Archaeological, historical sites worth seeing in Southern California
August 27, 2013 10:30 PM   Subscribe

So my mom (from Ireland) will be spending September with me in California, she's been here many times and we've covered most of the West Coast on numerous road-trips. We will almost certainly do another this time, probably about 10 days travelling down the coast from San Jose to San Diego, then we'll most likely swing east through the deserts and work our way back along the Owens Valley towards Lake Mono before crossing the Sierra back to the Bay Area. Apart from finally stopping at Hearst Castle and visiting The Getty in LA (which has been closed every other time we've been in the area). We're looking for sites of archaeological, historical or geological interest. When my mom asks about archaeological sites she's thinking things like Chaco Canyon in NM. The Google has mostly failed me, so here's hoping Mefi can do better. So I'm looking for places to visit with interesting history that are reasonably accessible, (4WD and dirt roads to get there is OK), she can walk but not hike up a hill. As a bonus question, I'm pretty interested in geology and so I'm going to go find some really old rocks (they're kinda scarce in Nor Cal) and maybe some trilobite fossils. But I'd love to hear other ideas.
posted by Long Way To Go to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think the Mission at San Juan Capistrano is beautiful.
posted by cecic at 10:43 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're not going to get much in San Diego from before the Mission period (basically post-1770). There's the mission, the presidio (a fortress to protect the mission and town - it's in ruins), the old mission dam, and Old Town State Park. Native Americans in the area didn't really build durable structures, so they didn't leave much besides rocks they used for grinding food. There are some pictographs out in the desert, but you may not want to go there in September, which is one of our hottest months. This paper gives an idea of what I'm talking about with the grinding stones, pictograph trip description can be found here. There are a couple "rockhouses" that are basically stone walls a couple courses high, but they're waaaaaaay off the beaten track past the northern end of Anza Borrego State park. The Native American culture out here was pretty different from that of the pueblo tribes, so you're really not going to find anything like what the Anasazi did in this area.

For fossils, you're mostly going to be looking at the east and west sides of the county - the middle portion is just about all granite. There's fossilized oyster beds out in the desert, and I've found some things in the cliffs around Pacific Beach.
posted by LionIndex at 11:09 PM on August 27, 2013

Consider a trip to Joshua Tree. The landscape is amazing and there are some historical sites in the park. We stayed at the Twentynine Palms Inn, which is actually on an oasis. A naturalist took us on a tour of the grounds and explained a little of the geology and history of the place to us.
Bonus: the restaurant is wonderful.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:34 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Pre-Columbian sites are few and far between in Southern California. Outside some remote areas with things like petroglyphs, there isn't much. And remote they tend to be. To make things worse, information on finding them is getting pretty scarce, as such artifacts have a tendency to be pilfered and/or vandalized.

I only know of one place off the top of my head that is purported to be some kind of settlement. But it's nothing like Chaco Canyon. In fact, it would take a very trained eye to distinguish it from the rest of the desert. There are a couple places with concentrations of petroglyphs. One is at China Lake Naval base, and access is extremely limited. There's another in San Bernadino county. Which is a huge chunk of land. And extremely remote. Google "Rodman petroglyphs". GPS needed for this one, unless you're very good with maps.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:49 PM on August 27, 2013

Histrical stuff: On highway 395, there's Manzanar. If you're that far east, may as well at least drive through Death Valley. Some neat ghost towns and sites in and around there.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:52 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Vasquez Rocks (north of Los Angeles) look pretty cool, and they have a fun history as a filming location for dozens of movies and TV shows.

For an easily accessible and beautiful Chumash cave painting, you can drive to Painted Cave in the mountains above Santa Barbara. (And if you drive up there, it's worth walking around the nearby Knapp's Castle, a ruined mansion from the 1940s.)
posted by dreamyshade at 12:01 AM on August 28, 2013

Back to prehistorical sites, the Blythe Intaglios are in easternmost riverside county. I'm pretty sure you can still visit them, but they're best appreciated from the air. That page also mentions Topcock Maze, which I've never seen.

Also Fish Traps/Lake Cahuilla site near Coachella.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:03 AM on August 28, 2013

Not far from Owens Lake is fossil falls worth checking out.
posted by hortense at 12:19 AM on August 28, 2013

I know a spot on the edge of Death Valley - great local food given there is a population of about 200 people. No walking for mom to see the cool sites.

Memail. That's how I roll with this one:)
posted by jbenben at 1:02 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Encino there is Los Encinos state park, which contains a few very old (for Southern California) buildings left from when Rancho Los Encinos encompassed about 1200 acres of land in the southern San Fernando Valley. All but 5 acres has long since been bulldozed and developed into present day Encino, but it's neat to find a tiny pocket of pre-sprawl history tucked right alongside Ventura Boulevard.
posted by usonian at 5:20 AM on August 28, 2013

Possibly the La Brea Tar Pits
posted by exogenous at 5:49 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pinnacles National Park is just east of Soledad and it's fantastic. It's the remains of a volcano that used to live in the LA area, but it moved.

