Shades of green, turquoise and red — here and there a streak of pale lavender — Rainbow Basin is aptly named.

Looking across the "badlands" from the main parking area, one of Rainbow Basin's most recognizable features, the colorful Barstow Syncline is easily seen.
Looking across the "badlands" from the main parking area, one of Rainbow Basin's most recognizable features, the colorful Barstow Syncline, is easily seen.
A myriad of rocks includes volcanics (red rhyolite breccia and white tuff) to shale to feldspar and quartz fragments to bright green clay.
A myriad of rocks includes volcanics from red rhyolite breccia and white tuff, to shale to feldspar, and quartz fragments to bright green clay.

The dichotomy of Rainbow Basin’s solemn solitude and bright colors draws me in again and again, and each time I discover something new to photograph or a new trail to explore.

Advertisement

Even during the Great Snow of December, 2008, I went to Rainbow to see how it looked cloaked in white. The colors in the lower canyon were muted and a whiteout at the top of the loop road made it impossible to see more than a few yards in front of the car. But I knew that underneath that soft wind-blown snow, the rocky sentinels of the basin were standing guard as they have for eons.

The unique environment of textures, some rounded from erosion, some sharp-edged and jagged, are in stark contrast to the smoothly intense blue sky.

Fanciful shapes are formed from volcanic ash, tuff and uplifted sedementary rock.
Fanciful shapes are formed from volcanic ash, tuff and uplifted sedimentary rock.

Rainbow Basin Natural Area is located eight miles north of Barstow, Calif., off Irwin Road (not Fort Irwin Road). The main access route is Fossil Bed Road. Rainbow Basin is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern due to landscape features and paleontological resources in the area.

Many visitors come to see exciting multi-coloured rock formations and walk the scenic canyons. Once away from the main parking area, it is a mostly undisturbed and otherworldly landscape with scant vegetation. The dramatic geology is well-exposed by the erosive powers of water.

A variety of desert wildlife is found here, including the desert tortoise. Vehicle trespass is a major concern, so all routes not signed as “open” are CLOSED to vehicles.

antecline_psf

A major feature in Rainbow Basin is the unique formation called the Barstow Syncline — a “U” shaped fold in the rocks. In structural geology, a syncline is a downward-curving fold, with layers that dip toward the center of the structure. The syncline is like a wrinkle in a rug — on the north side of the basin, all the rocks dip south, and on the south side of the basin, the rocks dip north.

It is not understood at this time how the Barstow Syncline was formed. Usually, compressive forces create synclines, but this site is thought by many to be the result of extensional forces. Possibly, mountains on either side were being pulled apart, forming a depression that the sediments sunk into, creating a syncline.

Differential erosion of rocks of different hardness finished the job of sculpting the formations into the fantastic shapes that can be seen in Rainbow Basin today.
Differential erosion of rocks of different hardness finished the job of sculpting the formations into the fantastic shapes that can be seen in Rainbow Basin today.

ACTIVITIES

Rainbow Basin has outstanding views of its geological features, and keep in mind permits are needed to remove any fossils. Activities include hiking, camping, photography, sightseeing and horseback riding.

There are many places where you can get stranded or lost in this area. Be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. Bring sufficient water, food, clothing, equipment and first aid supplies for your activity.

There are designated group campsites and an equestrian camp available by permit only in nearby Owl Canyon. Backpacking is welcome in the area. Fires are not permitted outside designated campgrounds.

HIKING AND SIGHTSEEING

Rainbow Basin has a diverse landscape of hills, canyons and washes. Multicolored rock walls and mesas are accented by changing light conditions, making for many photographic opportunities. The washes are good hiking trails for experiencing the area’s natural beauty.

Skyline tuff glows in reflected late afternoon light looking like for all the world, dinosaur bones.
Skyline tuff glows in reflected late afternoon light, looking for all the world like dinosaur bones.

Wildlife viewing is best during early morning and evening hours. In Fossil, Coon, and Owl canyons, birds tend to gather in thick vegetation. Vegetation is critical for wildlife water, food, and shelter. Washes in Rainbow Basin have been closed to vehicle travel to protect these areas.

VEHICLE TOURING

Within this Area of Critical Environmental Concern, routes are posted with “open” route markers. Use of passenger vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles is permitted only on designated and signed open routes. The staging of off-highway vehicles (e.g. ATVs) is not allowed in the Rainbow Basin area or at Owl Canyon Campground.

The Fossil Canyon Loop Road winds its way through Rainbow Basin and past the Barstow Syncline.
The Fossil Canyon Loop Road winds its way through Rainbow Basin and past the Barstow Syncline.

The Fossil Canyon Loop Road is an interesting route for auto touring, though depending on weather conditions and when the road was last graded, it is not recommended for passenger cars. Keep in mind that this one-way narrow dirt road is best driven with high clearance or four-wheel drive vehicles.

FOSSIL CANYON LOOP ROAD SHOULD NEVER BE ATTEMPTED BY MOTOR HOMES OR VEHICLES TOWING TRAILERS.

CAMPING

Camping is permitted only in Owl Canyon Campground. This campground is first-come, first-served. Each site has a table, shelter and campfire grates in place. Vault toilets are located in the campground. There are no dumping facilities nor is there trash service. Take out all trash, please.

Nearby Owl Canyon Campground offers new and improved campsites as well as a children's play area.
Nearby Owl Canyon Campground offers new and improved campsites as well as a children's play area.

SAFETY

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. Remember that rain upstream can cause flooding even though it may not be raining in the immediate area.

DIRECTIONS TO RAINBOW BASIN

  • rainbow-basin-mapFrom Main Street, in Barstow, travel north on First Avenue and turn left on Irwin Road.
  • Proceed out of town until you see the sign for Rainbow Basin.
  • Turn left on Fossil Bed Road and follow signs either to Owl Canyon Campground or the Fossil Canyon Loop Road.
  • The loop road returns to Fossil Bed Road just west of this entrance.

For more information:

Barstow Field Office
2601 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311
Main Contact Number: (760) 252-6000

You might also like:

Rainbow Basin

DesertUSA Message Board Posts on Rainbow Basin

Sources:

BLM Barstow Field Office
www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/basin.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncline
www.shallowsky.com/geology/socal/rainbowbasin/
Geology Underfoot in Southern California by Robert P. Sharp and Allen F. Glazner.
www.cnsm.csulb.edu/departments/geology/ VIRTUAL_FIELD/Rainbow_Basin/rainmain.htm

7 COMMENTS

  1. Can’t imagine the amount of time you spend on researching facts for us. I, for one, certainly appreciate you.

    thanks once again. I feel I was ‘almost’ there.

  2. I will be putting this on my “to do list” of places to visit. Beautiful pictures, lots of good information too!
    Thanks,
    Wilma

  3. Beautiful area to explore. Hope some day to just do that. Thank you for all your contributions to let people know what is around the USA to see.
    Thank you,
    Alberta & Doyle

  4. The trick with such articles is to be informative and descriptive, yet remain interesting within the narrative.
    Otherwise readers lose interest, especially if it’s too ‘dry’ a piece.

    Of course great photography helps to add colour, but Lara Hartley also produces pieces that have that balance between informative, descriptive and interesting.

    Ross Muir
    Prestwick
    Scotland

  5. This desert is a subtle beauty that takes a discriminating eye to see, and prodigious talent to capture as well as you can.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here