Red Rock Canyon State Park Guide (California)

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The unique orange-and-white desert cliffs and buttes at Red Rock Canyon State Park (not to be confused with Red Rock National Conservation Area in Nevada) offer exciting hiking and exploration opportunities that are perfect for novice hikers and families alike.

Although not very well-known, Red Rock Canyon in California has been used in several well-known Hollywood movies, including The Mummy and the opening scene from Jurassic Park. While no actual dinosaur fossils have been found at the park, Red Rock Canyon is full of other fossil-rich strata dating back as far as twelve million years ago.

Related: Best national parks in Southern California

The unmistakable orange and red cliffs at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Photo by Matthew Dillon.

A variety of Native American peoples once inhabited the canyon region, and the area offers a fine collection of pictographs and petroglyphs as evidence of their once-thriving civilizations.

Ritual sites of the original Coso people were found in the El Paso Mountains of the park, a tribe known for trading goods and services with other native tribes as far west as the Pacific Coast.

Their predecessors, the Kawaiisu Indians, also inhabited the area and left evidence of long, challenging food-gathering trips to remote regions including the Mojave Desert and the infamous Death Valley.

Perhaps as a means of creating more heat during the colder months, the Kawaiisu learned to live in larger groups of sixty to one hundred people during the winter, but branched out into smaller groups during the warmer months of spring and summer.

History places many different names on the Kawaiisu populations, including Tehachapi, Paiute, and Caliente, but the indigenous Kawaiisu Indians simply referred to themselves as “Nuwa” or “people.”

They were a friendly people that got along well with their neighbors and participated with other tribes in ancient methods of hunting, gathering, and the important trading activity on which their lives depended.

In fact one of the more dramatic rock features located at the edge of the El Paso Mountains range was a trade route used by the Kawaiisu and other Native Americans for thousands of years, and then later by European settlers as they traveled westward toward the Pacific.

Vegetation at Red Rock Canyon includes the very same Joshua trees whose tough leaves were used by early Native Americans to make baskets and sandals, and whose flower buds and seeds were used as an important dietary staple.

Joshua trees are native to the Southwest and mostly found in the Mojave Desert at places like Joshua Tree National Park. These beautiful trees can live for hundreds of years, though their ages are difficult to ascertain because they don’t grow rings.

Part of the yucca genus, they rely exclusively on yucca moths for pollination. These moths lay eggs in the flowers of the trees and deliberately pollinate the Joshua trees so that, when the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will have seeds to eat.

Even more fascinating, scientists have discovered certain species of yucca moths pollinate only certain varieties of Joshua trees, creating even more incredible evidence of one of best examples of coevolution in the world.

Charles Darwin at one time remarked that the relationship between the Joshua tree and the yucca moth was “the most remarkable fertilization system ever described.”

A row of Joshua trees at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Photo by David Seibold.

Unfortunately the future is bleak for these trees as a recent study in 2011 predicted that 90% of Joshua trees will be eliminated in the next sixty to ninety years as a result of climate change.

Thousands of years ago, Joshua trees were able to survive rising temperatures because their seeds were widely dispersed by large mammals like the now-extinct Shasta ground sloth.

However, today only small rodents like squirrels disperse their seeds but not far enough for the trees to migrate into more suitable climate zones. Thus, with rising temperatures, the Joshua tree population will likely suffer a drastic decline in the near future.

If you ever visit the park after a rainy winter when the wildflowers are in bloom, you’ll be dazzled by the brilliance of their unique colors and hues.

As for wildlife at Red Rock, it’s quite likely that you’ll come across roadrunners, lizards, and squirrels, as well as hawks and desert mice.

The park offers a few short trails that are perfect for beginners and families.

The Hagen Canyon Trail will take you past some of the interesting rock formations, such as Camel Rock and Stony Window. It’s only one mile long and can easily be done in forty-five minutes or less.

Another popular trail is the main trail, also known as the Red Rock Canyon Trail. It’s a loop trail about a mile long, and it too offers a fairly easy trek. Along this trail you’ll get up close to many of the strange sandstone formations and also come across a few “caves,” which are actually crevices.

Many visitors opt to do both of these hikes since they’re short, easy, and can be completed together without too much trouble.

Photographers may get more out this location than anybody else, however. At sunrise and sunset, these rocks come alive with deep red and orange tones that allow for spectacular desert shots.

Tip

  • The best seasons to visit the park are spring and fall. Temperatures in the summer often soar above 100°F, so be sure to stay hydrated and take all proper precautions.

Getting There

The park is 25 miles northeast of Mojave on Highway 14.

Nearby Destinations

  • Fossil Falls (49 miles; 55 min)
  • Alabama Hills (94 miles; 1 hour 30 min)
  • Los Angeles, CA (121 miles; 1 hours 50 min)
  • Pinnacles National Park (250 miles; 4 hours 10 min)
  • Sacramento, CA (358 miles; 5 hours 10 min)
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (539 miles; 7 hours 50 min)

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