Ancient Wonders of California

Connect with the distant past by exploring early civilizations and ancient natural wonders in the Golden State.

California has a lot to offer tourists. Many make their way to see glitzy Hollywood, scenic Pacific Coastal Highway, surfer waves in Santa Cruz, San Francisco cable cars, or picturesque Napa Valley. But California also offers tourists a chance to see some of the most ancient wonders in the Americas.

The Cerutti Mastodon Discovery

Researchers have made a stunning discovery that could rewrite human history. They found signs of human activity dating around 130,000 years ago at the Cerutti mastodon site in San Diego, making it the oldest archeological site in the Americas. The discovery predates previously known human activity by 100,000 years. Although no human bones were found, a mastodon skeleton, molars, tusks, bone flakes, and large stones were found, indicating the site was used as a bone quarry. Mastodon bones were smashed to extract marrow or were used as raw materials for making tools. Learn more about this exciting discovery and museum hours at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Photo: San Diego Natural History Museum

Petrified Forest

About 3.4 million years ago, during the Pliocene of California, a volcano erupted and knocked down a prehistoric redwood forest near Napa Valley. Volcanic ash billowed from the volcano, quickly burying the trees, creating an environment in which the trees could not decompose. Through thousands of years, the trees became fossilized, preserving every detail of the wood. In 1870, the petrified trees were discovered by a Swedish homesteader while raking his land. After fires swept through the Napa Valley area in 2017, the Petrified Forest is once again open for visitors. Step back in time and learn more at petrifiedforest.org.

Photo: petrifiedforestcalistoga

Blythe Intaglios

In the desert just outside of Blythe, California, are a group of giant figures etched on the ground called the Blythe Intaglios. The six human, animal, and lines are American geoglyphs, the largest at 171 feet long. Their origin and meaning are unknown but are estimated between 450 and 2,000 years old, although radiocarbon dating suggests they could be as old as 1200 BC. According to Mohave and Quechan Indians, who live in the area, the human figures represent Mastamho, the Creator of all life. The animals represent Hatakulya, one of two mountain lions/persons who assisted in the creation. Ceremonial dances were performed in the area during ancient times, honoring the creation. Best seen from the sky, they were rediscovered in 1932 by a pilot who took notice while flying over them. A historical landmark, find out more about the Blythe Intaglios.

Photo: Rsfinlayson, CC BY-SA 4.0

Chumash Painted Cave

A small sandstone cave adorned with ancient painted rock art is situated north of Santa Barbara. Numerous drawings ranging from 200 to 1,000 years old depict the cosmology of Chumash Native Americans and other subjects. The rock art is painted in mineral pigments, white diatomaceous clay, and charcoal. Ceremonial use of the cave ended during the 1700s when the Chumash first encountered Europeans. One interpretation of the paintings is that the artists were of a high-ranking spiritual community who painted celestial beings, the sun, moon, and stars to maintain balance with the celestial world. Learn more information about the Chumash Painted Cave and how to visit the site at cyark.org.

Fossil Falls

A unique geological feature awaits you in the Coso Range of eastern California. The strange landscape resulted from glacial meltwater from the last ice age, forming lakes and rivers that became diverted by volcanic activity. The basaltic volcanic flows occurred between 400,000 and 10,000 years ago, creating falls and rocks that were polished and reshaped into unique forms over time. Coso Native Americans lived in the area about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago and survived until the 19th century when Europeans were first encountered. Obsidian flakes can be found in the area from when the Native Americans chipped obsidian from the mountains to make their tools. The site is protected, and the removal of artifacts is strictly prohibited. Find more information on visiting Fossil Falls at visitcalifornia.com.

Photo: kallahar, CC BY 3.0

Giant Sequoias

Walk among living giants at Yosemite National Park or Sequoia National Forest, where some of the oldest sequoia trees are more than 3,000 years old. Yosemite boasts three massive ancient giant sequoia groves. The most visited is Mariposa Grove, the largest in the park with over 500 mature giant trees. Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove are less traveled, requiring a 1.5-mile hike each before the trees come into view, and each has about two dozen mature trees. The Sequoia National Forest covers nearly 1.2 million acres, with giant sequoia groves being a part of its 196,000 acres of old-growth forests. For more information on ancient sequoias, visit the websites for Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Forest.

Photo: Yosemite National Park

Painted Rock

Painted Rock in is a sandstone rock formation near Soda Lake within the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Adorned with many colorful pictographs over thousands of years, the Chumash, Salinan, and Yokuts Native Americans all lay claim to the site. The Chumash first populated the area about 2000 BC. Rock art by the Chumash people depicted small elements, circular mandalas, and intricate red, black, and white panels. After the Chumash left the area around 600 AD, the Yokuts moved in. Yokut rock art included large colorful motifs and figures. Find out more about Painted Rock.

Photo: Niceley, CC BY-SA 4.0

Find a Lost Civilization

Have a little time to discover a lost civilization along the California seashore? Join Alex Kerekes, author of Finding Lost Civilizations on a beach walk where ancient artifacts thousands of years old are in plain sight and tell a story of an ancient people:


Next time you travel to California, take some time to explore our ancient roots. Broaden your knowledge and understanding of early civilizations and ancient natural wonders. Connecting with the past helps us preserve our shared heritage.