Rainbow Basin, California
Northwest of Barstow, California
Text and Photos by Len Wilcox
Northwest of Barstow, California, lies one of the most beautiful and mysterious locations in the Mojave Desert: Rainbow Basin. It’s a mishmash of shapes, colors and fantastic formations, a place where water and wind have worked magic, sculpting layers of sandstone and sediment to expose brilliantly colored formations. It changes moment by moment with the passing day, with shadows falling deep into canyons and cuts. Rainbow Basin is surrealistic, other-worldly, seemingly a land that couldn’t possibly exist on the same planet that holds forests and lakes and lush meadows.
Rainbow Basin doesn’t look like a canyon or a basin, but it’s called both. It is a gash in a mountain wall where geologic artistry appears in splashes of color and layered waves of stone. Somehow, it remains virtually undiscovered. Not a single information center, interpretive center or even a tourist-trap-gift-shop mars the presence of these magnificent natural edifices.
There is, however, some evidence of man’s work. The Bureau of Land Management has built a road through the basin, a one-way unpaved path that winds through narrow gorges and gouges.
The plant life in the canyon is sparse: a little grass, a small Joshua, the dried remains of a desert wildflower. On the top of the canyon walls, however, stand many Joshuas, sentinels guarding the mountain.
With each turn in the roadway something new, something stunningly simple or incomprehensibly complex hangs over the passage, each more colorful and fascinating than before. According to geologists, this was once a verdant marsh and the home of many prehistoric creatures. Miocene-age horses, camels, mastodons, saber tooth cats and countless insects once lived in this valley. Their remains are embedded in the canyon walls, buried by sediments over time, found by us in our moment of time. Many of the fossils found in Rainbow Basin are now on display in museums around the country. So many have been discovered here that the geologists have called the geologic period the "Barstovian Stage."
Rainbow Basin is easy to reach. While the road to the basin is not paved, it is bladed and maintained. You will not need a four-wheel drive vehicle. From Barstow, take old Route 58 to Fort Irwin Road, proceed north, then turn left on Fossil Bed Road and follow the BLM signs.
Rainbow Basin is a place not to be missed. And be sure to bring lots of film for your camera.
Weather extremes and poisonous snakes are desert hazards common to this area. Rainbow Basin has a flash flood risk as well. Avoid low-lying areas during storms and remember that rain upstream can cause flooding even though it is not raining in the immediate area.
Camping is permitted only in the Owl Canyon Campground. The campground is first-come first-served and requires a $6.00 fee per site. Each site has a table, shelter and campfire grates in place. A water tank and pit toilets are located in the campground. BRING WATER WITH YOU as the water tank can run dry as it is used. [Update - Due to recent vandalism to the potable water tanks, there is no water available in Owl Canyon Campground. For current status always check the BLM's site.] There are also designated group campsites and an equestrian camp that is available by permit only.
Backpacking is welcome in the area. Fires are not permitted outside designated campgrounds.
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