Petroglyphs of the Cosos

Deer Petroglyphs
Lizard Petroglyphs
Unusual Pattern Petroglyph
Sheep Petroglyphs
Shield Petroglyph
Line of Sheep Petroglyph
Line of
Sheep Petroglyphs


Concentrated in secluded canyons of the volcanic Coso Range on the test ranges of the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, Calif., are thousands of visual reminders of people who, thousands of years ago, hunted and gathered their food in this high desert. The Coso Range Canyons contain the highest concentration of rock art in the Western Hemisphere. More than 6,000 images have been pecked, engraved, or abraded into the desert varnish or patina that forms on basalt rocks with time and weathering.

No one knows for sure how old these petroglyphs are. A broad range of dates can be inferred from archaeological sites in the area and some artifact forms depicted on the rocks. Some of them may be as old as 16,000 years, some as recent as the 1800s. Designs range from animals to abstract to anthropomorphic figures.

Opinions vary widely whether the petroglyphs were made for ceremonial purposes, whether they are telling stories to pass along the mythology of their makers, or whether they are records of hunting hopes or successes, clan symbols or maps.


This rock art is so important to our cultural heritage and our knowledge of the desert's past that in 1964 the sites were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Now, everything in the canyon area is fully protected, including the petroglyphs, obsidian chips, and any artifacts or tools, as well as native vegetation and wildlife. Federal and California laws and NAWS regulations protect this area.

The rock on which the petroglyphs were carved and the fragile desert varnish are easily damaged. Be careful when climbing among the rocks not to step on the petroglyphs. Sand on boot soles, camera tripods, and walking sticks can damage the designs.

Photograph or sketch a picture of the petroglyphs,don't try to chip one into the rocks. Outlining the designs with chalk or applying any material to the rocks is prohibited here as at all rock art sites. Don't try to make marks on the rocks in the canyon. You will notice some regrettable vandalism. These eyesores are in bad taste, and to make them is illegal. The Navy, the Federal Government, and the State can and will prosecute vandals.

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Little Petroglyph Canyon, the only site open for public tours, is about 1.2 miles long, and the walls are 20 to 40 feet high. Elevation is about 5,000 feet. The canyon floor is a sand and rocky wash bottom. Visitors have to negotiate over and around a variety of rocks and boulders to enter the canyon. From there, the walk is moderate until the lower end of the canyon. The lower end, which is optional to visit, involves sliding down some very steep sections. The total drop is around 300 feet, which, of course, still needs to be negotiated coming back up.

The only facilities at the site include pit toilets and a covered picnic area near the parking lot.

The road to the site is steep and mostly paved, with only the last seven miles being dirt.

Items needed for tours

The round trip from the NAWS main gate is about 90 miles. Low clearance vehicles are discouraged, but the trip can be made easily in a car in good condition. Motor homes are not allowed.

For safety reasons, a full tank of gas, good brakes, good tires, a good spare, a jack and other tools needed for changing tires are required. Visitors must bring their own food and water. At least two liters of water per person is recommended, although during the hotter months additional water is recommended. Salty snacks are also recommended to help prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion. As in any high desert area, the weather is unpredictable. Visitors are advised to dress in layers. It may be cool in the morning, but very hot by the afternoon. In the late fall and early spring, it can be very cold all day long. In fact, it can be so cold visitors may want to have hats and gloves. During the summer months, the temperatures can exceed 110 degrees.

Due to the terrain, sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots are recommended. Sandals and thongs are discouraged. While the canyon walls offer some protection, sunscreen, sunglasses and hats are still important in protecting visitors from the heat and sun. A backpack is also recommended, to help carry water, food, extra clothing and camera gear.


