The Painted Wind Cave – Santa Ynez Mountains

The sun penetrating the window in a large boulder.
"Creator gave us sacred places, we have not forgot. Not just rocks with paintings, but all that is around here - guardian spirit rocks, as well." - Chumash Elder

“Creator gave us sacred places, we have not forgot. Not just rocks with paintings, but all that is around here – guardian spirit rocks, as well.” – Chumash Elder

 

“Creator gave us sacred places, we have not forgot. Not just rocks with paintings, but all that is around here – guardian spirit rocks, as well.” – Chumash Elder

Once again, I find myself venturing outside of my usual territory, my comfort zone, my home, my beloved scorched desert. But the more time that I spend in the Sespe Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Ynez Mountains, the more they begin to also feel like home; with a few noticeable difference, more trees, and overall much denser vegetation. These places remain truly wild despite their relatively short distance from Los Angeles, and smaller, yet thriving beach cities like Santa Barbara, and Ventura.

Like the deserts of the Southwest, the coastal shores and mountains had been the home of a thriving group of Native American people, the Chumash (which means “bread maker” or “seashell people”).

The Chumash have inhabited these lands for over 13,000 years, from what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. At the tribes height, their population was in the tens of thousands, reaching out over seven thousand miles.

Unlike the Mojave Desert tribes that I usually focus on, the Chumash had an abundance of natural resources from both the land and the sea. Fish from the ocean; deer and other game from the mountains. Their villages, and way of life was far more advanced compared to the Kawaiisu, Mojave, Serrano, and other desert tribes. The Chumash were master boat craftsman, and they built large dome-shaped homes made of willow branches and whale bones. Up to fifty people could call one of these buildings home.

In the mountains, the Chumash would find caves, and use them for sacred religious ceremonies. These ceremonies included painting designs on the inside of the cave walls; today we call these pictographs. Like their desert neighbors, the earliest Chumash used charcoal to create these designs, and later evolved to using colored pigments made from various colors of ochre.

The visiting of this site was not part of my intended itinerary for this particular trip, I had planned a several day backpacking trip into the Sespe Wilderness, with the purpose of visiting some Chumash sites in the vicinity of Alder Creek. Several miles into the trip, my friend and I cut the backpacking trip short due to the sighting of several bears along the trail. This wouldn’t usually bother us so much, but we came ill prepared with no bear canisters, repellent, or gun (only for use in an emergency. ie. being attacked).

While having to cut our intended trip short was a bit of a blow, it was also ok. I had several other nearby locations in my back pocket, and this just happened to be one of them. I have been familiar with the Wind Cave site for a couple of years, but hadn’t found the opportunity to visit, until now.

We stayed the night in Santa Barbara, to allow for an early start the next morning. We rose at 5am, beating the sun by a couple of hours. After a quick breakfast (hamburger and french fries at Denny’s), we made our way up the 154 (San Marcos Pass Road), and turned on West Camino Cielo. The road winds through a wooded area, with homes that I only wish that I could afford. Unfortunately the income of a desert explorer and author doesn’t allow for such comforts.

 

The Channel IsLands from West Camino Cielo.

The Channel IsLands from West Camino Cielo.

 

We arrived at the unmarked parking area as the sun began to peek out. Across the road, a beautiful scene of the Channel IsLands, and the marine layer hovering above the Pacific Ocean. Only a year ago, if you would have asked me my thoughts on the ocean, I would have said that I wasn’t interested, but now after several visits to the coast, my interest has piqued, and I’ve begun to find beauty in its splendid wonder.

We find our trail, and meander along it. We quickly come upon the first wind eroded sandstone shelter. Inside it there were three pseudo pictographs, they appeared to be rather old themselves, having suffered extensive wind erosion. What is interesting, is that they are in the traditional Chumash style, yet they are painted with a more modern paint. It is very possible that these designs had been painted by a modern-day Chumash tribal member.

Pseudo pictographs in the traditional Chumash style.

Pseudo pictographs in the traditional Chumash style.

 

Pseudo pictographs in the traditional Chumash style.

Pseudo pictographs in the traditional Chumash style.

 

A well defined trail leads down to the gorge.

A well defined trail leads down to the gorge.

 

The trail winds down a hill, then opens up into a stunning gorge full of enchanting sand stone rock formation, gullies, and vegetation.  Looking around, we see what we believe to be the wind cave that we had come to see. The trail ran in the opposite direction, so we set off cross-country for our target.

Several feet off the trail we passed a low to the ground arch rock. The earliest rays of the sun was hitting it, setting it on fire in an orange blaze. Stopped to admire it, we noticed several orange lines on the underside of the arch.  Further inspection would reveal a few very simplistic thin orange lined pictograph designs. It was a nice way to start the new day, finding something that we hadn’t expected.

Pictograph arch

Pictograph arch

 

Look closely for three sets of thin orange lines.

Look closely for three sets of thin orange lines.

 

The sun penetrating the window in a large boulder.

The sun penetrating the window in a large boulder.

 

Close-up of Window Rock

Close-up of Window Rock

 

Walking on, we took notice to a mammoth sized boulder in the middle of the gorge – it contained a natural window at the top of it. We walked toward it, when the sun began to penetrate the window. A ball of intense sun rays shot through, it was at this moment that I could feel the importance of the rock, and the entire area surrounding it. Something on a spiritual level happened at that moment, and the excitement level grew ten-fold. 

After poking around the window rock, we reached the wind cave that we had in our sights. Our assumption had been correct, and we are rewarded with several panels of fascinating pictographs. The Chumash designs differ from those found in the desert regions – many times more artistic, and containing elements of sea critters, bizarre anthropomorphic figures, and impossible to understand abstract elements. I will allow the pictographs to speak for themselves though the series of photographs that I captured at the site.

The "wind cave"

The “wind cave”

 

The remarkable geology of the wind cave.

The remarkable geology of the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

Chumash pictographs in the wind cave.

 

Finishing up at the Wind Cave, we continued along a rough path leading to several additional wind worn sandstone boulders. This led us to yet another pseudo pictograph, a copy of the famous swordfish pictograph at Swordfish Cave. Like the previous pseudo designs, the swordfish pictograph appear to be older, having suffered extensive damage from erosion.

That would finish up our trek to the Painted Wind Cave in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Overall, a very interesting and spiritual area. The question that begs to be answered, who created the pseudo pictographs, and with what purpose? 

Pseudo swordfish pictograph - a copy of the famous Swordfish Cave design.

Pseudo swordfish pictograph – a copy of the famous Swordfish Cave design.

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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