It’s not a Grind at Indian Grinding Rock
By Joyce Kiefer

The original native Californians did not leave behind spectacular cliff palaces like the ones in Mesa Verde or pictographs of tall, spooky figures like those on the canyon walls deep in the Utah desert. What the Miwok Indians left behind in the Sierra Nevada  foothills is far less romantic but just as intriguing as these wonders of the southwest. The Miwok legacy: large, flat limestone grinding rocks pocked with holes like slabs of cheese.   You’ll find them at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park just outside of Pine Grove.


The women of the tribe made these depressions as they ground acorns into meal with stone pestles.  Acorns from the valley oaks were as basic to the diet of northern California Indians as wheat is to ours.  Although squirrels pop acorns directly into their mouths, humans need to grind them into meal, then leach and boil the results in order to get rid of the bitter tannin.  The Indians ended up with a product much like corn meal.  They could eat it like mush or bake it into cakes or loaves.

Rock slabs pocked with bedrock mortar holes are tucked like treasures throughout the hills, open spaces and ranches of northern California.  But the largest collection of bedrock mortars in all of North America lies within Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park.  Count them – 1,185 holes!  The larger rock slab is also etched with spoked wheels, animal tracks, and wavy lines.  These carvings might be 2,000 or 3,000 years old.  Except for a small site elsewhere, Chaw’se (the Miwok word for grinding rock) is the only place where the holes are trimmed with petroglyphs.  It takes a sharp eye and the best light to spot the art – early morning or late afternoon.

Next to the grinding rocks reconstructed acorn granaries stand on stilts to protect the acorns from hungry birds.  But there’s more – an entire reconstructed village with bark houses, a ceremonial roundhouse, shade ramadas (it gets hot in summer), and an Indian game field.  If you reserve ahead, you can sleep inside a bark house at U’macha’tam’ma’, a secluded section of the park.  Each of the seven houses holds up to six people.  The camping here is primitive:  you haul in your own water and supplies 200 yards or more from the parking area.  But would it seem right to do it any other way?


The comforts of modern year-round camping, along with trailers, motor homes and tents are located in the wooded 23-site campground near the end of the park near the town of Pine Grove which, in turn, has a supermarket, pizza place, and Giannini’s, a good family-style Italian restaurant. 

Each time my granddaughters come to our vacation home in nearby Pioneer, they usually ask to visit the park and hike the trails through the woods and around the Indian village.  And all three, ages 3-13, never get tired of exploring the park’s Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum.   The exhibits are in the round – the building design reflects the traditional roundhouse – and admission is free.  Indian head dresses and other artifacts are on display.  One display explains how the Gold Rush had its downside for the native peoples.  The older girls bought their first earrings at the gift area; the little one loves the poster photos of local animals.


As for lectures and demonstrations, the museum offers occasional presentations and a naturalists gives a Saturday night campfire program during the summer.  But the most fun is the annual “Big Time”.  In late September Indian families from all over the region gather at the park for the annual acorn harvest thanksgiving.  They demonstrate the elaborate process of preparing acorns and may offer a taste test.  And they tell stories, dance, play games, and barbecue salmon.  Visitors are welcome.

At Indian Grinding Rock you’re in the heart of the Gold Country but just 2 1/2 hours away from Silicon Valley.  Jackson and Sutter Creek are each about 8 miles away.  The tiny old town of Volcano is just up the road.


Once you leave Stockton and Highway 99, you’ll drive the rest of the way to Indian Grinding Rock on Highway 88 with a short cut on Ridge Road near Martell. 

Consider Highway 88 as a food run through a vanishing world of California agriculture.  In spring watch for the cherry and strawberry stands next to the orchards and fields.  In summer stop at the Fruit Bowl about four miles on the left once you leave Highway 99.  For 60 years the Lucchetti family has sold its own peaches at this stand.  They also make fruit pies on the premises and calories-be-damned fruit milk shakes.  Just before entering Lockeford, turn left on Locke Road and head a mile or so down to Vino Piazza, where the adults in the family can taste the excellent wines from this expanding wine region. 

Go back to town and stop at the statue of the cow over the Lockeford Meat and Sausage store. You’ll find an incredible variety of sausages at less than Bay Area prices.  Go around the corner and look through the window to see the butchers at work.

And finally, stop at the next town of Clements to watch the workings of a chocolate factory at Chocoholics.  Try the samples in the store and treat yourself to an ice cream cone (chocolate, of course).    Did I say “finally”?  There are far more produce stands and wineries than I mentioned and even a farm that sells roasted peppers when the time is right.   People in this area appreciate good, basic food.
Just ask the Miwoks.



Admission to Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is $6.00.  The museum is free and open every afternoon.  Camping spots ($20/night) are first come, first served, except for the Environmental campground, which requires reservations.  Call (209) 296-7488 for details. “Big Time”, the annual Indian celebration, will be held Sept. 29 and 30, 2007.  The campgrounds are not open to the public that weekend. The website for Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is

Directions:  From the Bay Area, get to Interstate 5 and Stockton.  Try to leave home before noon.  Traffic has a way of stopping up on Altamont Pass and near Tracy.  Take the Highway 4 East Freeway across Stockton and turn north to Sacramento on Highway 99.  About a mile later, turn right on Highway 88.  Follow its turns (study a map) and turn left at Ridge Road at the statue of a man in a hard hat. (88 continues to Martell and Jackson).  When Ridge Road dead ends at Pine Grove, turn left onto 88.   Head into town and turn left at the sign that points to Volcano and Black Chasm Cavern.  You’ll be on Pine Grove-Volcano Rd.  The park is on the left hand side.

Where to stay if you don’t camp:  Pioneer Resorts in the town of Pioneer is the closest motel.  Go to: .  The widest choice of motels is in Jackson.
Amador County.  That’s where you’ll be when you go to Indian Grinding Rock.

For some of the fun events in Amador County, go to

Read “Mother Lode Adventures” in the Central California Excursions on this website
and take a look at the gorgeous and informative book:  “The Mother Lode: A Celebration of California’s Gold Country,” published by Chronicle Books.


Joyce Kiefer is an avid traveler and frequent contributor to BAFT.


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