When my students and I study the Stone Age homo sapiens species, we focus on the period coming after about 60,000 BP when anthropologists think major evolutionary changes occurred.
Around and after this rough date, the planet’s scattered and diverse human tribes evolved amazing language skills, improved their diet via better hunting techniques using improved stone weapons, and painted symbols on rock walls.
The earliest origins of art and music and complex oral language occur during the Upper Paleolithic Age (last part of the Old Stone Age).
It’s at this point where archaeologists find the first very earliest campsites and proto-settlements for their studies.
Humans left evidence of their cultural development via the fascinating rock art pictographs, petroglyphs, and carvings on bone and ivory. The rock art from famous European deep caves such as Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet inspire us, and by most accounts embody highly sophisticated human expression based on the idea of animism.
Long before organized religion came on the scene with agricultural settlements, Stone Age humans like us needed belief systems to explain “reality” back to themselves.
Animism — the belief that all natural things such as plants, rocks, animals and thunder have spirits and can influence human events (Cambridge Dictionary) — therefore pervades all ancient spiritual systems and cosmologies.
My middle-school textbook defines animism as the belief that everything is literally alive, including stones, trees, mountains, earth, river courses, and, of course, animals and plants. For the ancient Chumash visitors at Painted Rock, this entire nine-mile ridge is sacred ground, not simply the weird rock formations and pictographs.
While some hikers come to the haunting and remote Sierra Madre Ridge because of the petroglyphs and pictographs, others perhaps more knowledgeable come here to immerse themselves in the three sacred potreros (grass meadows) and the giant rocks that define them.
When we view southwest to the Pine Corral from Salisbury Potrero in the second photograph, we see scattered “whale rocks” sprawled across the long meadow — these are the “First People” of Chumash animistic beliefs, and these animals were people, like Golden Eagle (Slo’w) and Qsi (the Sun).
It was their house before the flood when this world perished, and they turned to stone.
Celebrated anthropologist J.P. Harrington had a key source, Maria Solares, who reported to him in 1927 that “nearly the entire environment was personified [animism] and was often interpreted in a supernatural manner.”
The hallucinogenic jimson weed is animated and personified in Chumash myth as Mother Momoy.
Which brings us to Painted Rock Campground, located out in the wild Cuyama backcountry on the Sierra Madre Ridge.
This ridge, including McPherson Peak, makes up the “divide” for the drainage north to the Cuyama River, or south down into the Sisquoc River watershed.
The remote and ill-placed south-facing camp itself sits at the edge of the wide Montgomery Potrero, located at the end of a long dirt road (Sierra Madre Ridge Road, see Conant’s map).
After driving approximately 130 miles from Santa Barbara (see 4-1-1) you park at a locked gate on SMR Road at McPherson Peak (5,750 feet).
There is ample parking for several vehicles here, as well as a corral.
I’ve backpacked the next seven miles in on the closed dirt road several times, including with my 11-year-old son in 1993, and I’ve mountain-biked it and then camped off the bike at the campsite.
Twenty-three years ago, a towering oak shielded my boy and me sitting at the single wooden table, perhaps eating or relaxing, but today in our eroding Anthropocene Age that beautiful tree is gone, and won’t be replaced.
The massive table still serves, and there’s also a good iron fire-ring: No fires on this trip because of the drought and Stage IV fire restrictions. Backpackers will also find an outhouse, and horse-packers a sturdy corral.
Conant’s map specifically names five springs in the sacred area around the campsite’s rocky outcropping, and the normally abundant water is certainly part of why the Chumash came here so frequently.
Historical sources inform us that in most years a large pond formed near the U.S. Forest Service campsite from the overflow of these springs, probably near Montgomery Spring No. 1, and Native Americans visited this area for specific rituals and ceremonies, while some of the tribelets were on their way to the Tejon (testimony of Maria Solares).
On this trip, all these springs were dry, but I’d figured on this and brought my own water.
Called S’ap a qsi (Sapaksi) in the spoken Chumash language called Samala, this was not a village site area for the Chumash or the Yokuts, because at 5,000 feet it’s too high.
The optimum visiting times for Native American tribelets were between May and November when there would be rich foraging and hunting, as well as specific sacred locations needed for solstice and other rituals. The Samala term kuyam is the original word for our “Cuyam-a.”
There are three conjoined large potreros here, and I enjoyed them all. One interest was to revisit the top of the old Jackson Trail and search around for the signed Jackson Spring; twice I’ve managed to trudge all the way down the unmaintained Jackson Trail.
