Go ahead, stop and take a look

Go ahead, stop and take a look

When traveling through the Mojave Desert, it is a temptation to
put on blinders, stomp on the gas and race past the bleak terrain
to your final destination.
Until recent times, that would have been my practice. But, after
a number of trips to the eastern Sierra, I finally turned around
and looked in the other direction. It turns out that the desert has
its own special attractions.
When traveling through the Mojave Desert, it is a temptation to put on blinders, stomp on the gas and race past the bleak terrain to your final destination.

Until recent times, that would have been my practice. But, after a number of trips to the eastern Sierra, I finally turned around and looked in the other direction. It turns out that the desert has its own special attractions.

My wife, Renee, has occasionally joined me on trips to the east side – and bless her, because it is not her “thing.” I treasure a memory from one such trip when the two of us were standing in the midst of the quiet immensity of the high desert near Independence. To the east and west of us were mountain peaks reaching more than 13,000 feet. To the north and south, the clear dry air permitted views up and down the Owens Valley until the curvature of the earth hid further features from sight. The immensity and spaciousness were overwhelming. All the normal points of reference were useless – is that a mile away or 10, or 50?

The enormity of the setting coupled with the absolute silence melted her reluctance. She looked up and said, “I think I get it.”

After crossing Tehachapi Pass, the final leg of my recent trip to the east side of the Sierra turned north on U.S. Highway 14 at Mojave. Twenty-five miles above Mojave is Red Rock State Park, a likely candidate to pass unnoticed on the dash to Lone Pine but, in fact, a perfect spot to learn the lure of the desert.

Out of the dreary beige expanse of the Mojave Desert, at the junction of the Sierra Nevada and El Paso Mountains, rise strange cliffs and rock formations that characterize this state park. Imagine alternating layers of chalky white rock and thinner layers of bright red rock. The resistant red rock sits like a protective lid on each layer of easily erodible white rock underneath, but enough wind and water reach the chalky white rock to etch long vertical cavities that leave a pattern evoking images of a fierce carnivorous monster in need of dental work.

I visited this park about 10 years ago and, remembering these formations, planned to stop here to photograph the effects of warm morning sunlight on these already red rocks. When I arrived at midnight, I found a remote portion of the park to bag out for the night.

The next morning, I rose before sunrise and headed out unsure where morning light and interesting rocks would best converge for a good photograph. The main entrance to the park is Abbott Drive, which leads to the visitor center and the campgrounds. Immediately at the Abbott Drive turnoff of Highway 14 is a dirt parking area and the entrance to Hagen Canyon. It is a broad desert wash with a short loop trail, but this country invites hiking improvisation, calling you to investigate every gully and scramble up each formation.

Like a yo-yo on a string, I shot here and there always thinking that the best photo opportunity was somewhere else. High clouds softened the morning light, but I had fun darting through the canyon chasing possibilities.

Red Rock is a desert rat’s paradise. The best places to hike are Hagen Canyon and Red Cliffs Natural Preserve, which is just across Highway 14 south of Abbott Drive. But go where your whims take you. Beautiful car camping sites are nestled against a desert cliff ($25 a night).

Don’t let a destination fixation take you past Red Rock without stopping. Hollywood recognizes its visual charm. Once you are familiar with the rock patterns there, you’ll recognize them in many movies like Jurassic Park and countless westerns (e.g., “The Big Country”).

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