Detour: Lava Beds National Monument, Part Two

Petroglyph Point

In the afternoon of Wednesday, September 18, Sean and I drove just northeast from the main unit of Lava Beds National Monument to visit the tiny Petroglyph Section, separated from the bulk of the Monument by both Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and private farmland. For the succeeding hour and a half, we contemplated, I hope respectfully, the Modoc people and their ancestors.

The Modoc people once lived on both sides of what is now the California-Oregon border, in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes. Like the ancient people who first inhabited this area more than 11,000 years ago, they took advantage of abundant waterfowl and game, edible and medicinal plants, and an easily accessible water supply. They moved about the region freely with the seasons, until the coming of whites in 1826 when the pattern of Modoc life began to change. The Modoc, a fiercely independent people, began to clash with some of the newcomers that laid claim to Modoc grounds for their own uses, and the seeds were sown for one of the most tragic of the Indian Wars: the Modoc War of 1872-73.

National Park Service

Earlier we had learned just a bit about the Modoc through the displays at the visitor center.

As early as the 1770s, the first of a wave of smallpox epidemics hit the Modocs, hitting the elderly among the population particularly hard and beginning the process that would sever the Modocs from their history and traditions.

As had been the story across the Americas, an advance wave of disease reduced and weakened populations of the the native peoples of the hemisphere, so that when white settlers began to move in in the 1820s, they encountered an artificially reduced population.

Nevertheless, white settlers demanded the Modocs be removed, and they were, to a combined reservation in what would become southern Oregon meant accommodate the Klamath, the Yahooskin Band of Paiutes, and the Modocs. This was the same reservation on which Sean and I were staying at a Sleep Inn. Conditions were abysmal, and in April 1870, a group of 371 Modocs left the reservation to return to their homeland.

The Modoc War began on November 29, 1872 and lasted until June 1, 1873.

The Modoc War was the only major Native American war fought in California and the only one in which a general was killed. It was also one of the most costly wars in U.S. history. According to some estimates it cost $10,000 (about $300,000 today) per warrior to subdue the Modocs in battle. The Modoc warriors totaled between 50 and 60, while there were as many as 1000 U.S. troops at the height of the conflict.

National Park Service Brochure

The Modoc forces were led by Keintpoos who held out in Captain Jack’s Stronghold, lava formations and caves near the southern shore of Tule Lake. When they were finally captured by the U.S. Army, the Modoc leaders who had participated in the war were hanged and the remaining Modocs who had left the Klamath reservation were removed to Oklahoma where their descendants remain.

Two federally recognized tribes have enrolled Modocs. The Modoc Tribe based in Miami, Oklahoma has an enrollment of approximately 200 members, all descended from those who fought in the Modoc War. The Klamath Tribes in Chiloquin, Oregon…have about 3,500 members. The Modocs represent only a small minority of the Klamath Tribes.

National Park Service Brochure

After a brief torrential downpour, Sean and I pulled over in the parking area across a graded road from the trailhead for Petroglyph Point Trail.

The short trail led to the top of Petroglyph Bluff (or Petroglyph Hill?), covered with sagebrush and grass.

Castle Rock

Sagebrush and Lichen

Sagebrush and Rubber Rabbitbrush


At the top of the hill, we got commanding views of the valley, the National Monument, the Cascades foothills, and Medicine Lake Volcano.

At the end of the trail, a sign forbade non-Modocs from continuing further. So we didn’t and instead regarded where we were. The hill we stood on was considered the center of the world by the Modocs and under it Kamookumpts, the creator of the world, still sleeps.

From the top of the bluff, I texted an image of the sign to my dear friends and former colleagues, Aimee, John, and Patrick, as an example of impressive signage emphasizing respect in interpreting protected lands from a diverse perspective. It was just one more comment in a months-and-months long conversation we continue still to have about conservation (and life) in an epic text thread.

Until Tule Lake was largely drained to created agricultural fields in the early 1900s, Petroglyph Hill was an island. Now it rises out of the surrounding fields in the flat basin of the former lake.