The first time, a 1980s version of the writer sailed down the trail with guru Franko Hudson, swam in the Sisquoc River, then labored the 4.8-mile steep ascent back up to base camp at Painted Rock Camp.
Another day I went along the Sierra Madre Ridge Road as it wends east, and after passing above stupendous Lion Canyon, entered the mystical Pine Corral Potrero with its many scattered whale rocks, the ossified remains of the First People, and a sacred zone for the Native American Chumash tribes.
Thinking in the dreamtime and in Stone Age terms, these huge whale rocks are alive and ceremonies must have taken place near them (see lead photo).
Past the enchanting Pine Corral Potrero continuing east on the dirt road you enter the Salisbury Potrero. Amid more fascinating rock formations, you finally reach a clear trail sign for the Sweetwater Trail.
The Sweetwater Trail leads down to the Sisquoc River from Salisbury Potrero, like the Jackson Trail to the west, but it is reputedly a bit easier going: it’s seven miles to the South Fork Cabin on the wild and scenic Sisquoc River.
In this severe drought, I cannot be sure if there is available water at South Fork, but there will be plenty at nearby Lonnie Davis Camp on the copious North Fork of the Sisquoc.
In spring, the grass is so rich in these alluring potreros that ranchers still graze their beef cattle on them under lease with the Department of Agriculture. But by early November, the cows had been taken away, so all I had to do was avoid their huge fecal mounds while tramping about.
While the local Native Americans may not have arrived here until around 12,000 or 13,000 years ago, their remarkable stone age culture also displayed great creativity in their shamanistic rock art, their material culture and basketry, not to mention the technical achievement of their ocean-going canoe, the tomol.
Beautiful and haunting Chumash rock art abounds all around us in Santa Barbara County, but it’s mostly elusive, difficult to find, and much has been lost to erosion or loss of local memories of exact locations.
I still think Campbell Grant’s old 1965 masterpiece, The Rock Art of the Chumash, is the reader’s best introduction to the beauty of this incomparable art, or simply drive up Highway 154 and turn north onto Painted Cave Road and visit Santa Barbara’s heralded “Painted Cave” rock art site.
Our Painted Rock here in the Cuyama, the “House of the Sun” — not to be conflated with the Carrizzo Plain’s spectacular “Painted Rock” — also has pictographs in the area: Please admire them from a distance and observe the signage!
Because of these pictographs, and how animism renders the entire nine-mile ridge a holy zone, I recommend that the Forest Service consider relocating this awkwardly situated campsite for four reasons.
Most important, it’s just too close to sacred Native American pictographs and petroglyphs; second, the huge oak shading the site has disappeared in this new millennium of the encroaching Anthropocene decay and won’t be replaced, making it a very hot place; there’s no water here anyway with all the springs dry; and finally, the presence of the outhouse on the hallowed area is pretty gross.
Backpacker and author Craig Carey apparently agrees, writing in 2012 about this Painted Rock Campsite that “it’s surprisingly still maintained given its proximity to the rock art” shelters (Carey, Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura, 2012, pages 166, where he also shows the famous solar symbol pictograph).
The seven-mile hike in on the closed SMR Road is a pleasant descent, but note that it will be arduous on your return to your vehicle at the locked gate. In addition to bringing your own water, check the Forest Service’s website for road closures for both Bates Canyon Road and Sierra Madre Ridge Road.
Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive on Highway 101 north, past Santa Maria, then head east (right) onto Highway 166, “the loneliest highway in America,” and drive to Cottonwood Canyon Road, then join rough Bates Canyon Road at the shuttered Bates Camp. Now, in four-wheel drive, about seven miles up and up Bates Canyon Road to bumpy Sierra Madre Ridge Road, go left about seven miles and past McPherson Peak with all its antennae, to the locked gate and horse corral. Park.
It’s seven hiking miles on closed SMR Road to Painted Rock Campground; it is a very long day hike to go there and return, but strong mountain bikers can coast there, hike all day, then grind out the grueling ascent back to the vehicle in a day. Four-wheel drive is essential; avoid the rainy season.
Map: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide
Books: Campbell Grant, The Rock Paintings of Chumash (UC Press, 1965); Georgia Lee and Steven Horne, “The Painted Rock Site (SBa-502 and SB1-526)” in The Journal of California Anthropology (5, 1978), pp. 216-224 (conveniently found at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1qd28483#page-1); Craig Carey, Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura (Wilderness Press, 2012); Samala-English Dictionary by Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and Richard B. Applegate (2007).
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.