At the edge of the El Paso Range, about 80 miles east of Bakersfield, eroded badlands rise up from the sandy soil, their whimsical shapes sculpted by eons of wind and water. Once the home of the Kawaiisu Indians who carved petroglyphs in the vividly colored cliffs, and later a gold mining site, stagecoach stop, and backdrop for Hollywood westerns, Red Rock Canyon State Park preserves this multi-hued collection of creased and folded sandstone buttes.
Photographers gather at sunrise and sunset to capture the badlands’ saturated colors—whites, pinks, reds, and browns. Geologists come here to study the colorful rocks. Each hue tells a geologic story: red for sandstone that was deposited in stream and river channels, white for sandstone that was subjected to ash from volcanic eruptions, gray for sandstone that was deposited in huge floodplains. Paleontologists flock here, too. Embedded in the rocks are the remains of prehistoric animals—three-toed horses, saber-tooth cats, and alligator lizards. Ninety species of fossilized plants and animals have been documented in Red Rock Canyon.
Take a walk among these fascinating badland formations on the 1.2-mile Hagen Canyon Nature Trail, and you’ll find photo opportunities everywhere you look. Some of the fluted cliffs look like colorful candles melting in the sun. Others have small caves or “windows,” inviting children (and adults) to climb and explore. A smattering of Joshua trees add a touch of green to the desert palette.
Across the highway in the park’s Red Cliffs region, a trail leads past 300-foot-high sandstone columns, their red tint caused by iron oxide (rust). After a wet winter, spring wildflowers erupt in a riot of color. Flower fans search for the Red Rock poppy, a rare and possibly endangered species. If you’re a television buff, you might recognize this otherworldly landscape from vintage shows like Bonanza and Lost in Space. Red Rock Canyon’s cliffs have appeared in more than 100 Hollywood films.
The park’s beauty doesn’t end at sunset. More than 100 miles from L.A.’s bright lights, Red Rock Canyon offers astronomy buffs a blissfully dark night sky. Amateur astronomers set up telescopes almost every night, but you can see the Milky Way and count shooting stars with just your wide-open eyes. On Saturday nights, park docents give talks on astronomy, petroglyphs, desert tortoises, Joshua trees, mining history, and more.
Red Rock Canyon is far from the nearest large town, so make sure your car is stocked with gas, water, and snacks. Pitch your tent at the park’s 50-site Ricardo Campground, or give glamping a try—snuggle up in a tipi at the Olancha RV Park and Motel, an hour’s drive north. Choose your tipi by motif—Horse, Buffalo, Raven, Hawk, Coyote—and then relax in a comfy bed, cuddled in a soft duvet (these cozy tipis have air conditioning and heating, too).