A mere two hours north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert is the 25,000-acre Red Rock Canyon State Park. The exposed geology is stunning where the Sierra Nevadas link up with the El Paso Mountains. Shades of pink, red, brown and white eroded volcanic and sedimentary layers provide a fascinating vista. Softer sediments have been worn away into a variety of cuts and channels capped by harder volcanic material. For thousands of years, native peoples used the unique tributaries as trade routes and as part-time homes. Later, prospectors and emigrants seeking a new life plied through on the way west. The park was established in 1968 to preserve not only the unique geology but also the vegetation and wildlife characteristic of both the high and low deserts. There are 50 campsites with pit toilets and potable water near the Ricardo Visitor Center. The first-come, first-served campground is located 25 miles northeast of the town of Mojave off California Highway 14.
Quite typical of higher desert conditions, Red Rock Canyon features warm to hot days and balmy to subfreezing nights. Temperatures can swing from one extreme to another in a single day. Snow is possible in winter. The most pleasing temperatures are during spring and fall, but this also brings out the larger crowds. In any case, make sure you carry lots of water with you and drink copiously. Wear sun protection, including a hat and good sunglasses.
Sunshine is abundant, so working with a more interesting sky usually requires late fall and winter visits. Watch use of a polarizer, though, as the sky can already be impossibly blue naturally. Flash floods occur in this region, so take care in inclement weather. Hiking trails and open washes permeate the park, and a relatively short hike can put you in a remote area away from other visitors quickly.
The colorful twisted geology begs for any wide-angle lens, but zooms will help to isolate patterns without having to climb into precarious places. Neutral-density filters and flash-fill can help with the uneven lighting. Sand and dust are definitely an issue, so prepare accordingly with bulb blowers and UV filters, and limit lens changing when hiking around.
Animal inhabitants are pretty wary and tend to be smaller, so a good telephoto of at least 300mm is a must. Water seeps can be found well into fall even without recent rain. Quietly visiting these rare spots in early morning or late afternoon may reward you with a closer view, especially if you stake out a comfortable place to sit downwind and "blend" in with the surrounding country.
Most flower blooms and increased animal activity occur during spring and early fall, the most popular time for visitors to the park as well. February through April provide the best opportunity for wet weather, bringing temporary streams and rivers to this otherwise dry and rugged landscape. While summertime can be quite hot, you’ll usually have very little company. In August and September, the classic "desert summer" storm cloud buildup often provides some contrast to the deep blue skies.
Contact: California State Parks, (661) 942-0662, www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=631.OP.
Sand and dust are definite hazards in the desert, so pay special attention to keeping your gear clean. One essential item is an air blower, such as the Giottos Q-Ball Rocket Blower, which features a tilting nozzle, a one-way valve at the bottom to prevent redistribution of dust and a neckstrap lug. Other useful desert cleaning supplies include a soft brush, cotton swabs, cleaning solution and microfiber cloth. List Price: $13. Contact: HP Marketing Corp., (800) 735-4373, www.hpmarketingcorp.com.