Petroglyph Point of Lava Beds National Monument… A Very Sacred Place


Photo by Curtis Mekemson

Sheer cliffs announce Petroglyph Point. The fence here protects Native American rock art that has been carved into the light-colored tuff rock.


It is easy to understand why the Modoc Indians of the Tule Lake Basin and earlier peoples that lived in the area would have considered Petroglyph Point a holy place. High cliffs shoot up from the ground producing a mesa-like structure that once stood as an island in Tule Lake. The island-mesa was created when lava flowed into the lake from a vent beneath the surface. When the red-hot rock met the cool water, it caused a massive explosion that sent volcanic ash shooting into the sky. Returning to the surface, the ash settled into layer upon layer of tuff, a soft volcanic rock that was ideal for carving. Early natives would climb into boats made of reeds and row out to the cliffs where they would use rocks and sticks to carve their messages.

Petroglyph point

Once surrounded by water, Petroglyph Point is today surrounded by farmland. The dark shadow is caused by the cliffs where the rock art is located. (Google Map)

Setting for Petroglyph Point P

Another view of the cliffs. Other peaks are shown in the distance. This is arid land and the extensive farming depends upon irrigation. There is an ongoing battle over water rights between the farmers and the Native Americans. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Photo by Curt Mekemson.

Looking up. Numerous birds nest in the cliffs.

Photograph of swallow nests at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

Such as these cliff swallows.

When Peggy and I traveled to Petroglyph Point this summer as part of our visit to Lava Beds National Monument, it was no longer an island. Farmers had reclaimed the land by draining much of the lake. It was still impressive, however, as was the rock art left behind by the hundreds of generations of Native Americans who had rowed out to the island on a sacred quest. Some of the 5,000 petroglyphs may be up to 6,000 years old. Sheer numbers make this one of the most extensive collections of Native American rock art in North America. It’s definitely worth a visit. 

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point P1

This photo by Peggy gives an idea on just how many petroglyphs are located along the tuff wall. The rock art was basically as high as the Modoc Indians could reach from their boats.

Rock art of Petroglyph Point 1

A close up of the above panel.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point

While much of the rock art features geometric forms, this is definitely an insect, complete with feelers. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Photograph of centipede rock art at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

And another insect!

Rock art at Petroglyph Point photographed by Curtis Mekemson.

There are numerous examples of what appears to be counting along the wall. I assume that this had to do with keeping track of time, but who knows.

Photograph of human figure petroglyph at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

Several of the petroglyphs made us smile. I quickly designated this as Mr. Arrowhead.

Rock art photo in Lava Beds National Monument by Curtis Mekemson.

I also found this running fellow humorous, although it might have been two streams running into a lake, or… Interpretation is often up to the viewer.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point 3

And what do you make of the square, bug-eyed alien? Note another bug off to the left.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point P6

I really liked this scenic portrait of the sun and the mountains. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point 6

This seemed totally at odds with the other petroglyphs, leading me to wondering if it’s a modern contribution.


A Bonus: When I was going through our photos of Petroglyph Point, I came upon this photo I took of Peggy in one of the lava tube caves I featured in my last post.

Peggy Mekemson in lava tube at Lava Beds National Monument

Lava tube 1

Plus another photo from inside the lava tube. Magical.


NEXT POST: Sticking with the petroglyph theme, I will feature Native American rock art from Arches  and Canyonlands National Parks.


34 thoughts on “Petroglyph Point of Lava Beds National Monument… A Very Sacred Place

  1. Curt, yours beats my post of the Vitlycke petroglyphs which were only 4,00 years old!! Wow, 6,000 years is amazing! And that they made these from a boat, if I understand correctly? That can’t have been easy with the constant movement. A few of the images are exact copies of ones in Sweden…spooky! I had to smile at the ‘alien’ one – you can’t help but make up things for them. A fascinating post and a place I now want to visit…on the list it goes! PS. I love the photo of Peggy at the Lave tubes.

