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Native American Landmarks of Southern California
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Native American Landmarks of Southern California

If you’re interested in the history of SoCal before it became The Golden State, here are 6 Native American landmarks in SoCal to explore.

Roubina Al Abashian

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5 min read

September 10, 2022

Disclaimer: California.com is not receiving any kind of compensation for reviewing any of the products or services mentioned in this article. 

Europeans, and particularly Spaniards, were hardly the first to discover the land of wonders we now know as California. Long before the first Spanish ships docked on its shore, California tribes and indigenous peoples populated the Golden state and called it home. A visit to all the Native American sites in SoCal tells us stories about the marvelous tribes that go back around 19,000 years. 

In this region, tribes like the Chumash, Alliklik, Serrano, Kitanemuk, Gabrielino Luiseno Cahuilla, and the Kumeyaay learned to survive and thrive. Put your fedora hat on and go on an anthropological adventure discovering the Native American sites in Southern California

As you prepare to spend the night at Anza-Borrego State Park, remember that Native American tribes used to sleep under the same night sky.

1. Anza-Borrego State Park

Anza-Borrego State Park is one of the Golden State desert parks that will surely leave a lasting impression thanks to its beauty, enormity, and most importantly, to its archeological importance. At this Native American historic site, archeologists have found indications of human life going back almost 6,000 years. Across all 600,000 acres of the state park’s land, visitors can find murals and indicators of native tribes who once called the desert home. Even though not much is known about earlier tribes that inhabited the desert park, it is known for a fact that by the time Spanish explorers entered Anza-Borrego some 200 years ago, the Kumeyaay and the Cahuilla tribes resided in it.

Wherever you find a camping spot in the desert park, it’s safe to assume that indigenous tribes camped there as well. When you find flat-topped boulders and bedrock outcrops, it’s very likely to assume they served as grinding surfaces to process agave, beans, and nuts. As you hike the trails of Anza-Borrego, you’ll also find roasting pits and rock art including petroglyphs and pictographs. This is a park that’s basking in history and one you should not miss.   

Even though they're not clearly translated yet, it is believed that paintings of the Chumash Painted Cave are related to Chumash cosmology.

2. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

The Chumash were a major part of California’s history. The marks they left are spread all over the Golden State. The Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in Santa Barbara County is one of the top native American places to visit. Even though the tribe goes back 15,000 years, this particular archeological site dates back to the 1600s. The sandstone cave is adorned with colorful rock art, which is believed to represent Chumash cosmology. The meaning behind the art has gotten lost in translation over the years; nevertheless, the cave is a site to see.

The 7.5-acre park is hidden along a narrow and steep road; it's hard not to want want to learn more about the tribe with so many cultural attractions in California once you experience it. An estimated 4,000 people of Chumash descent live in Southern California, some of whom are located in the Santa Ynez Reservation. Once you’re done visiting all the landmarks the tribe left behind, you can give the reservation a visit and speak to members of the community for a better understanding of the tribe’s history.

Beyond the Chumash Indian Museum lies authentic glimpses into indigenous lifestyles.

3. Chumash Indian Museum

Over 10,000 years ago, Chumash Indians inhabited the formerly known Sap’wi village, northeast of Thousand Oaks. Today, visitors can find the Chumash Indian Museum, located in the 432-acre Oakbrook Regional Park. Inside the Native American Museum in Southern California and in the surrounding lands, you can find hundreds of indicators of the life the tribe led back in the day. 

At the Oakbrook Regional Park, you can find a replica of a Chumash village, pictographs, and nearly 20 caves. Cave paintings can be found in two rock shelters, the most notable of which is that of a broadbill swordfish, which is associated with shamanism (a native religious practice). It is believed that swordfish shamanism was practiced in the cave approximately 5,000 years ago. Tour the museum and see tools that were used for grinding acorns, woven bowls, and murals; then head outdoors to see all that is left from the life of the tribe that once lived in the village. 

Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park is home to many rock circles, which mark the locations of indigenous homes.

4. Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park

Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park in Tehachapi is the ancestral home of the Kawaiisu Indians. The tribe lived in the Tehachapi Mountains for around two to three thousand years until the early 1900s. Even though no structures are left on the site, hundreds of mortar holes, rock rings, and pictographs, tell the story of days past. 

As you tour the state historic park, you’ll see many rock rings, which mark the locations of the kahnis, meaning homes. The guided tour also includes a visit to Medicine Cave, Nettle Spring, and a cave with pictographs, which is a sacred Native American site. Go on this unique walking tour and get to know the peaceful tribe of Kawaiisu.

After your dynamic dose of history, enjoy stunning sunsets at the Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

5. Cave of Munits, Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Of all the spiritual places to visit in California, the Cave of Munits remains one of the most enchanting. The significance of the Cave of Munits has to do with its surroundings as much as it has to do with the cave itself. Facing it is Kas’elew, or Los Angeles County’s own Castle Peak. The peak and its surroundings were of great importance to the Chumash people. Within the Chumash territory, the peak is one of nine alignment points that maintain balance in the natural world, and accordingly, it was a place of ceremonial importance. Meanwhile, facing Castle Peak is the Cave of Munits, which was home to a powerful shaman, who was murdered after he himself murdered the son of a powerful chief. The cave is of important value to the people of the Chumash tribe even today.

To visit the cave, you must hike the trails of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. Once the cave comes into sight, you’ll have to hike a short but pretty steep trail to its entrance. From there, you’ll have to make up your mind to either admire the spacious cave from the outside or use your hands and legs to climb in and feel the history. You might know the story of the cave, but the only way to experience its significance is by making your way into it. 

It’s believed that the pictographs at Painted Rock belong to the Yokut and Chumash tribes.

6. Painted Rock at Carrizo Plain National Monument

Painted Rock might be located in Central Coast’s San Luis Obispo, but its relation to the Chumash tribe, who were spread all over SoCal, earns it a spot on this list. Located at Carrizo Plain National Monument, the horseshoe-shaped rock formation is one of the top Native American places in SoCal. The interior of the rock is adorned with pictograph rock art about 250 feet across and 45 feet tall. It is believed that the art was created by tribe members of the Chumash, Salinan, and Yokuts tribes over the course of thousands of years.

There is much debate about which tribe the paintings belong to, but certain aspects set them apart. For example, Yokut pictographs usually include large colorful figures, while those of the Chumash peoples are of smaller elements painted in red, black, and white. As you take a thorough look into the sandstone rock formation, try figuring out which painting belongs to which tribe. 



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