There really isn't anything like Chaco in California. Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is the first place that popped into my head, but it's quite a bit out of your way - in the Sierra foothills, near Jackson (southeast of Sacramento).

If you're coming up to San Francisco at all, you can see really fantastic rocks in the Marin Headlands, along Conzelman Road.
posted by rtha at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2013

Seconding the LaBrea Tar Pits and the LA Museum of Natural History. Both of them have great state of the art natural history collections of fossils, birds and fish. At both museums you can participate in a dig on site. I also trip on the fact that there's bubblin' cude seeping out of the corner of Wilshire and Curson right in the heart of this noir asphalt city.
posted by effluvia at 6:27 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

California is rich in petroglyph sites. The stuff is everywhere if you know where to look. I'll mention some easy ones. Coming up from San Diego, you could check out the Hemet maze stone. There are petroglyph sites in Anza Borrego. The Nat. Parks site should help you there. Once you get up to the Owens Valley there are many world-class petroglyph sites. Many on the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Station, so access is kinda difficult (but so worth it). Contact the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest as they often run guided tours to the area. Many other sites in the Owens. Memail me.
posted by spudsilo at 7:18 AM on August 28, 2013

Regarding Pinnacles National Park, you should plan how far you want to go, and which trail(s) you want to take. I mention this because 1) some routes require a good bit of hiking, or at least climbing up steep hills and/or stairs carved into the rocks, and 2) one route requires a flashlight, as the tunnel is long enough that it's pitch black for a while, and you might have to scramble over rocks. But don't let all that dissuade you from visiting the site. It's a beautiful location, and the weather should be great in September. You can drive up and walk around some nice, level trails and enjoy the general setting without any strenuous hiking.

Speaking of missions, there's the California Mission Trail, which runs near/ along Highway 101, with 21 missions in all. That website has a bit of information on each of them, including addresses. This site has the locations marked on Google Maps, and here's the Wikipedia page on Spanish missions in California, with tons more information.

Since you're traveling down the coast from San Jose to San Diego and you're visiting Hearst Castle, I assume you're traveling down Highway 1, so I'll suggest you stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. There are a network of easy trails that go right along the rocky coast, plus there's a small cabin that was built by Chinese fishermen from the turn-of-the-(last)-century, which remains at Whalers Cove and is now a cultural history museum. You could spend a mere half hour there if you drove around and stopped in the little museum, or you could spend a few hours, wandering the trails and talking to the docents and rangers who are happy to talk about the history, geology and ecology of the area.

If you weren't planning on driving down Highway 1, I highly recommend it. Google maps tells me its slower than traveling down the 101 and heading west from Paso Robles, but you won't get nearly as great views going down the 101. The only reason I'd see to take 101 is A) if you're nervous about driving along ocean cliffs, or B) if you want to go to Pinnacles National Park. The west entrance is accessed by driving through Soledad and heading east, while the east entrance is reached by rural roads, has less amenities, and is more of a trek. BUT if you want to see Pinnacles on your way back north, getting to the east entrance takes an hour less than getting to the west entrance.

Many on the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Station, so access is kinda difficult (but so worth it).

If I'm not mistaken, those are the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, located in the northern Mojave Desert, currently within the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, near the towns of China Lake and Ridgecrest. According to Wikipedia: "Little Petroglyph Canyon contains 20,000 documented images, which surpasses in number for most other collections. Additionally, the archeological resources are remarkably undisturbed." Some caveats: all visitors must be US citizens, and visitors must be in good physical condition.

If nothing else, that Wikipedia page lead me to the following wiki categories: archaeological sites in California, National Historic Landmarks in California, and archaeological sites on the National Register of Historic Places in California.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may want to alter your road trip this year and do Arizona.

Start in San Jose.

Head down 101 to Salinas for Mission San Juan Bautista. As a kid I always loved Old Mission San Juan Bautista.

Then 5 to 40, do part of old Route 66.

Then from 40, make a left and visit the Grand Canyon.

Head down to Sedona. The state parks are gorgeous!

Take 17 south towards Phoenix. Stop at Montezumas Castle. These are the oldest cliff dwellings in North America.

Then go to Phoenix. Tour Tovrea Castle (we used to call it the Wedding Cake house.)

Check out the Casa Grande Ruins just south of Phoenix. America's Stonehenge! On the way back, eat at Poncho's, the best Mexican food in my old neighborhood (or the world!) Check out the mural commemorating President Clinton's visit in 1999. Order a Cheese Crisp. It's a thing.

The Herd Museum is devoted to Native American art and culture. History too.

Then back home, through the desert and up 101.

It'll change things up and you can't argue that these are some pretty great sites of archaeological, historical or geological interest!

No matter what you decide, have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:58 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're near Mohave on Route 66, here's where you go for trilobites.

Also if you google california trilobite you get a bunch of other hits in that general area, so you have options if you aren't into getting your kicks on Route 66 etc.

And do it on BLM land. California Public Resources Code doesn't like it if you hunt fossils in public parks.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:08 AM on August 28, 2013

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