Historic Sites

Where the Indians Left Their Mark

For thousands of years, the first Californians lived lightly in harmony with the land. Their history is buried under the sea, eroded as sites and villages were abandoned and erased by modern development. Yet evidence of their existence is found in many areas of San Diego County, recorded in archeological artifacts, and in the bedrock, deep holes called morteres (used for pounding and grinding acorns) and the shallower metates (used for milling seeds and grains).

Intriguing signs pointing to the Kumeyaay culture and way of life have been found in the larger seasonal villages, and in the legacy of their rock art. Many sites are located on private land, hidden from public view. But there are at least a half dozen archeological and historical sites open to the public, if you know where to look.

NOTE: It is important to remember that rock art and other historic sites may be considered sacred to American Indians and should always be treated with respect. It is against the law to touch or disturb any artifacts, pictographs or petroglyphs.


Mission Trails Regional Park, only eight miles from downtown San Diego, one of the largest urban parks in the US, offers guided hikes through the rugged hills and San Diego River bed, where the Indians once roamed. The state-of-the-art Mission Trails Visitor and Interpretive Center offers exhibits of the Kumeyaay people and culture. Several historical sites are designated for public view on trails throughout the 5,800-acre park. Grinding holes in the rocks used for the preparation of food can be seen from the Visitors Center loop, and also on the grasslands near the Old Mission Dam.

Cowles Mountain, part of Mission Trails Regional Park, has a Kumeyaay Winter Solstice observatory site, located along the trail of the tallest peak in the city of San Diego. From the eastern horizon, at dawn on the days surrounding the solstice a peak splits the rising sun. The original stone arrangement pointing to the peak was destroyed many years ago, according to Ken Hedges, curator with the Museum of Man, but it has been since recreated, and is a popular hike destination around the Winter Solstice.

The Mission Trails Visitors Center is offering special pre-dawn Winter Solstice hikes in late December, guided by official Mission Trails Regional Park Trail Guides and Canyoneers of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Hikers are invited to meet at 6 a.m. at the trailhead to the Cowles Mountain Staging Area on Golfcrest at Navajo Drive. For more information call 619-668-3281 or visit www.mtrp.org.

San Dieguito River Park, an open space regional park which extends the entire San Dieguito River Valley from Volcan Mountain near Julian to the ocean in Del Mar. The western river valley contains one of the earliest archeological sites in San Diego, documenting habitation for a period spanning 8,000 to 11,000 years. Artifacts found here include carefully crafted stone knives, spear points, and scraping tools.

The Piedras Pintadas Trail winds around Lake Hodges' Bernardo Bay, with detailed interpretive signs about the Kumeyaay technologies: the preparation of food, tools, weapons, and how they used various plants. A pictograph site is now off limits due to vandalism. The trailhead begins in northwest Rancho Bernardo, south of the parking lot off West Bernardo Drive. For those able to complete the 3.8-mile round trip, there are more interpretive signs about Kumeyaay resource management techniques on the western side of the Ridge Loop Trail.

Detailed maps and more information are available at the Headquarters of the San Dieguito River Park on Sycamore Creek Road in Escondido, call 858-674-2270 or visit www.sdrp.org.

The Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai, a five-acre historical site formerly known as the Silver Lake Archeological Site, recreates and preserves the landscape of the Pauwai Valley at the time the Kumeyaay roamed the land, before the arrival of Juan Cabrillo. Dedicated in June 2002, by the Poway City Council and the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, volunteers and Eagle Scout troops built trails, planted vegetation and constructed Kumeyaay ramadas and a native house made of willow branches. The site overlooking the Poway River valley features a rock outcropping with milling and grinding stations, and preserves the tribe's history.

The site is located at the end of Silverlake Road at Poway Road, approx. two miles east of I-15. Docent-led tours are offered every Saturday from 9-11:30 a.m. For more information, call 858-646-9616 or visit www.ci.poway.ca.us.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one hundred miles east-northeast of San Diego, is the largest state park in California, and offers outstanding examples of Kumeyaay rock art, in the form of pictographs, ancient mysterious drawings on the rock walls, and petroglyphs, designs and symbols etched into the surface of large boulders or rock faces. Petroglyphs are more common in the northern part of the park. A specific type of petroglyph is a yoni, a natural crack in a large boulder or rock, which has been enhanced by stone tools to look like a vulva, is believed to be associated with female fertility rites.

Pictographs can be found in Coyote Canyon in the northern part of the park and in Smuggler Canyon in the Little Blair Valley area, located on an easy half-mile trail. In Mine Canyon, in the central part of park, there are more signs of human habitation, the morteros, metates, as well as pictographs and two yoni rocks. The Blair Valley area offers well-preserved examples of pictographs. The panel of rock paintings, geometric shapes in red and yellow, are clearly marked by interpretative signs. The meaning of the paintings is still unknown.

A large seasonal village, called "Morteros Village" features an interpretive walk with grinding rocks, pictographs, and a replica of an old Indian trail. More rock art can be found in the "Piedras Grandes" or "Large Rocks" area and Indian Hill, listed in many hiking books, is a large site with a cave rock shelter. Maps to the sites open to the public are available at the Anza Borrego Visitors Center in Borrego Springs. For more information, call Park Headquarters or the Visitor Center: 760-767-4205 or visit www.parks.ca.gov.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, forty miles east of San Diego, was the spring and summer home to bands of Kumeyaay Indians, who ranged throughout the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains in seasonal journeys from San Diego to the Salton Sea. The Kumeyaay called the beautiful oak and pine-covered mountains due east of San Diego, "Ah-ha Kwe-ah-mac," which translates roughly as "the place where it rains" or "the mist behind the clouds."

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has a rich heritage of Indian sites. Cuyamaca Peak, a seven-mile-long round trip hike to the top, is considered to be sacred to the Kumeyaay (although some local tribal members argue that all mountains are sacred).

Within the park, bedrock mortars, or grinding rocks, can be seen from Coldstream Trail, with interpretive panels, and a large village site at Los Caballos Horse Camp, on the way to Stonewall Mine. Interpretative signs about the Kumeyaay can be found along the Paso Picacho Nature Trail via Azalea Loop Trail. More bedrock sites are visible from the Harvey Moore Trail and Juaquapin Creek Trail, accessed from Sweetwater turnoff. Pick up park brochures at the Indian Museum or ranger stations at campground entrances. For more information, 760-765-0755 or visit www.cuyamaca.us.

County parks such as William Heise Park near Julian, Felicita Park in Escondido and El Monte Park in Lakeside are located on the sites of former Kumeyaay villages. The rangers at each park can provide more information on the specific sites. To learn more about interpreting the signs of early Kumeyaay life, the following museums offer glimpses into the earliest inhabitants of San Diego County:

The Barona Museum, a mile north of the Barona Casino in Lakeside, is home to two thousand Native American artifacts, with listening alcoves, diorama cases and interactive science displays that showcase the artistry and skill of Native Americans who lived throughout San Diego County, California and the West. The collection represents Native American history, dating back 10,000 years. Rare items include ceramic bowls and grinding stones used for cooking, arrows and spears used for hunting, ancient tools, coiled baskets used for food preparation and beads that were used as both jewelry and currency, as well as baskets on loan from the San Diego Museum of Man.

There are also Peone game pieces made of bone, used in the traditional gambling game. The interactive science exhibits illustrate the Kumeyaay as hunters and gatherers, as well as astronomers, marine biologists, chemists and physicists who read the stars, predicted the change of seasons and used natural materials to create rock art. For days and hours of operation, call the Museum at 619-443-7003 ext. 219 or visit www.baronamuseum.org.