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So We Meet Again, Tablelands | Owens Valley #3

It was almost exactly noon when I rolled into the southeast corner of the Volcanic Tablelands from US-6. It was the same location that exactly a week earlier, I'd run over my Canon 80D and favorite lens, that I'd been using to shoot for the last three years.

Needless to say, I hoped that my third time to this beautiful place would be the charm, as I made my way north along Fish Slough. I'd already decided that I'd take things a bit more slowly this time - I had two days set aside to wander - and before long, I found myself out of the truck admiring some porous volcanic formations - tafoni - along the side of the road.

Having eaten only a small breakfast, I was getting hungry, and decided that the perfect spot to eat lunch would be Kitchen Rock. Doing so would give me the ability to look around a bit as I munched on my PB&J, and of course, I was looking forward to seeing the Volcanic Wave that had brought me here in the first place.

Well hello, wave!

Kitchen Rock.

Below Kitchen Rock, evidence of kitchen activities - a line of morteros ground into the stone.

A sandwich, apple, and chocolate bar later, and I was ready to continue on. As had been the case all day, I seemed to be chasing blue skies above, while the entire area around me was covered with clouds. It was a nice feeling, even if there was a brisk wind to accompany the weather.

My next stop was at the Chidago Canyon Petroglyphs. There are significantly more - and more detailed - glyphs here than at most of the other locations I've found in the Tablelands, and I spent a good amount of time climbing around the boulder field to discover art not visible from the road.

Imagine the time that went into a site like this.

Early volleyball instructions; hit the ball with an open palm.

The desert varnish was thick on some of these rocks, making the glyphs really pop.

My favorite glyph, a deer with a splendid rack!

Energized from the hunt, I decided to change up my route a bit - a road leading into Chidago Canyon too much for me to resist. Mostly sand, it wound its way between the canyon walls as it stretched east towards the White Mountains.

Through the entirety of the canyon, I kept my eyes peeled - rock lined walls seemingly perfect for more petroglyphs. I didn't find any, but one section of wall caught my attention as I passed by - tall volcanic pillars reaching for the sky. Prior to eroding, many of the walls likely looked like this one.

Chidago Canyon spit me out a little south of my next destination - a short hike to another set of petroglyphs. The only problem - as I settled in at the end of the road - was that I didn't know where to go from there. I'd remembered it being clear on the satellite when I'd been researching this spot, but now on the ground, I was at a loss - all I'd noted was "Sundial and Petroglyphs," so I started looking around on the ground in the general vicinity for some sort of contraption that could have been used to tell time. Seeing nothing after a bit of wandering, I set out down the the only path I found in my hunting around.

A mile later, I knew I'd gone the wrong way. Or, perhaps, I just didn't know what I was looking for. So, I made my way back and started off in the opposite direction. There was nothing major this way either - though a few faint glyphs lined the cliff wall.

And then, wow. High up on the wall, an enormous circle. More than a circle, really - a sundial!

I kept going, and soon enough I was rewarded with the real treasure of this site - a series of sundials, all etched high in the stone wall of the plateau. And not just sundials - other figures as well. I'm sure an audible gasp escaped my lips, and I know a smile crossed my face. I glanced around to see if anyone else was seeing what I was.

Generally I find myself most intrigued by humanoid figures, followed closely by recognizable wildlife - but for some reason, I really enjoy these sundials as well. Perhaps it's their intricate design - clearly more than simple geometric shapes or patters, or the idea that those who created them had some deeper use than just art. Whatever the reason, I decided to just sit down and stare up at them for five minutes or so, and it was pleasant.

From the sundials, I entered the Tablelands again a bit further north, where I almost immediately found myself at another cluster of petroglyphs. The Red Canyon Petroglyphs, these are scattered over the largest area of any that I've found so far, and a mile-or-so hike is required in order to see them all. We'd not done that on our previous trip, so I grabbed the camera and set out in search of art.

Almost immediately, I found something completely unexpected.

Placed in reverence? Left by mistake? Whatever the reason, it was pretty and seemed appropriate, so I left it.

Just around the corner from the painted rock, I found a cluster of glyphs that caught my attention.

Hand and Foot Rock.

