Red Rock Canyon State Park
Little park with a big park experience
The big national parks in the west are awe inspiring. Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone, Glacier — all with sweeping landscapes, buttes of vivid colour, mountains of grey granite or perhaps strange-shaped beings carved of stone.
I’ve stood over the Grand Canyon in Arizona and marveled at its mysterious depths. Watched Old Faithful erupt faithfully in Montana. Scurried up a smooth slope in Utah’s Zion National Park like a spider, sticking to the sandstone thinking “Ok, now how do we get down?”
It is the smaller state parks I find the most intriguing. They are more personal, more intimate. You can interact with a dramatic landscape that would be intimidating in a larger park. Find a small arch, slip in between giant columns of rock, search for jewel-toned lizards or just hang out at a picnic table behind, maybe, a Red Rooster.
Red Rock Canyon State Park in Southern California is such a treasure. The park is located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Mountains. It has scenic fluted cliffs and whimsically-shaped rock formations that look as if they are sagging and melting, like something out of a desert-themed Alice in Wonderland. The red in the 300-feet sandstone-curtained cliffs is iron oxide, otherwise know as rust staining. It looks as you are camping on another planet when staying at the Ricardo campground.
Sunrise and sunset highlight different aspects of the sculpted landscape making it a photographer’s dream. Make note of the sun position and direction, so you can get the maximum colors and beauty of the rocks without heavy shadows.
Photographer Edward Weston wrote, "Justly famed for its extravagantly eroded and riotously colored formations, Red Rock Canyon is a source of never-ending delight for photographers and desert lovers."
In the spring, after a wet winter, there are wildflowers growing in the sand at the base of the iconic spiky Joshua trees. If you are lucky you might see the rare Red Rock poppy. This may look like an ordinary poppy, but it is a protected species, so as with any flower in the park, do not pick!
Plenty of walking and hiking trails cross the desert allowing wonderful access to out-of-the-way washes and a riparian habitat. Most are self-guided and some are suitable for children. The main trail is only 0.75 miles long and it is possible to spend several hours wandering through the park.
The remains of prehistoric animals like three-toed horses, saber-tooth cats and alligator lizards have been found in the sediments.
Scientific studies in Red Rock Canyon by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles have “revealed a wonderful picture of rich and diverse life far different than anything one could encounter in the world today.”
Heading north from Los Angeles, steep and eroded escarpments become clearer, and the stone gracefully folds to earth.
Coming south down Highway 14 from where it splits from Highway 395 near Indian Wells you can’t see the rocky slash in the rolling shrubby desert. It isn’t until you get almost to the canyon when the road quickly descends into the park do you begin to grasp how stunning the landscape is.
Be careful if you plan on making a left turn into the Red Cliffs area as it is a pretty sudden turn when coming south.
There is a left-turn lane but coming down the hill too fast may make it hard to make the turn safely. Now you may ask, “How do you know that, Lara?” Let’s just say I know. It is easier to make a right into the main part of the park and then cross the highway back to the Red Cliffs.
Red Rooster, Hagen Canyon, Ricardo campground, Red Cliffs, Scenic Cliffs, Iron Canyon and Nightmare Gulch all beckon visitors eager to explore the canyon and its geological puzzles.
Both Hagen and Red Rock Canyon Trails can be done in one day. They are both loop trails that offer plenty to look at and keep beginning hikers entertained. They even both offered quasi-caves to explore as well. They are very family friendly and separated by about .25 miles on the highway. For those with small children, Red Rock Canyon Trail has a bathroom and there are bathrooms at Red Cliffs. Hagen Trail has the camel rock and a stony “window” and is recommended for beginners or those with small children.
“Historically, the area was once home to the Kawaiisu Indians, who left petroglyphs in the El Paso mountains and other evidence of their inhabitation. The spectacular gash situated at the western edge of the El Paso mountain range was on the Native American trade route for thousands of years. During the early 1870s, the colorful rock formations in the park served as landmarks for 20-mule team freight wagons that stopped for water. About 1850, it was used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers. The park now protects significant paleontology sites and the remains of 1890s-era mining operations, and has been the site for a number of movies.”
Best time to visit is in the spring and fall and even mild winters can be fun. Be prepared for a windy campsite and lots of sun. Visiting in the summer can be challenging as it gets very hot. As always carry more water with you than you think you will need even in the cooler months. Do not forget you are in the desert.
Bring your four-legged friends, but on a leash. Wear sturdy shoes to climb up the beautifully textured rocks and enjoy views of Joshua trees and hunting ravens.
Red Rock Canyon State Park is really a joy to find. So if you find yourself traveling Highway 14 north of Mojave, be sure to at least stop in to take a look. It is worth the time!
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