A palisade of geology… for your viewing pleasure.

I was driving up off the Mojave on CA 14 on my way to Death Valley to see what I could shoot in one of the hottest and lowest points in North America.

As I drove up a rise off the desert floor, the flat expanse of the Mojave suddenly gave way to 5 story-high palisades of red and orange sandstone rising out of the flat landscape.

Just about the time you think I’d like to take a closer look at this you suddenly realize you can, because a sign says you’ve just entered Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Quick decision: Stop and take a quick look, which always ends up being 3 hours, or stick with the plan and drive on and see how far I can go into Death Valley before it’s dark. I wanted to make Ridgecrest at a decent hour, so I kept moving, making a note to make a quick stop here on the way back to Carmel Valley. Which I did.

The quick stop morphed into 3 hours of shooting (like I thought it would) in one of the most unusual and beautiful parks and campgrounds I’ve run across. The website desertusa.com described it as a ‘small park with a big park experience’ which is exactly right.

The first thing you notice is that this isn’t like the campsites we have back in Monterey along the central coast. You don’t camp under towering Redwoods; you pitch your tent against towering sandstone bluffs.

The trails don’t run next to a rolling stream under the forest canopy; these trails lead you past 5-story exposed walls of ancient seabed, thrust upward and crosscut by erosion to reveal geologic tree rings that measure not years, but millenia.

And the iconic Monterey Pines back home are replaced with the equally iconic Joshua Tree. We’re not in Big Sur anymore.

I then shifted from macro shots of the landscape to micro shots of the flowers. Just giving myself 3 or so hours here is almost an insult to the park.

And thinking that you’ll stop here on the way to somewhere else is just not realistic.

I guarantee you find yourself wishing you had more time. This small park stands on its own as a destination. Allow a full day to see what it has to offer. It’s family-friendly with trails that are easy to navigate, unique desert campsites, and hikes that will immerse you in the vibrant geologic history of this region.

Incidentals: The park comes up pretty quick on CA 14, so be ready for the turnoffs into the park coming either way; If you’re not a camper (with campsites like this you should be) then consider staying in California City nearby so you can get started in the park with the best light. (californiacitychamber.com). This is the desert, so summer visits are a bad idea. People have died out here in the summer. If you find yourself here on a hot day, have a healthy respect for the heat; take the amount of hydration you think you’ll need, then double it. If you’re out on a hike and find yourself thirsty in these conditions, then you’re already dehydrated and it’s time to turn around.

Kid Factor: (+) Plenty of places to run. Easy, moderate trails that loop, great geology and history and clear desert skies for star gazing. (-) See above: summer heat can kill. It’s that simple.

Fitness Factor: There’s plenty to see with just a moderate amount of fitness for hiking. But it’s not the exertion of a hike that’ll get you in trouble, it’s the heat. Things have a way of going badly very quickly if you start having symptoms of dehydration or heat stroke. At the first sign of trouble (thirst, light-headed, headache) return to your car or campsite immediately; at the very least, try and get out of the direct sunlight. 

Photo factor: If it’s early in the year, then a macro for wildflowers would be a nice lens to have along. I also like to bring along some scrim or diffusion material for the wildflower shots.

For the landscape, the usual rules apply: get out of bed early, bring a steady tripod (the wind can really blow out here) and if you’re shooting some video, have some kind of wind deflection for your camera mic (repeat: the wind can blow out here). The landscape screams panos, and this is a good place to take a stab at those late night milky way shots you’ve been wanting to do. No light pollution out here in the evening.