The rock art in Little Petroglyph Canyon is so important to our cultural heritage and our knowledge of the desert's past that in 1964 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Everything in the canyon area is fully protected, including the obsidian chips and any artifacts or tools, as well as the petroglyphs and native vegetation and wildlife. Federal and California laws and NAWS regulations help protect this area. Some of these laws and regulations include:

  1. Follow the directions provided by the tour guides at all times.
  2. Children under 10, unless they are in the fourth grade, are not allowed on tours. For safety reasons, infants are not allowed on tours.
  3. Don't walk on the rocks lining the canyon walls. Sand on boot soles, camera tripods and walking sticks can damage the designs. Stay on the canyon's bottom.
  4. Photograph or sketch a picture of the rock art. DON'T make your own. Don't touch the rock art. It is unknown what future damage from the hand may cause to the varnish covering the image. Outlining the designs with chalk or applying any material to the rocks is prohibited. Do not try to make marks on the rocks in the canyon, even if they don't contain any images. This is still vandalism and subject to prosecution.
  5. Large vehicles, like RVs and cab-over campers, are not allowed.
  6. Pets, alcohol, and glass containers are prohibited.

Firearms are also prohibited, even if you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

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To protect the security of the military installation, the following regulations are in place:

  1. Recreational tours will normally be limited to up to 20 people, with a maximum of seven vehicles (of which two must be escort vehicles).
  2. Visitors will be required to provide their full name, Social Security Number, date and place of birth.
  3. Additions or substitutions to the list of visitors are prohibited once the Recreational Access application has been turned into the Corporate Communications/Public Affairs Office.
  4. Upon entering the Station, all visitors will be required to show a picture ID, and all vehicles and belongings will be subject to search.
  5. Visitors must stay with the caravan at all times. Detours and unplanned stops are not allowed.
  6. Cameras and binoculars must be kept locked up until reaching the canyon's parking lot.
  7. Violation of any of the tour rules could result in the entire tour being cancelled.


The safety of visitors on board NAWS China Lake is a primary concern. While in the parking lot, picnic area or in the canyon, visitors are urged to watch where they put their hands and feet. This is the high desert and snakes, scorpions and spiders are commonly observed in the area.

Obey all speed laws. The road coming down Mountain Springs is very steep. As with any mountain driving, it is recommended you use your lower gears when coming down the mountain. Don't keep riding the brakes down the mountain road.

Be on the lookout for wild animals darting out in front of you going to or from the canyon. This area is teeming with wildlife, including feral horses. While at Little Petroglyph Canyon, stay off the ledges. A misstep could have disastrous consequences.


After the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, security concerns resulted in the cancellation of all petroglyph tours. While security is still a number one priority, NAWS houses one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in North America. Therefore, with security in mind, the Commanding Officer of NAWS has adopted a new policy to allow limited tours to the public.

All tours will be conducted with a minimum of two Command-approved escorts. These escorts are volunteers contributing their time to the tour groups so that you may see and enjoy the rock art of Little Petroglyph Canyon. In most cases, it will be the responsibility of the requestor to find those escorts from a list provided by the Corporate Communications/Public Affairs Office. Or, the requestor can contact one of the non-profit or military organizations that have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with NAWS to provide assistance with coordinating and/or conducting a tour.

To arrange for a tour, simply call the Corporate Communications/Public Affairs Office at (760) 939-1683 and reserve a date for the tour. The PAO representative will explain how to coordinate your own tour or how to get assistance.

Please be realistic about your physical ability when deciding to go on a tour. The terrain is rough. If you do have physical limitations, be sure to let the person arranging or escorting the tour know in advance. Neither your escort, the organization sponsoring or coordinating your tour, nor the Commanding Officer of NAWS China Lake is responsible for injury, death, or property damage on or resulting from a tour.

Tours can be cancelled at a moment's notice due to inclement weather, increased security conditions, or Navy mission requirements.

Questions regarding the petroglyphs may be directed to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Public Affairs Code N09NS, 1 Administration Circle, Stop 1014, China Lake, CA 93555-6100, (760) 939-1683. E-mails should be addressed to Ron Keck at

NAWCWPNS TS-98-22 (Rev. 2), published by the Public Affairs Office. Approved for public release, distribution unlimited, 20 May 2002.

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