able to find that spot!

    In my experience, it’s generally the clueless who ruin sites.

    Sometimes it’s people who mean well. Sometimes it’s the very people who have been hired to protect the wild areas. It can be one of the fire crews bulldozing a fire break. It can be one of the helicopters bringing dead cow carcasses to feed the condors while kicking up more dust than a site has seen since the last hurricane. Backpackers have been known to build fires inside a cave with pictographs causing smoke damage.

    There are also the vandals who wreck stuff intentionally. Painted Rock out on Carrizo Plains has been used for target practice(!) Idiots with spray cans can’t seem to resist adding there own .02. I’ve been involved in cases where people with paintball guns have splattered pictographs inside of caves while shooting at their ‘enemy.’ There was even a case of kids with charcoal sticks being allowed to scratch their initials on a panel by their parents.

    In any case, I have to agree…. it’s merely a matter of time.

  8. Nico says:

    Nice job on reaching this one guys. I’ve tried on at least two occasions to find this site but given up for lack of time and motivation to continue on with the scrambling and brush busting.

    Those ravines are pretty brutal. I’d guess the area used to get a lot more water (at least seasonally) than it has in recent decades.

    Anyway, kudos to you for seeing it through.

  9. Jason says:

    Ironically due to all these factors your photos and Dave’s will probably be the only remaining evidence of pictographs soon

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