Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Painted Rock

The interior of the rock alcove is adorned with many pictographs created by the Chumash, Salinan and Yokut peoples over many thousands of years. In recent times there have been many marks left by early settlers such as one reading "Geo. Lewis 1908", founder of Atascadero, California. Unfortunately there has also been major defacing of this site; in the 1920?s the large pictogram was irreparably damaged from a shotgun blast.

Ancient rock art in red, black and white yucca pigments, and some yellow, green and blue were painted with rodent tail hair brushes or simple finger painting. Estimates are that the Chumash people first populated the Carrizo Plain about 2000 BCE but mostly abandoned it, possibly due to drought, about CE 600.

The Yokut people common in the nearby San Joaquin Valley moved in and out of the Carrizo Plain area after the Chumash departed, creating their own rock art. Yokut pictographs often include large colorful figures and motifs, while the Chumash pictographs tend toward small elements, circular mandalas, and complex red, black and white panels.

There is much debate about what group of native peoples lived in this area, as the Salinan, Yokut and Chumash peoples all lay claim to it. The rock art at Painted Rock is inferred to have been produce in shamanic tradition or ritual. The meanings of the symbols have many interpretations but can only be inferred. Ongoing literature discussion speculates that the imagery was produced in association with shamanic trance and hallucination. However, the word shaman encompasses a broad range of societal roles filled by very different people across many different cultures. The concept of "shaman" has also evolved into different meanings in modern society.

Spaniards came through the area in the 1700s; rancheros of Portuguese descent left engravings on Painted rock in the late 1800s. The rock art now attract thousands of visitors each year. Unfortunately, heavy graffiti and reckless gunshot damage to the prehistoric rock art was mostly done in the 1920s. Ongoing damage has continued. As a result, the site is now protected by laws, has limited access, and has vigilant surveillance. Although volunteers removed some of the damage in 1991, the extent of destruction is almost overwhelming to observers (often described as a "ruined" heritage site). However, even the modern damage may be evaluated in a historic context by future generations. Ongoing animal burrowing, natural weathering, and erosion are also degrading the site. The Goodwin Education Center is located near Painted Rock and provides environmental education and guided tours. Painted Rock is closed during raptor nesting season (March 1 through July 15). Native Americans still frequently use Painted Rock for ceremonies and other activities.

Painted Rock can be reached by foot path from the Goodwin Center off Soda Lake Road, which runs northwest-southeast between State Route 166 and State Route 58. Like most roads within Carrizo Plain, it is unpaved and subject to sudden closure during and after rainy weather. Note that Painted Rock is a protected area and regularly closed to the public for months at a time, so in planning a visit it is suggested to first consult the official BLM website or contact their office.

In this wilderness area visitors are advised to carry sufficient fuel, food, water and medical supplies since there are no services and cellphone coverage is sparse. At an elevation of 1,900 feet, days can be very hot and nights quite cold. The climate is dry, with most rain falling in winter and annual totals averaging about 6 inches.

Walking in the Carrizo Plain area can be dangerous due to low humidity, temperature extremes and rattlesnakes; and is also difficult due to tall grass hiding a very irregular ground surface created by the many borrowing mammals including an endangered species of Kangaroo rat.


The site is three miles south of the San Marcos Pass: Take Highway 154 out of Santa Barbara and turn right on Painted Caves Road. The cave is located on the left, about two miles up a steep, narrow road. The pullout at the site will only accommodate one or two vehicles. Trailers and RVs should not attempt the road.