Trying to cover the area as methodically as possible so as to not miss anything, I worked my way around - essentially in concentric circles, weaving between rocky outcroppings as I searched for more treasure.

At one point, I found myself atop one of the piles, the Tacoma waiting patiently where I'd start - and would finish - my exploration.

Most of the glyphs at this site - like others in the vicinity - were geometric shapes and patterns, the hands and feet I'd found at the beginning, outliers. And then, as I neared the end of my hike, I spotted several sheep - perched high on a rock, leaping over the images below.

A brisk breeze was blowing at this point, so I was happy to climb back into the truck and get the heat turned on - still a couple hours of daylight during which I could continue my wandering through the Tablelands, getting out as I approached various rocky outcroppings to search for etched treasure.

Not all rocky clusters contained evidence of those before us - of course. Most were simply piles of volcanic material, encrusted with desert varnish, as if waiting for someone of yesteryear to use them as a canvas. But not all. At one site, an extremely interesting shaped rock grabbed my attention, and as I walked over to look at it more closely, I was rewarded with a plethora of petroglyphs to boot!

In fact, many of the rocks in this area were decorated, and I made my way from surface to surface, once again wondering what had been the point of all this? Boredom? Communication? Education? Whatever it was, I wonder if the artists had any idea that so many hundreds of years later, someone would be out here looking at what they'd done.

And then, something I hadn't seen before - the last remains of stacked rock walls. Several of these stubby structures lined the larger wall that obviously served as the primary support for the buildings. Likely, a small settlement once called this place home.

Rock walls, the last remnants of what must have been a home.

A final set of glyphs, the moon rising overhead.

I'd meandered for a few hours at this point, and I knew I'd only scratched the surface - I'd never be able to complete my exploration of the Tablelands in the one day I had remaining on the trip - not that I'd ever really thought two days would be enough. But for now, I set my mind on finding somewhere to camp, as I headed out across the vast plateau - a few cholla cactus shining bright as the sun caught their spikes.

I travelled now on roads unnamed and unmarked on the maps I'd prepared. The feeling was liberating, though it'd be impossible to get lost in an area like this - its borders well defined by civilization. I followed the road to the left here, to the right there, looking for just the right place to call home for the night. The sun caught the fumaroles that once vented hot gasses - mostly steam - from the interior of the Tablelands for years after the eruption.

Eventually, I found the perfect spot to call home. Sheltered from the worst of the westerly winds, I setup the tent and put on nearly every piece of clothing I'd brought along - the already chilly weather having taken a turn for the colder. It'd been a long day - one that had begun in the crowded confines of Alabama Hills, and now found me all alone in the middle of a vast plateau.

As I climbed into the tent, the weather was definitely top-of-mind. The forecast called for snow - and lots of it - over the coming week, the first of it set to arrive as I slept through the night. I knew the right amount could be magical - a few inches on top of the Tablelands would render the entire place a winter wonderland, but not impede travel too much. More than that, and I'd have to consider bailing - again! - or risk getting stranded on impassable roads as more storm fronts blew through.

Of course, as often seems to be the case, the weather forecast was not going to be the issue...


The Whole Story


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  1. Jennifer Cole
    Jennifer Cole March 4, 2021

    What an awesome adventure! I would love to visit it some time. Me and my husband each have our own jeeps and like to go out in the middle of nowhere and camp, and do the type of exploring shown here.

    To give you a little insight on the painted rock...people decorate rocks and leave them places for others to find. Usually there is a website of FB group on the bottom of the rock to post where you found it. You are welcome to leave it, take it or find another hiding place for it.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 4, 2021

      Hi Jennifer, Glad you found the site and enjoyed the story so far. One more part coming in the next day or two for this one (and a of course there are many more). It's also very cool to learn about the rocks! There was no writing on this one, but I really like the idea you shared!

  2. carlos
    carlos December 9, 2023

    Hi! I read your post about Kitchen Rock near Bishop. Is this site close to Fish Slough?
    I know that it is not allowed to give exact locations in order to preserve the petroglyphs.
    I will appreciate if you can help me!

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 9, 2023

      Hey Carlos, The best way to find it is to go out looking for it. Shouldn't be too hard to find when you're out there!

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