Out of the desert once again, and into the forests of Santa Barbara County. I like to think of the mountains that rise righteously above the ocean as a second home, a place to get away from the creosote and rabbitbrush for a couple of weeks each year. It is even better when I am able to pair the forest and mountains with one of my other favorite subject, Native American pictographs.
Thankfully this region has no shortage, the coastal Chumash tribe took their “rock art” seriously, creating at one time what was probably thousands of panels of pictographs across their territory. While many of those panels are long gone from weathering and urban development, we are lucky to still have possibly hundreds of Chumash pictograph sites spread across the region.
The “rock art” that remains in this coastal region is often under threat of encroaching civilization, and a potential target for vandalism. It is because of this that these sites are even more fiercely protected than their desert counterparts, rarely spoken about outside of a circle of insiders. Despite my tendency to usually argue against the mindset that these places should remain secret, I tend to agree to a degree in regard to these locations that sit within arm’s reach of civilization.
I first went looking for the Arrowhead Springs site (aka. Salamander Rock Pictographs) in the Fall of 2014 with my buddy Ryan. This turned out to be a failed attempt, and resulted in my buddy splitting his finger wide open. While I had a pretty good idea of where the site was located, I had failed to properly map the route. Instead of utilizing a trail that would have taken us close to the site I mapped out a “shorter” route consisting of bushwhacking, and boulder climbing…a hellish route. After a couple of hours of traveling less than a mile we eventually threw in the towel despite only being a quarter of a mile from the site. It was an agonizing defeat, but to be honest it wasn’t my first, and it won’t be my last. Ryan’s finger eventually healed, and for some reason he continues to trust my mapping skills.
For the next two years Ryan and I often mentioned the need to give this site another try, and finally in September of 2016 we did. This time I closely studied Google Earth satellite imagery, tracing what appeared to be a trail until it became completely canopied by trees. I have to admit that part of me didn’t believe that we’d find it, but I was willing to give it another go.
We followed the new route that I had mapped, snaking our way down the Santa Ynez Mountains toward the shore. The first quarter of a mile of the trail was well maintained. We soon reached a Y, this is where I had screwed up on our first attempt. Instead of making the turn we had gone straight, landing us in thick brush and boulders. This time however I knew better. Eventually this trail began to dissipate, but by all means was more passable than the other.
After dropping 500 feet in just over a half mile we reached a large outcropping of granite boulders. There was a plethora of natural shelters in the stone, several containing significant smoke damage. It is hard to say whether this was a result of ancient fires or modern campers, or even a possibility of both. Arrowhead Spring was now only a few hundred feet away, a faint trail seemed to lead the way into a wash, with a massive boulder sitting in the middle. Much to my surprise we had found Salamander Rock!
In an indent near the top of the boulder is a small panel of Chumash pictographs that for two years we had only fantasized about seeing with our own eyes. I must admit that I had thought that the panel was much larger than what it was in real life, it may be measures a yard in each direction. Dozens of designs painted with orange ochre are crammed into this tight space, the most impressive being the salamander design that the site in named after. Other designs include a sun motif, swirls, possibly aquatic animal depictions, and several series of dots in a various configurations. Parts of the panel are better preserved than others, there has been noticeable water damage.
Along with the pictograph panel, we found around a half-dozen large and deep mortars on a neighboring boulder, indicating that this site was utilized over a long period of time for food processing.
What really stands out as being peculiar about this site is the location. Commonly these types of sites are found in relatively flat areas, not on the side of a mountain. Just the idea of the tribe utilizing this approach doesn’t make a lot of sense because they would typically have used a grade that wasn’t as steep. But never the less here it is.
Ryan and I spent the better part of two hours lounging around the site, looking out over the ocean and admiring the work of those that walked here before us. I had the rare opportunity to live stream the site via my Facebook page, I have included the video below.