How to experience California's Native American culture

A new online platform shines a light on the Golden State's tribal communities and cultures that date back thousands of years. Here's a few ways to experience Native California for yourself...

4 mins

Picture California – Los Angeles’ palm-lined beaches, the Hollywood sign, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge might immediately spring to mind. Perhaps you’ll conjure up images of Yosemite National Park’s extraordinary waterfalls or road trips along the Pacific Coast Highway. We’ve come to know these places as some of the Golden State’s hot spots. But beyond the tick-list destinations, California is home to a rich Native American culture waiting to be explored. The state's Indigenous history and traditions date back more than 15,000 years, with 110 tribes still existing today. Visit California have even created an online platform  Visit Native California  to encourage travellers to learn more about these Native communities during their trip

Here, we pick out some of the best Indigenous experiences to have, from world-class museums and historic rock art sites, to traditional celebrations and festivals.

Admire historic rock art

Well-preserved rock art in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (Visit California)

Well-preserved rock art in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (Visit California)

Some of California’s Native American rock art sites date back more than 12,000 years. Examples of both petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) can be found in abundance throughout the state’s desert landscapes. Some are for the more adventurous and quite difficult to reach areas, others are surprisingly easy to access, and many are kept a secret from the public to ensure their long-term preservation.

Little Petroglyph Canyon inside the China Lake Naval Weapons Station is considered to be home to greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere, some dating back nearly 10,000 years. For half a mile along either side of a canyon wall, you'll be able to admire more than 20,000 etched pictures of recognisable animals, such as big horn sheep, coyotes and mountain lions, as well as human hunters. To visit, you’ll need to book onto a scheduled tour with Maturango Museum, often held in spring and autumn (note: these tours have been temporarily suspended since coronavirus and the damage from the 2019 earthquake). 

Lava Beds National Monument hosts thousands of rock art examples, and is another one of the state’s most extensive collections. Located within the traditional territory of the Modoc people, Petroglyph Point is the most popular spot to see 5,000 individual carvings.

Other noteworthy rock art sites across California include Anza-Borrego State Desert Park in the Colorado Desert, Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park near Santa Barbara, and Ring Mountain Preserve in San Francisco's Bay Area.

Visit a Native American museum

Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza is set to open in 2023 (Agua Caliente)

Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza is set to open in 2023 (Agua Caliente)

A large number of museums across California offer educational experiences on the state’s multiple Indigenous communities, allowing you to get an intimate understanding of their life and history.

Award-winning Barona Cultural Center & Museum – located in San Diego county – explores the culture of the Kumeyaay people, who have travelled with the seasons around Southern California since time immemorial. Exhibits showcase artefacts from early years, but also the struggle Kumeyaay people have experienced in the past 250 since the arrival of newcomers.

Also in San Diego County is the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians Museum. Sometimes calling themselves the ‘grass people’, the Rincon people once lived in thatched-hutched communities and foraged for food from the coast to the desert – before colonisers arrived in the late 1700s. This one-room museum tells the story of their ancient and recent history through pictures, books and pottery, plus 3D maps and an outdoor Native plant trail.

Brand new for 2023 is the state-of-the-art Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in downtown Palm Springs. The educational institute focuses on the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who lived in and around Coachella Valley for thousands of years. The tribe is well-known for their crafts, with the contemporary design of the museum inspired by their ancient basket weaving. Visitors will be taken on a non-chronological journey through the 10,000-square-foot exhibition space, with a short 360-degree animation telling stories of the tribe's creation and migration.

Take part in traditional celebrations

Trival women performing at Long Beach's Moompetam Festival (Aquarium of the Pacific/Visit California)

Trival women performing at Long Beach's Moompetam Festival (Aquarium of the Pacific/Visit California)

Many ceremonies and rituals rightly remain for tribal members only. However, there are celebrations organised by Native American communities that welcome anyone to attend.

The most frequent event to experience are called Pow Wows. Full of traditional singing, dancing, drumming, and elaborate costumes made from feathers, bells, beads and shells, Pow Wows are exhilarating celebrations of tribal culture from all over the country. Dozens are hosted in California throughout the year, with September being a particularly busy month. We suggest going to the website to find an event to suit you.

Long Beach’s Moompetam Festival typically hosted over a weekend in September (9-10 September 2023) is considered a ‘gathering of the salt water people’. The two-day event celebrates indigenous California’s maritime cultures – including the Tongva, Chumash, Acjachemen, Costanoan, Luiseno, and Kumeyaay communities – with craft making, storytelling, music and dance.

Alternatively, the annual Klamath Salmon Festival is celebrated by the Yurok tribe every August (19 August 2023). Highlights include the morning Salmon Festival Parade, followed by a traditionally cooked salmon feast, but there's also chances to watch local tribes take part in competitive Stick Game tournaments, Indian card game tournaments, plus other demonstrations and activities. 

To learn more, go to

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