Death Valley National Park was our destination for Thanksgiving week, but the drive from our house to Furnace Creek is more than 8 hours without traffic, so we decided to break up the drive into two parts: Home to Bakersfield on Friday night, then Bakersfield to Furnace Creek on Saturday. This not only made our drive easier, but it gave us time on Saturday to do some adventuring on the way.
When researching things to do in Death Valley, I came across Red Rock Canyon State Park and the photos were so stunning that hiking a few of the trails became a must-do activity on our Thanksgiving road trip.
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Red Rock Canyon includes two natural preserves and features spectacular rock formations, panoramic views of the desert landscape, and sandstone desert cliffs with prominent rust staining from iron oxide that creates bold red stripes. These same colorful, red-striped rock formations in the park served as landmarks during the early 1870s for 20-Mule Team Freight Wagons that stopped for water.
The 27,000 acres that make up Red Rock Canyon State Park have no hiking restrictions, which means you don’t have to stay on the trails and you can hike anywhere you want and climb on any rock formations you want, which put a giant smile on my son’s face — climbing rocks are his favorite vacation activity!
We reached Red Rock Canyon State Park just before lunch on Saturday. Located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Mountains, the park sits directly on State Route 14, which travels through the center of the park, just 125 miles North of Los Angeles and 25 miles North of Mojave, in California’s Mojave Desert.
Things To Do In Red Rock Canyon State Park
Red Rock Canyon offers visitors a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, sightseeing, off Road Vehicle driving, camping, bike riding, and even rock climbing.
Compared to other California state parks, Red Rock Canyon doesn’t have a lot of improved hiking trails. Instead, it’s more of a create your own adventure park, where you get to choose what you explore and how long you explore.
When driving along HWY 14, we knew Red Rock Canyon was getting close, but were in no way prepared for the towering red-striped cliffs that come into view as we rounded a turn. Audible “wows” came from the back seat and we immediately turned off the road into a large parking area.
Red Cliffs Natural Preserve
Red Cliffs Natural Preserve is located about one-third mile south of Abbott Drive, the main entrance of the park. It features huge, steep, scenic red cliffs, small caves, and big rocks that you can walk right up to — no hiking needed. We spent a lot of time exploring this area as the kids climbed all over the amazing rock formations.
Next, we drove over to the main park area, paid the $6 entrance fee, and quickly stopped in the small Visitor Center to grab a brochure and check out a few displays and information on the animal fossils found in the park.
We thought about taking advantage of the nearby picnic tables for lunch, but they are right next to stinky vault toilets so we decided to do some more exploring.
Ricardo Nature Trail
The Ricardo Nature Trail is a walk not a hike. It meanders through the wash below Ricardo Campground for about a quarter mile. There are numbered stops along the route that match up with a brochure you can pick up at the Visitor Center that will tell you all about the natural and cultural history of the area.
This walk is a flat walk through the brush and desert plants — no rock scrambling, just hot, dry walking near the parking lot, so we skipped this short trail.
Rock Scampering In The Campground Area
After the Visitor Center, we hopped in the car and decided to drive through the campground area along the steep, rugged, incredible cliffs, stopping on the side of the road every few hundred feet to hop out of the car and explore caves, climb rock formations, and check out the amazing views.
The kids loved this, because they could shout “stop” at any time to jump out of the car and run to something interesting they spotted from the truck. Several times, we spotted what looked like a small cave or crack in the cliffs, only to find out that it is a narrow, winding canyon you can follow for a bit!
Desert View Nature Trail
The Desert View Nature Trail begins at the end of Ricardo Campground Road near campsite number 50. It is a one-quarter mile hike with a fairly steep incline to the ridge line above the campground. The trail ends at the top of Whistler’s Ridge, but you can keep exploring by either crossing along the ridge line on the right to White House Cliffs for a spectacular view of the valley, or dropping down to the other side of the cliffs for a walk through the canyon valley.
We thought about hiking this trail, but it was really hot, we were really hungry, we definitely wanted to explore the Hagen Canyon trail, and still needed to get to Death Valley National Park before dark… so we skipped this hike and headed back out of the fee area.
Hagen Canyon is named after German immigrant Rudolp Hagen who owned most of the land that is now Red Rock Canyon. He actually operated Red Rock Canyon as a private park, offering maps to rock formations he named.
Our last hike at Red Rock Canyon State Park was through Hagen Canyon, a location for many Hollywood movies. The Hagen Canyon trail is the park’s most famous scenic hiking trail, and the longest at one mile round trip. The large dirt parking area is located right off HWY 14 at the east end of Abbott Drive.
We first headed to the right of the parking area, walking along the cliffs for a bit, to the rock formation known as Turk’s Turban. We then made our way back to the Hagen Canyon Trail with red-striped sandstone curtains, small caves, stunning rock formations like Camel Rock, and even a rock window.
This easy, relatively-flat, trail showcases everything that makes Red Rock Canyon State Park unique. If you don’t have a lot of time, this is the trail to do — and because it’s outside the fee area, it’s free!
Know Before You Go
- The Red Rock Canyon State Park entrance fee is $6 per vehicle per day to access the Desert View Nature Trail, the Ricardo Nature Trail, the Visitor Center, and the campground. It is located right off HWY 14 at the east end of Abbott Drive.
- Download the state park brochure and the park map.
- There are some shaded picnic tables are available first-come, first-served near the Visitor Center, but the shade wasn’t actually shading the tables below and the tables were right next to the stinky vault toilets. Needless to say, we chose to enjoy our tailgate picnic lunch at the Hagen Canyon trailhead parking area.
- Red Cliffs Natural Preserve, with stunning red-striped cliffs, has a large parking area, a small trail at the end of the parking lot, vault restrooms, and two picnic tables — and access is free.
- Hagen Canyon, the longest trail in the park at one mile round trip, has all of the park’s incredible rock formations and geologic features in one easy trail — and access is free.
- You can ride any red or green sticker Off Highway Vehicles within Red Rock Canyon, as long as you remain on the roads and follow all vehicle code regulations.
- Red Rock Canyon became a State Recreation Area in 1969, and a state park in 1982.
- Dogs must remain on a 6-foot maximum leash and be accompanied by a person at all times. Dogs are not allowed on established trails.