The truth is that the name Fossil Falls is a bit of a misnomer. After all, there are neither fossils nor a waterfall here in the Coso Range, near the Sierra Nevada. But a walk through these polished lava formations about 36 miles northwest of the desert city of Ridgecrest is a highlight of any drive along Highway 395.
This otherworldly site was formed by the interaction of rushing water from the Owens River (which in wetter prehistoric times flowed at a much higher rate) with lava that poured from nearby volcanoes as recently as 20,000 years ago. The result is this surreal, convoluted chasm of shiny, sculpted black lava. A short trail leads to the falls, which you can observe from above; for a closer look, follow a trail to carefully descend the falls (hold onto children’s hands as footing can be tricky).
For climbers, the geological phenomenon is a boon: several “finger-friendly” routes are indicated, with difficulty ratings ranging from easy to intermediate. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: small squirrels, huge, lightning-fast jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, and rattlesnakes are all native to this area. Fossil Falls is a dog-friendly attraction but keep an eye on any furry family members who may encounter native wildlife.
While in the Coso Range, consider visiting the nearby Coso Rock Art District, which is home to ancient Native American petroglyphs depicting primarily anthropomorphic figures, abstract symbols, and bighorn sheep. It’s the highest concentration of ancient rock engravings in North America.
Insider tip: Night skies in this remote high desert locale are also spectacular; check out the nightly celestial show from the Fossil Falls campground with 11 sites (potable water and restrooms on site), plus picnic tables and fire rings.