Castle Rock, Tule Lake National Monument

Immediately to the hill’s north is Castle Rock to which Petroglyph Hill was sometimes joined (depending on fluctuating lake levels) to create a peninsula. Both Petroglyph Hill and Castle Rock were formed when the lake already existed. Magma flows under the lake that exploded violently when the lava hit the cool waters of the lake, creating Castle Rock’s striking form. Castle Rock is protected as a unit of Tule Lake National Monument.

Castle Rock, Tule Lake National Monument

Image: Sean M. Santos

On our descent from the top of the hill, Sean insisted on taking my picture among my beloved sage. With all the intermittent rain, the air was laden with the scent of sage and petrichor.

Double Head Mountain, Modoc National Forest

Off to the east beyond the fields of the lake basin, Double Head Mountain caught our eye. It is protected by Modoc National Forest, which surrounds the whole area on the east, south, and west.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We got back into the car and drove around to the western face of Petroglyph Hill to the parking area for the petroglyphs themselves.

All along the western side of the hill, thousands of petroglyphs were carved into the soft rock.

There are at least 5,000 individual petroglyphs at Petroglyph Point. Combined with the petroglyphs and pictographs scattered elsewhere (often at cave entrances) throughout Lava Beds National Monument, it is one of the most heavily concentrated assemblages of Native American rock art on the continent.

It’s stunning and humbling.

The experience is also marred by vandalism.

The cliff face is protected by a fence topped with barbed wire to keep modern humans from further defacing the petroglyphs.

Sean grabbed an interpretive pamphlet and read from it as we walked slowly along the bottom of the cliff from north to south.

The deep undercutting at the cliff bottom, the location of most of the petroglyphs, was caused by the waves of Tule Lake carving into the soft volcanic rock of the bluff.

European Starling

Red-Tailed Hawk

Guesses as to the age of the petroglyphs are mostly informed by reconstructions of historic lake levels. Evidence for human inhabitation in the area dates to about 11,500 years ago, only 1,500 years after some of the oldest evidence of humans in North America.

Evidence suggests that the carved portion of the cliff face at Petroglyph Point was not exposed until a dry period between 6,400 and 5,700 years ago. If so, no petroglyph can be older than that. Wave cut analysis suggests many of the petroglyph[s] may date to a period from 4,500-2,500 years ago.

National Park Service Brochure

Cliff Swallow nests

Whoever carved the petroglyphs…and it is near certain that successive generations added to them…would have sailed out across Tule Lake to the cliff face to have carved them.

For most of the petroglyphs’ history, they would have been protected underwater. Now, with the lake gone, they are subject both to vandalism, but also to the scouring effect of sand and dust blown by the wind against the cliff face.

We walked along with the few other visitors gaping at the petroglyphs and occasionally gazing back across the basin at the weather patterns and the literally blue mountains.

Most researchers agree that the petroglyphs are truly rock art and do not represent a written language. Maybe understanding can only come by viewing the images as symbols rather than as representations.

The numerous motifs super-imposed on top of one another at Petroglyph Point seemed to indicate that this is an especially attractive or powerful site. Is this then a sacred place?

National Park Service Brochure

Without going into any detail, more than one piece of interpretive writing by the Park Service alludes to the probability that modern Modocs know more about the meaning of the petroglyphs than they are willing to share with outsiders. Good for them, I say. Although I’m intrigued by the possible story that the interpretive pieces refer to.

Walking along the cliff face seeing the petroglyphs unfurling in long lines is hypnotic, until another defacing jars you back to the present.

Near the southern end of the bluff, the sheer number of petroglyphs becomes overwhelming. They are just everywhere along a band of the cliff.

We reached the end, and openly marveling along with some other visitors, walked back toward the parking area.

Back in the car and still feeling overwhelmed by what we’d just been privileged to see, we gazed out at the haunting Lava Beds landscape before departing.

Adding to what was becoming a deeply contemplative afternoon, our next destination was nearby Tule Lake National Monument, an internment camp for Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We really weren’t sure what to expect.

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