Painted Rock – Santa Margarita, California - Atlas Obscura

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Painted Rock

Carrizo Plain National Monument

The oldest pictographs on this decorated rock formation in California's Carrizo Plain date back as many as 4,000 years. 

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Within California’s Carrizo Plain lies Painted Rock, a smooth marine sandstone rock formation in the shape of a horseshoe. From the outside, while large and uniquely shaped, it may still seem rather unremarkable; entering inside the “horseshoe,” however, reveals a fascinating (and mysterious) relic of history and culture that’s still up for debate today.

Adorning the interior of the rock formation are Native American pictographs whose dates of creation span thousands of years and represent the work of multiple tribes. The content depicted by each tribe varied, but figures, motifs, and mandalas can all be spotted, among other elements and geometrical forms.

Not much else can be said for certain. Debates persist about which groups lived on the land (though the creators are believed to be from the Chumash, Salinan, and Yokuts tribes), and the true meanings of the symbols and pictographs can only be inferred. Based on anthropological research, it is believed that the art came to be during a shaman’s ritual activities involving trance and hallucinations in an altered state of consciousness. However, even this remains an area of debate surrounding Painted Rock today, owing to the varying roles and definitions of the shaman across different societies.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of sufficient preservation efforts, centuries of vandalism dating back to the 18th century have taken a significant toll on the pictographs. Engravings from early Spanish settlers and Portuguese rancheros, carvings from 20th-century white settlers, graffiti, and even a shotgun blast have all worked to deface the site. And there’s more than just human activity to worry about—even natural forces like erosion and burrowing animals have contributed to the decline of the rock art over the years.

While efforts have been made to curtail abuse of the art, including legal protection and surveillance, many feel that the damage has been done. Still, Painted Rock perseveres as an enduring record of Native American culture that has survived centuries of adversity–and it’s even still used for ceremonial activities today.

Know Before You Go

Visiting Painted Rock requires a reservation, which can be made through Carrizo Plain National Monument Tours. Guided tours, including self-guided options, are available, and the nearby Goodwin Education Center offers displays and resources to learn about the Carri


zo Plain. The site may be closed seasonally, so check before making plans. A hike is required to reach Painted Rock, so visitors should be prepared with any necessary supplies and check weather conditions ahead of time.

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July 12, 2022

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