Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Toquima Cave Offers Glimpses of Rare Pictographs


Toquima Cave

While I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a good deal of the state of Nevada during the past couple of decades, there are still plenty of places I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting such as Toquima Cave.

Located in Central Nevada, Toquima Cave is an archaeologically significant site that contains prehistoric pictographs, which are painted symbols, designs and patterns. Pictographs are similar to petroglyphs, which have been carved into rock rather than painted.

Archaeologists aren’t quite sure how to interpret either of them but it is generally believed that Native American people, who may have been the ancestors to today’s Nevada tribes, created the drawings and carvings.

Part of the reason I’d never made it Toquima Cave is that it’s located in a fairly remote part of the state. It sits high in the north section of the Toquima Range and is accessed via a four-wheel drive dirt road that leads over the mountains from the Big Smoky Valley to the Monitor Valley.

To reach the cave, travel about 14 miles east of Austin on U.S. 50 to the point where it intersects with State Route 376 (the road to Tonopah). Turn south on 376, then after about a tenth of a mile, take an immediate left onto a dirt road (marked by an historical marker for Toquima Cave).

Continue for about 15 miles across the valley and head into the mountains. At a place known as Pete’s Summit, you’ll reach the Toquima Caves Campground (it is marked with large forest service signs). Park near the campgrounds, then hike about a quarter of a mile on a marked trail to the cave.

Of course, the cave is difficult to reach at this time of year, so plan your visit during the summer or fall months.

The hike to the cave winds through a forest of scruffy piñon trees. The trail gradually climbs to a large red colored rock outcropping, where the cave is located. You’ll know you’ve found it when you spot the tall, metal fence across the mouth of the cave.

To protect the cave, an imposing 10-foot-high cyclone-style fence blocks access. Unfortunately, the National Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to staff the area around the clock so the fence helps keep vandals out.

Despite the fence, it is possible to look into the cave to see the pictographs. As someone who had never seen these kind of markings, I found myself fascinated by the various shapes and colors. Painted all over the rock walls inside the cave where strange round shapes as well as various types of squiggly and straight lines.

I was most impressed by the colors. I had been expecting black charcoal markings but saw drawings painted in bright red, yellow, white and black.

As I stared at the painted symbols, they began to take on familiar forms. A couple of lines and circles became a stick figure of a deer or elk. Another cluster of lines seemed to look like an elephant—although elephants never lived in Nevada—or maybe it was a bison.

The sheer number of pictographs surprised me—there seemed to be dozens drawn all over the cave walls.

In my mind, I began to speculate about what they meant. Maybe they told stories or passed on some kind of information from one generation to the next. Perhaps they were just cave graffiti or represented some kind of record-keeping system. And I wondered why they came to such an out-of-the-way place to just scribble on the walls. We’ll probably never know for sure.

I turned away from the fence and looked back over the surrounding landscape. The view of the valley and the trees was spectacular. Then it hit me. Maybe those ancient people came to the cave simply because it was a cool place to hang out. It seemed like as good a reason as any.

The Toquima Cave Campground is open from May to November. It has only six sites; two with picnic tables. One of the sites has a fire pit with a grill while the others have fire rings. There is a unisex toilet near the campground but no water or garbage facilities, so you’ll have to bring any food and water you’ll need (and pack all your garbage out with you).

For more information about Toquima Cave contact the USDA Forest Service, Tonopah Ranger District, www.fs.fed.us/htnf/tonopah.htm.

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