Red Rock Canyon & Nightmare Gulch

Well I’m embarrassingly behind in posting my adventures. How I’m able to keep you updated to all my overseas travels almost daily but fail to write about camping trips I took months ago I can’t understand. But let’s start the recap with how this year started for me – Red Rock Canyon State Park (CA).


I had 4 days free over New Years weekend and I was craving the desert. I didn’t want to drive the whole 8 hours to Joshua Tree or the Mojave, and I found a little green dot on google maps called Red Rock Canyon State Park about 6 hours away instead. It had trails, a campground, and Joshua Trees. I was sold.

I left very early in the morning and listened to an old fashioned audiobooks like I used to do with my Mom on long drives. After getting off the main highway in Bakersfield and crossing over a ridge I practically threw myself a party when I saw the first little joshua trees scattered around the dry land. I don’t know why I love the desert so much because I grew up without out it, and the idea of its vastness scares me. But when I’m there, the very same vastness is comforting, not exposing. I had a wonderful discussion with my acupuncturist about this recently, but I still don’t quite understand it. But that makes the mystery of the desert even more addicting.

Because the forecast was for rain off and on all weekend I didn’t want to camp in the backcountry (with worries about flash floods) and so upon arrival at the park I picked one of maybe 50 empty campsites right alongside some spectacular sandstone cliffs. I don’t think they would allow development so close to formations like these now, but the area used to be a private hotel and then a campground before it was given to the state park system. There was a great horned owl roosting just to the left of my site, and he kept me up for a long while after sunset.


After setting up camp I only had about an hour before sunset to wander around one of the shorter trails in the park and actually really enjoyed the little running streams from the rain. It’s a special thing to be in a desert rainstorm. Even more importantly, after being in the car all day it’s a very conscious, physical sensation to be outside again, seeing the sky above me and the ground below me in my periphery, moving at a footpace, the ears adjusting back to hearing the gentle sounds of nature after the turbulence of highway speed. It’s always important to remind the body of real life after the artificiality of the car.

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I was planning a long hike the next day and stopped at the ranger station to get recommendations and to let her know where I would be, just in case. Rain was expected around 3 so I got up early for the 15 mile loop I picked through a slot canyon called “Nightmare Gulch.”

IMG_6973 IMG_6978As usual I didn’t see another human the whole time I was out there. The entire area is closed February 1 through July 1 to protect bird-of-prey nesting, and it has been closed to off-road vehicle use for awhile. I was kind of rushing through the slot canyon because I wanted to beat the rain expected later, but mostly I had the mountain lion scene from Homeward Bound in my head. I played music and sang as I walked because I’ve always heard that mountain lions don’t like noise (very non-prey sounding) and kept looking over my shoulder, but still loved the landscape and the isolation. I made the 4.4 miles in less than 2 hours.

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After climbing gradually out at the top of the gulch I took a turn to follow a fenceline to the top of a ridge. I had a trail map (from the visitor center) but was astonished by how badly marked everything was. This isn’t a very highly trafficked State Park, and most of the people that do come are on ATVs, not on foot, so it isn’t ideal at footpace. I’m glad my compass is always in my pack because a few times I came to unmarked, unsigned intersections like this one:


I couldn’t have gotten seriously lost because of the long sight-distances in the desert and how close attention I pay to landmarks and ridgelines when I’m out by myself, but it was still an interesting experience. I’m grateful for the orienteering I did with my family in the state park where I grew up!

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I managed to make all the correct turns and headed back toward the road via Black Rock Canyon, which took my breath away in a different way than the Gulch had. The rock formations are bizarre and amazing out there in the middle of the desert.

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You can tell that at this point the weather was changing quickly (just scroll up to see the cloudless blue skies I had earlier in the day). With many stops for snacks and photos, I just barely made it back to my car before the first fat rain drops started falling. Perfect timing.

Since I had started out so early in the day it was only early afternoon at that point, so after munching on a tuna sandwich I headed back out to the first stop where I had walked the night before, parked the car, opened the hatchback and took out my paints. I haven’t shared any of my artwork on this blog because I don’t take it too seriously and honestly most of it isn’t very good. I’ve been using mostly watercolors, and usually just paint imaginary birds and animals. I really don’t like painting landscapes because I’m just bad at them. So this time I challenged myself to be a lot less literal and just get the colors and feeling right. It’s funny looking at this painting without the background that it fits into, but thought I would share anyway, since now you’ve seen my inspiration.


And that was my first day of 2017. I’m plotting a few big trips for this summer already so I have motivation to get this blog caught up soon! Happy New year 🙂

57 comments for “Red Rock Canyon & Nightmare Gulch

  1. Janet R Siegel
    March 4, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Amazing how many “off the beaten track”, breathtaking, public lands there are out in the West. Looks like you found a beauty. And, really, your painting captures the colors very nicely. I hope you will share more with your devoted fans!

  2. March 4, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    Supercool watercolor!

  3. Deborah Kamradt
    March 5, 2017 at 11:54 am

    Hope you share your paintings in your blog…the one here really captures the essence of Inyan…the stone people

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