A majestic landscape reflecting a history of extremes.

Petroglyphs of the Volcanic Tablelands: Bishop, California

Story by Jeffrey O'Brien. All comments or questions are welcome.

Getting Started
Visit the Paiute - Shoshone Indian Cultural Center on West Line Street in Bishop, California, before you head off to the sites. The museum offers excellent informative displays featuring the history of the occupation of these tribes in the Owens Valley. In 1997, there were approximately 2,000 Native Americans living on the Bishop Reservation. Taking a few minutes to learn in more detail about the creators of these petroglyphs will enhance your experience in the field.


The local descendants of the Paiute - Shoshone decline to share detailed information regarding the meanings or functions of the rock art.


Sadly, their reluctance to offer information about the exact location of the various sites is justified. On some occasions, people have behaved destructively and disrespectfully. If you are genuinely interested in rediscovering the sites, you will find them.


In the spirit of preservation, a map is not included here.

Respect And Protection
Despite the rugged and timeless appearance of the material, petroglyphs are delicate and subject to the relentless onslaught of erosion. These rock art sites are federally protected. Damaging, defacing, or removing the petroglyphs in any way is punishable as a felony. The enforcing officers are quite serious about this; no warnings are issued. This goes for any related artifacts.

We shouldn't have to say all this, but recent history teaches us otherwise...

Do not shoot at them. Do not throw anything at them. Do not litter. Do not park too close. Do not drive off the road. Do not be disrespectful. Do not disturb the integrity of the scene. The petroglyphs are unique and irreplaceable.

Think. Take pictures. Paint or sketch. Get an eyeful; if you must, gently place your hand in an ancient outline, just don't leave any trace of your passing. We all want to see as pure a glimpse into the past as possible. There is a quiet and sacred quality here -- don't let it be compromised.

Tread lightly.

Geologic Composition
Granite in the Sierra is as old as 85 - 210 million years. Some of the sedimentary rocks in the roof pendant are 600 million years old.


The tablelands are part of a 580 square mile area covered by a series of volcanic ash flows from the eruption of Long Valley, 760,000 years ago. Composed of several layers of a salmon-colored pumice known as Bishop tuff, it is up to 600 feet deep in places, but averages 12 feet thick on the south-east edges.


The tablelands border the northern end of Owens Valley, slightly slope to Round Valley, and reach to Mono Lake. In places where this broad, arch-shaped flow was subsequently folded and tilted by faulting, andesite and basalt leaked up through volcanic vents called fumaroles. The resulting formations were composed of more erosion resistant minerals and thus eventually became exposed.

Around 8,800 years ago, a culture inhabited the area we now know as Owens Valley. Although we are not sure why, people pecked designs into these darker, exposed rocks. Petroglyphs differ from pictographs in that they are chipped with a harder stone into the dark surfaces of rock, as opposed to being painted on. The exposed inner rock lacks the darker oxidation of the exterior and provides the contrast that make the designs visible.

The prevailing styles, as classified by archaeologists, are Great Basin Curvilinear, and Great Basin Rectilinear. Petroglyphs like these occur throughout the Southwestern Great Basin, which extends eastward to Arizona. The meaning of the symbols is not absolutely clear. Individually, some objects are recognizable as deer, bighorn sheep, human figures, and birds. Other symbols include lines, grids, and concentric circles in different configurations.

There are incomplete efforts, scribblings, and random peck marks. If there was a purpose to these designs, it might have been ceremonial, practical, functional, or even whimsical. There are, as always, a number of popular theories as to the meaning of the content or placement of the symbols; use your imagination...

A Brief Site Explanation

The Fish Slough site has a few dozen petroglyphs, all are entoptic patterns; geometric designs perceived during the first stage of a shaman's altered state of conciousness. Bisected circles are common here. They might portray vulva-form motifs or a schematized drawing of an atlatl, an accelerating device used to propel a spear. On some of the horizontal surfaces of the rocks one can find smoothly polished grinding slicks and holes once used to prepare food. Their presence suggests the site was used for diverse purposes.

The Chidago site contains about 100 petroglyphs. Most are also entoptic patterns, while a few represent lizards and rattlesnakes. Among the geometric patterns, there are concentric circles as well as spirals. These whirlwind patterns have a previously-defined cultural meaning. At the beginning of a shaman's spiritual journey, he is supposed to be swept up into the sky by a whirlwind, which aids him in his quest. The association of these designs with focused spiritual power implies their creator used this energy in a healing capacity.

Red Canyon has the usual array of entoptic art as well as some unique features. There are at least three human figures, representations of bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, and plants. Most interesting is a panel covered with engraved 6" footprints. "Prints and tracks are common at sites worldwide...In the Great Basin, small human footprints were attributed to the Water Baby, a diminutive human spirit who lived in springs and pools and served as a particularly potent spirit helper for shamans." - David S. Whitley, author of A Guide To Rock Art Sites, Mountain Press Publishing, 1996

400 petroglyphs spread out across a 600' cliff face at the Chalfant site. The author goes on at length about the significance of the common motif here. The vertically bisected circle has to do with a females coming of age. The name of this chapter in the book is The Power of the Vulva, so that ought to tell you something. "Theses patterns symbolize a sexual association with the shaman's altered-state experiences, equating their entry into the supernatural withsexual intercourse." - David S. Whitley, author of A Guide To Rock Art Sites, Mountain Press Publishing, 1996. Pretty racy for even thousand year old rock art.

The access roads are all passable with a passenger car. Avoid ruts, look out for washboard sections and stray boulders. Make sure the spare tire is ready. Obviously, have enough fuel for getting lost, and take water for you and your car. Lunch helps if you're out for a while. Even though you are only a couple of miles from 2 major highways at all times, you are in the desert. It would be a long walk to get help.

The elevation is about 4,500 feet, which is low enough for rattlesnakes to be warming in the sun. Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back. In the summer it can be very hot and sunny, prepare with SPF, a hat, and a cooler full of iced drinks. It's not a great place for dogs, as it's a lot of time in the bumpy, dusty car, punctuated by stops at the sites where dogs shouldn't go. There are cacti, sharp edged lava rocks, steep drops, and cracks in the ground. In fact, watch where you walk. Use common sense, and be considerate. The petroglyphs of the volcanic tablelands provide a potentially rewarding experience.

Pass lightly in order to preserve the beauty of these sites for others to appreciate.

Need more information? Contact:

U.S. Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
351 Pacu Ln, Suite 100
Bishop Ca. 93514
760-872-5000 or 760-872-4881


USFS, White Mountain Ranger Station
798 North Main St, Bishop

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