Red Rock Canyon State Park: The Complete Guide

Turk's Turban at Red Rock Canyon State Park

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

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At Red Rock Canyon State Park, striated shades of rock form layers on spires that look like a fancy melted birthday cake. Wind- and water-carved cliffs and buttes dwarf the campers at their base. And, soaring stone pillars conjure up images of ancient civilizations. You might think you're in Bryce Canyon in Utah, or in Colorado's famous Red Rocks Amphitheater. However, this state park is situated in the middle of the Mojave Desert, where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains meets the El Paso Mountains. California's Red Rock Canyon State Park is a place that few residents know about, and even fewer have visited. It's a small park that's seldom crowded. Still, it contains one of the most eye-popping landscapes in Southern California.

Cliffs at Red Rock Canyon State Park

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Things to Do

Red Rock Canyon State Park was once home to the Kawaiisu Indians, who left petroglyphs in the El Paso mountains indicating their presence, as well as a resting spot for early pioneers. Today, this preserved park and its spectacular formations welcome hikers and campers looking to discover protected paleontology sites and an old, abandoned mine. In spring, the park comes alive with wildflowers from mid-March through the beginning of May, and at night, the park's stargazing opportunities make you forget about the hustle and bustle of city and suburban life.

Discover the unique rock formations, full of iron oxide and similar to those you'd find in Southern Utah. A four-wheel-drive vehicle will be necessary to access many of them on the driving routes outlined on the park map. The rustic roads will take you past unforgettable sights, like Red Rooster, Red Cliffs, and Scenic Cliffs, and into Hagen Canyon, Iron Canyon, and Nightmare Gulch.

This park comes alive with a diverse array of flora and fauna. Sprawling Joshua Trees emerge from the sand providing just enough shade to dampen the soil after a rainfall, allowing spring wildflowers to appear. Look for Mojave aster, monkeyflower, yellow primrose, indigo bush, and the elusive and rare Red Rock poppy. If you're lucky, you may also come across the park's numerous animals, like the threatened Agassiz's desert tortoise, the Mojave ground squirrel, and many birds of prey.

If you're up for navigating the rugged terrain of Opal Canyon Road, complete with sandy washes and narrow ridges, it will lead you to an abandoned opal mine. Here you will find an old mining camp with ramshackle cabins and old mining equipment. The main pit is great for exploring, but make sure to leave any gems you come across, as it's illegal to remove them from the park.

Best Hikes & Trails

Red Rock Canyon boasts many easy and moderate hikes. In the spring and fall, members of the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association lead guided hikes in the park. If you plan to hike, set out early so that you don't get caught in the desert during the heat of the day. Average summer temperatures in June, July, and August can reach up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Also, please keep your dog on a leash and obey signs, as they are only allowed on designated trails.

  • Red Cliffs Trail: This easy 1-mile jaunt puts you up close and personal with the red cliffs made of sandstone, mudstone, and volcanic rock. Although the hike is short, several unofficial trails spur off of it, giving you ample opportunity to explore further.
  • Ricardo Campground: This easy hike takes you around the park's campground and makes a 1.4-mile loop through Joshua Tree outcroppings and underneath interesting rock formations. Dogs are allowed on this trail, but they must be on a leash at all times.
  • Nightmare Gulch Loop; This 8.8-mile scenic intermediate loop gains approximately 1,200 feet of elevation and puts you on top of ridges that offer panoramic views, before descending into Nightmare Gulch. As a side shot, explore one of the gulch's slot canyons before heading back to the trailhead.
  • Burro Schmidt's Tunnel: Embark on this 10.4-mile hike during the early spring when the wildflowers are in full bloom. This trail climbs approximately 2,200 feet, goes by the Red Buttes, and takes you just beyond park boundaries before returning you to the road.

Stargazing

With only the tiny town of Cantil nearby, Red Rock Canyon's night skies are free of light pollution. On prime stargazing nights (which coincide with the new moon), Ricardo Campground may be dotted with telescopes set up by astronomy buffs. Seasonal astronomy programs are sometimes offered by local stargazing clubs. Visit the park during a meteor shower for a most spectacular show. Then, sleep outside of your tent for ongoing viewing.

Camping at Red Rock Canyon State Park

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Where to Camp

Red Rock Canyon's Ricardo Campground has 50 primitive campsites tucked up against the spiring rock cliffs. The campsites are generously spaced, each one has a fire pit and picnic table, and potable water and pit toilets are on site. Trailers and motorhomes up to 30 feet long can camp here, but there are no hookups and the dump station may be closed due to water restrictions.

Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations. Most of the time, you can grab a campsite at a moment's notice, but the campground may fill up on spring and fall weekends and during three-day holiday weekends. During those times, park rangers suggest arriving on Thursday evening or early Friday morning. There is a camping fee, which you may need to pay in cash, so plan accordingly.

Where to Stay Nearby

The closest hotel to Red Rock Canyon State Park is about 17 miles from the park in California City, California, with a few more lodging options available in Mojave and Ridgecrest, California, approximately 25 miles away.

  • Best Western California City Inn & Suites: The Best Western in California City is the closest lodging option to Red Rock Canyon State Park. The property offers basic queen and king rooms, as well as spa suites, complete with a jetted tub. A free hot breakfast and access to their fitness center and outdoor pool come with your stay.
  • Hampton Inn & Suites Ridgecrest: The Hampton Inn in Ridgecrest is located just 2 miles from the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, and down the road from the Maturango Museum, giving you additional opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the Upper Mojave Desert. The hotel offers both guest rooms and suites, a free breakfast, and is about a 25-mile drive from the park.
  • Comfort Inn & Suites: For a basic hotel option, complete with an outdoor pool, the Comfort Inn in Mojave, California fits the bill. Expect about a half-hour drive to the park, but after a day of hiking, you can enjoy the hotel's outdoor pool as a reprieve from the desert heat.

How to Get There

Don't let a GPS or online search confuse you. There’s also a Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area about three hours away and just outside Las Vegas. This park is in California, however, just off CA-14, sometimes called the "Aerospace Highway." Red Rock Canyon is about a 1.5-hour drive north of Los Angeles on CA-14 and past the town of Mojave. After your visit to Red Rock Canyon State Park, head north for a stop at Mammoth Mountain or Death Valley as a side trip.

Accessibility

Red Rock State Park has four ADA-compliant campsites located in Ricardo campground, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms nearby. The visitor center parking lot has two van-accessible spaces for use by those with disabilities. The Red Cliffs day-use area has two accessible picnic sites and one accessible bathroom, and the Campfire Center has three spaces designated for wheelchair access.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Avoid Red Rock Canyon State Park in the summer when temperatures soar. It's basically too hot to do anything and the visitor center will be closed.
  • The park has potable water in designated areas, but since it's the desert, you may want to pack your own in case something goes awry.
  • Pack in any food or supplies that you'll need for your stay, or make a stop in California City, about 17 minutes south of the park
  • Don't forget to pay the park's small entrance fee, which helps support its upkeep. Bring cash and use the self-registration center at the entrance.
  • Cell service may be sparse around the park, depending on your carrier.
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