“Don’t stay on the trail” sounds like an odd suggestion, but it’s the best way to explore the crimson sandstone cliffs and hoodoos that crosscut Red Rock Canyon State Park in the northern Mojave Desert. Perfectly legal, too, in this otherworldly convergence of the Sierra Nevada and El Paso Mountains just 120 miles north of Los Angeles (although it would seem to be more at home in southern Utah). Eons of uplift here from the nearby Garlock Fault exposed an ancient lakebed’s sedimentary layers, which then eroded into the exotic shapes seen today.
Start your exploration on Hagen Canyon Nature Trail, one of the park’s most scenic walks—an easy 1.2-mile loop over washes and along intricate red and white sandstone “curtains” capped by dark lava flow. Distinct formations have names like Camel Rock and Turk’s Turban.
The park allows, even encourages, hikers to walk anywhere off-trail. So you can easily spend half a day here wandering side canyons and climbing cliffs.
Where the stone-lined trail starts looping back, two sandy washes lead farther west into vast badlands of white sandstone and igneous rock. Save for sparse vegetation, the landscape here is rugged and Martian, yet the sand underfoot is as pleasant as a Malibu beach. A single willow tree abides near where one wash dead-ends at a dramatic basalt lava wall. For lovers of exposed geology and the SoCal desert, spring in Hagen Canyon is truly nature at its finest.
TIP: Avoid the midday heat by hiking in the morning, when temperatures are still pleasant. Bring plenty of water.
STAY: Ricardo Campground, just north of Hagen Canyon, has 50 first-come, first-served campsites, many situated right beneath eye-popping fluted cliffs. Tables, potable water, pit toilets, and fire rings are provided. $25 per night.
To get to Red Rock Canyon State Park, take CA-14 24 miles north of the town of Mojave. Turn left on Abbot Dr. (it’s well signed) and follow it into the park. No dogs on trails.