VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE -- At an elevation of 1,400 feet, the Chumash Honda Ridge rock art site towers over the Pacific Ocean, as if on the edge of the world.
During my late afternoon visit, I took the well-laid trail, hugging the gorge between one ridge and the next. I could see for countless, largely undeveloped, miles in every direction: from the southern Channel Islands, to the eastern Los Padres National Forest, to the western San Pedro Continental Shelf, dropping off into the dark blue, open ocean.
The wooden, viewing platform at the end of the trail framed the rock art “panel,” a smooth, almost reflective side of the cliff. At first, the rock art appeared like a random collection of hash marks, but then the pictographs came into focus: a rayed disk, an eagle’s head and a human form.
As the sun hovered closer to the water, its light reflected brightly upward through the gorge and against the rock wall. The panel and pictographs began to glow a bright orange and red and the surrounding vegetation was green from the recent rains. I couldn’t help but think of the Chumash who trekked up the side of this mountain to make their mark on the top of the world and the visitors who have since come to see through their eyes.
Vandenberg Air Force Base protects 14 sacred Chumash Indian rock art sites, dating back 3,500 years. The Honda Ridge rock art site, found on the south portion of Vandenberg AFB, is open to visitors with base access, featuring dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean and Lompoc Valley. Chumash rock art can also be found at the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park just north of Santa Barbara.
The 30th Civil Engineer Squadron Cultural Resources Team, in partnership with fellow archeologists and organizations like the Rock Art Documentation Group, document and maintain the numerous cultural resource sites across base. They work closely with the Elders Council of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians to share the Chumash cultural history while still preserving these sacred sites.
I wanted to understand more about Honda Ridge, so I met with resident rock art specialist, Audrey Lindsay from the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, who works with the Vandenberg Cultural Resources Team. Lindsay is responsible for preserving the 14 Chumash rock art sites, including Honda Ridge. She told me her favorite time to visit the site is in the morning.
“It’s very still in the mornings,” Lindsay said. “The hawks are often out, drifting overhead.”
According to Lindsay, the Chumash pictographs were made using paint from ocher, a soft red or yellow stone, grounded into a powder with a binding agent and then applied to the rock face using fingers and brushes. Some images are thousands-of-years old, while others are as recent as a few hundred years.
The rock panel also contains more recent etched, graffiti elements called “intrusive elements.” Lindsay explained some of these elements are so old, they are now considered historic features of the panel. One individual, Gaelord Nisle, marked each of his site visits with his name and year, including “1898,” “1946,” and “1952.”
The interpretations of the pictographs vary from marking puberty ceremonies, to telling a story of the soul’s journey in the afterlife, as well as marking celestial events, such as the Winter Solstice. The prominent rayed disc on the left panel of the rock face, for example, marks where the last of the sun’s rays hit the stone before setting on the Winter Solstice.
“The original Honda Ridge rock art viewing platform was destroyed in the 2016 Canyon Fire, leaving the ridge ‘like a moon scape,’” Lindsay said.
Unfortunately, the rock art panel did not escape the fire. It sustained some visible damage from black carbon residue and spalling, meaning flaking of the rock face from superheating. However, the black carbon residue faded over time without human intervention, re-exposing the art beneath. Lindsay and the Cultural Resources Team believe Vandenberg’s foggy climate acted as a natural cleanser.
Ominous reminders of the fire remain with bare trees marring the ridge side and a scorched redwood bench along the trail. The current viewing platform and trail that I used, were completed in Fall of 2018 and the site has since reopened to visitors.
The Vandenberg Cultural Resources Team encourages guests, with base access, to visit the Chumash Honda Ridge rock art site and to sign the guest registrar. As a reminder, this is a sacred, Chumash site.
To access the Honda Ridge rock art site, enter south base gate, turn right onto Bear Creek Road, left onto Coast Road, and left onto Honda Ridge Road. Immediately after passing the concrete retaining wall on your right, take a sharp right-hand turn at the Command Transmitter #3 sign. The trail is on the left. Directions are also available on the USAF Connect app; add the “30thSpace Wing” as a “Favorite” and click on the “Map” feature.