Discovering Toquima Cave’s prehistoric paintings
While petroglyphs, which are prehistoric rock writing, are found in many places in Nevada, far less common are examples of pictographs or prehistoric paintings.
One of the best places to see these rare images is Toquima Cave, located in the Toquima Range, overlooking the Big Smoky Valley in Central Nevada.
As with petroglyphs, archaeologists aren’t quite sure how to interpret 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.
The cave is primarily accessible via a four-wheel drive dirt road that leads into the range from the Big Smoky Valley and continues to the adjacent 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, and then hike about a quarter of a mile on a marked trail to the cave.
Because of the condition of the dirt road, it’s best to plan a 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 protect the site.
Despite the fence, it is possible to look into the cave to see the pictographs. The images on the rock walls include strange round shapes as well as squiggly and straight lines, which are painted in surprisingly vivid shades such as bright red, yellow, white and black.
Stare for a while at the painted symbols and 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 a bison or a bear.
The sheer number of pictographs is also a surprise—there seemed to be dozens drawn all over the cave walls.
Looking at them, it’s easy to speculate about what they mean. 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 why did these early people seek out such an out-of-the-way place to scribble on the walls. We’ll probably never know.
Turn away from the fence and you can look out over the surrounding landscape, enjoying an impressive view of the valley. Perhaps the ancient people came to the cave simply because it was a cool place to hang out. It’s 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 go to http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/htnf/recarea/?recid=65280.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.