    • You observation on the similarity of the petroglyphs in Sweden and the petroglyphs at Petroglyph Point speaks volumes to the universality of the human experience, Annika.
      I have several books on interpreting petroglyphs, but they never quite get to the alien part. (grin)
      A number of the petroglyphs in the Southwest reach back into out ancient past.
      I was surprised at how large the lava tube was, which Peggy helped emphasize. Thanks. —Curt

  2. Your comment on the “Running Fellow” is dead on but it is not a fellow… It is an Extra-Terrestrial that taught the tribe how to count. Probably a Gray… Wait for it…

    • Thanks Curt… and eerie. The Truckee River runs from Tahoe, East and then North to Pyramid. The lake contains Cui Ui, an ancient Bottom feeder that the Paiutes consider sacred. Pyramid is a very old settling from prehistoric Lake Lahontan

      • As I recall, it was quite a battle to assure that enough water would be left in the Truckee River to fill the lake. Didn’t know about Cui Ui. I guess it makes sense considering the lakes roots! –Curt

  3. “I also found this running fellow humorous, although it might have been two streams running into a lake, or… Interpretation is often up to the viewer.”
    Don’t you find it amazing that so long after we still connect with these early drawings? It gives me the goose bumps when I realize that we are still so close to the people who lived on this planet so many, many, many years before us. I felt the same way when visiting old caves in France.

  4. Petroglyphs and pictographs are an intriguing bridge to the past. This story is even more interesting because of the presence of a lake. Was it there until recently? So sad to see such places erased in the name of “productivity”. Harrumph. :-/

    • Harrumph is right. And the answer is, as far as I know, the drainage has taken place since the settlers arrived in the late 1800s, probably including some of my ancestors, I am sad to say. –Curt

    • It’s sad that they have to be protected, that people can’t simply enjoy them for the cultural they are, AC. But there are always people who think they have to add their own name or initials, or worse. –Curt

  5. That last photo is a puzzler. It’s so distinct, it’s tempting to think it’s a modern contribution by someone more concerned with symmetry than earlier carvers. Beyond that, it seems much crisper, less worn, and there are what appear to be initials to the right of it.

    Of course, it might simply be an example of the work of a prehistoric Van Gogh.

    • Yep, I am close to convinced that it is the work of a more modern time. One note of interest that I didn’t include was that some of the Japanese from the Tule Lake internment camp during WWII left their marks among the petroglyphs.
      I am not sure that this is an example, but some rock artists seem to soar above others. It would be natural for the Native Americans to have ‘Van Goghs’ of their era. –Curt

  6. Definitely a place we haven’t seen, so we thoroughly enjoyed your pictures and descriptions of the petroglyphs. The rock seems a bit more porous than what we usually see where petroglyphs are sort of “painted” on. These are carved, I suppose.

  7. Thanks so much for sending me to this post after I wrote about Modocs! You know, while researching for my paper I thought multiple times that I am just dying to get down there and see the land for myself. My family lived in Chiloquin when I was born, and I’ve been all over the northern/Klamath lands: Klamath Agency, Agency Lake, Upper Klamath Lake, Klamath Falls, Modoc Point. But now I’m dying to go to Lost River and Tule Lake and the Lava Beds. I’d love to see these petroglyphs. I found one claim that there was rock art that had been dated to 14,000 years. It may have been on the Modoc Nation website. I’d like to know which bits are the really really old art, and then make comparisons with the “new” stuff from 6000 years ago. I did that at Sego Canyon in Utah. I had no idea the lake dried up and made the island approachable. Its creation story is fantastic! I can easily imagine that locals who witnessed it assumed there was some activity of the gods going on!

    • We also found the pictographs in the lava tube caves interesting, Crystal. And the story of Captain Jacks resistance is fascinating! And isn’t the idea of rock art in the area going back 14,000 years intriguing. I know there is some over neat Pyramid Lake in Nevada that dates back that far. –Curt

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