Red Rock Canyon State Park (California)

The Red Cliffs of Red Rock Canyon

 

Red Rock Canyon State Park is a gem in the California State Park system. It is located along Highway 14, about twenty-five miles north of the town of Mojave, at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.  It is a unique niche in the Kern County desert, which is often seen as a barren desert wasteland, by those that don’t stop to discover the beauty first hand, or are just to arrogant or blind to see it.

The park is most widely known for its colorful sandstone formations, rocky cliffs, and desert buttes.

Because I am not a geologist – I will leave the explanation of how the formations came to be to the experts. The following excerpt is from the Cal. State University, geology department:

Red Rock Canyon exists just north of the edge of the Garlock Fault Zone. The canyon is named for the reddish sandstone layers which are stained by iron oxides. These sedimentary layers were deposited by streams draining into the floodplains of an inland basin out of steep mountains that once stood high nearby in what is now the Mojave Desert.

These deposits accumulated during the later Miocene Epoch along which there was also occasional volcanic activity. Resistant lava flows and a thick tuff breccia bed are ridge-forming units within the sedimentary sequence. This sedimentary and volcanic rock sequence lies atop a thick accumulation of andesite flows and pyroclastics. Collectively, they are known as the Ricardo Formation. The prominent pink tuff breccia of Red Rock Canyon is about 12-13 million years old. At some point, groundwater saturated in silica and other ions permeated the basalts and deposited various minerals, including fire opal, chalcedony, natrolite, and analcite. Numerous fossils have been recovered from the Ricardo Formation including the remains of camels, rhinoceros, horses, tortoises, skunks, and the extinct and elephant-like Gomphothere.

About 8 million years ago the deposition stopped; subsequent uplift, tilting, and erosion have sculpted the dramatic outcrops visible today. The El Paso Fault (a major component of the Garlock Fault System) separates the present uplifted Red Rock Canyon exposures from the alluvial plane growing toward the east. Uplift along the El Paso Fault is believed to be along the order of 15 km.

Haunting formations in Red Rock Canyon State Park

Haunting formations in Red Rock Canyon State Park

 

Volcanic bluffs in Red Rock Canyon SP - Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background.

Volcanic bluffs in Red Rock Canyon SP – Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background.

 

A desert cathedral.

A desert cathedral.

The earliest human inhabitants of Red Rock Canyon, were the Kawaiisu Indians, who are most often associated with having lived in the Tehachapi Mountains. Desert bands of the Kawaiisu are also known to have existed, with their primary territory consisting of the El Paso Mountain Range. In the El Paso Range, there are several petroglyph sites, and rock alignments left behind from hundreds if not thousands of years. In Red Rock Canyon SP, there exists one small very faded panel of red and black pictographs – this site is not advertised by the park, in fear of additional deterioration.

In the late 1960s, Kawaiisu sites in Red Rock Canyon became the target of looters, and grave robbers. It has been recorded that human remains had been disturbed during the looting process.

Rock shelter that was utilized by the Kawaiisu Indians. Very faint pictographs remain on the walls.

Rock shelter that was utilized by the Kawaiisu Indians. Very faint pictographs remain on the walls.

 

Look closely and you'll see traces of red and black pigments.

Look closely and you’ll see traces of red and black pigments.

 

Red Rock Canyon also has several tie-ins with Death Valley history. In 1850 members of the Arcane, Bennett and the Illinois Jayhawkers traversed this canyon after their escape from what would become known as Death Valley – they found a layer of two-inches of freshly fallen snow in the canyon, it quenched their thirst, allowing them to continue to Willow Springs (near modern-day Rosamond).

In the 1870s, the twenty-mule team out of Death Valley would also pass through Red Rock Canyon, utilizing it as a water stop along the hellish route from Death Valley to the newly built train depot in Mojave, CA.

For those interested in film, and television history – Red Rock Canyon serves up a healthy dose of that as well. Films such as Jurassic Park, Beneath the Planet of the Apes,  The Big Country, The Mummy, and Zorro Rides Again have all had scenes shot along the prehistoric looking cliffs.  It total, IMDB lists 132 films as having been filmed here.

In all, there is something for everyone at Red Rock Canyon – hiking trails, nature walks, a OHV area, 4WD trails, horse trails, camping and educational opportunities at the visitor center.

A natural rock window in the volcanic tuft

A natural rock window in the volcanic tuft

 

Photographic opportunities at every turn.

Photographic opportunities at every turn.

 

Ricardo campground - Red Rock Canyon State Park

Ricardo campground – Red Rock Canyon State Park

 

Red Rock Canyon State Park

Red Rock Canyon State Park

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • Desertbat

    Nice!