Kyla Cathey is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in California's Central Valley.
Miwok Peoples in the Sierras
Long before settlers from all over the world came to the Sierra Nevada mountains in search of gold, the Miwok people made their home among the meadows and oak forests that are now part of Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park.
Set between the tiny towns of Volcano and Pine Grove, California, the park features the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, regular events, a reconstructed Miwok village, camping, two hiking trails, and, of course, its namesake—a huge slab of marbleized limestone with more than 1,100 mortar holes, the largest collection in North America.
Chaw’se (Grinding Rock)
The mortar holes are the main draw to the park. The rock was where Miwok people ground acorns from the nearby oaks and other seeds into a meal they could use in cooking. Over time, the grinding wore depressions into the slab of rock, some tiny, others huge. The grinding rock was also decorated by the people who used it with petroglyphs of wheels, animal tracks and others.
While you can’t step onto the massive slab itself—a fence protects the fragile rock from the wear and tear caused by visitors’ feet—you can get close enough for great photos. (Geocacher alert: The grinding rock is also the site of an Earthcache, and the park itself holds several other geocaches.)
While you’re at the grinding rock, wander through the reconstructed Miwok village. It includes several bark houses, a large field for games, and the hun’ge, or roundhouse, where ritual ceremonies are still held several times throughout the year. The field near the roundhouse was where Miwok men and women played a game similar to soccer.
Once you’ve seen the grinding rock, head to the Chaw’se Museum to learn more about the Northern Sierra Miwok people who made their home in the area, including a few words of Miwok. “Chaw’se,” for example, is Miwok for “grinding rock.”
Chaw'se Regional Indian Museum
In addition to the replica Miwok village on the grounds of the park, the Chaw'se Regional Indian Museum offers a look at how Native Americans lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The two-story museum is packed with artwork, historical items and information, as well as a gift shop that includes dozens of books, videos and more.
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The museum ranges far beyond the Miwok who once lived on the park's grounds to other Native American peoples who lived throughout the region. The collection includes information and artifacts—including basketry, clothing, technology and the tools of daily life—from the Konkow, Maidu, Monache, Nisenan, Tubatulabal, Washo, and Yokuts people, in addition to the Miwok.
The Chaw'se Regional Indian Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Hiking and Camping
After you’ve explored the museum, head out to the grounds for a short hike. The South Trail is a half-mile, self-guided nature trail. For a small donation, hikers can pick up a booklet at the trailhead, located near the hun’ge, that identifies several of the plants found among the oaks and how the Miwok used them.
The mile-long North Trail loops throughout the park. Both trails offer opportunities to take in native plants, and visitors may catch a glimpse of turkey vultures, quail, scrub jays, deer and foxes, among others. Before starting out, however, make sure you can identify poison oak. It grows in several places throughout the park and can cause a nasty skin reaction.
If you want more time to observe the park’s wildlife—or just want a chance to fall asleep listening to coyotes howling—you can camp at the park. Camping ranges from $30 to $35 per night, and includes one vehicle. An $8 fee is charged for a second vehicle, and two is the limit per campsite. Trailers count as a second vehicle, but aren’t charged the additional fee. For more information about camping, visit the camping page on the park’s website.
Those who truly want to experience what life was like before the Gold Rush brought settlers from around the world to California can camp in bark houses. The U'macha'tam'ma' site has seven bark houses that can hold groups of up to six. Contact the park for more information about these campsites—which do not include running water—or to make a reservation.
If you want a chance to see how modern Miwok people are continuing the traditions of their ancestors, schedule your visit during Big Time. Held on the weekend following the fourth Friday in September, the acorn gathering festival includes Native American dancing, food, storytelling, artists, vendors, and more. Ceremonies are held in the roundhouse.
Visitors are welcome to attend, but please be respectful, and please ask permission before taking photos of any of the Native American visitors.
Information and Considerations
Day use hours are from sunrise to sunset, and an $8 vehicle parking fee is in effect. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Summers can be hot and winters can be cold in the Sierra foothills, so dress accordingly. When in doubt, dressing in layers is appropriate. For more information, visit the park’s website or call (209) 296-7488.
© 2016 Kyla Cathey