Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Hagen Canyon

Red rock walls of Hagen Canyon
1.2 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Hagen Canyon Nature Trail visits some of the most colorful and bizarre rock formations in California's Red Rock Canyon State Park. Located in the El Paso Mountains at the junction of the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon State Park is home to colorful cliffs and badlands in a desert landscape dotted with Joshua trees. Its quintessentially western landscapes were used as backdrops in a number of Hollywood westerns, including Stagecoach and The Big Country. Although it lacks the drama of the red rock landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, it is still a beautiful and worthwhile stop for travelers on their way up to Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The trail through Hagen Canyon is short but is packed with scenery and has plenty of options for additional exploring. Colors in the canyon may be a bit washed out in midday lighting; morning probably provides the best lighting as most of the canyon's formations are in shadow during the late afternoon.

I hiked Hagen Canyon during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The nearest major town to Red Rock Canyon State Park is Mojave, just over 20 miles to the south. Whether arriving from Mojave, Lancaster, or Los Angeles, hikers coming from the south should take California Highway 14 north for 21 miles past the junction with CA Highway 58 to the left turn for the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center and Ricardo Campground. After making the left turn on Abbott Drive, make the turnoff to the left into the parking area for the Hagen Canyon Nature Trail immediately. Red Rock Canyon State Park does charge an entrance fee, but day use and camping fees are only charged at the Ricardo Campground and the parking area for Hagen Canyon is outside the fee zone.

A nice signboard at the trailhead gives an idea of what you can see along the hike in Hagen Canyon, highlighting three particular features: the Window, Camel Rock, and Turk's Turban. The best view of Turk's Turban, a massive leaning tower of red rock, is from the trailhead, as this formation lies just north of the actual trail.

Turk's Turban, visible near the trailhead
A massive wall of hoodoos dominated the view to the west of the trail as I started the hike, with many layers of harder redrock separating collections of more eroded rock pillars that had varied white, yellow, and red shades. The trail followed the foot of this wall with plenty of nice views; at a fifth of a mile into the hike, the trail came to the unmarked junction where the return leg of the loop rejoined the main trail. At this junction, the more obvious path was to head right and do the loop counterclockwise, so I did that. Shortly after passing the junction, a spur trail broke off to the right of the trail, leading up a collection of hoodoos at the base of the colorful wall. I took this short detour and headed uphill along the path, which brought me to The Window, one of the many unique rock forms along this trail. This slightly elevated vantage point also provided great views of the hall of hoodoos to both sides; the nearly vertical hoodoo-composed cliffs to the north were particularly impressive.

The Window
Red rock hoodoo wall
Returning to the main trail, I continued onwards, heading west along the foot of the hoodoo wall until the trail crossed a wash and then turned to the south. Here, the trail made a close approach to a few hoodoos capped with red sandstone, before the trail continued south to reach a second wash. While the main trail started to turn left here and head back east along the second wash, be on the lookout for a uniquely shaped yellow rock formation on the right side of the trail. Here, I spotted Camel Rock, one of Hagen Canyon's best known eroded features. I left the trail here and briefly headed up the wash to see this peculiar rock that indeed had the shape of a camel's head. It's possible to wander off-trail further up the wash to see more hoodoos if you desire. 

Camel Rock
I returned to the main trail, which began curving back to the east and heading back towards the trailhead at this point. There were still a few more geological wonders left: the south side of the canyon featured another wall of red rock hoodoos. A little further on, an intensely eroded hillside off to the right of the trail held a number of unusual rock formations, including an unnamed mushroom rock where a block of red sandstone was still balanced on an eroding base. While there were no formal trails leading over to these formations, there were extensive networks of social paths in the canyon that allow visitors to explore these rocks close up.

Red rock hoodoo walls
Mushroom rock
After passing this last set of badlands, the trail departed from the wash, breaking off to the left and crossing a low hill before joining up with the trail that I had followed on the way in. In this final segment of the loop, there were a number of yuccas and Joshua trees that dotted the desert landscape, a reminder that we were in the Mojave Desert. From here, I could also see across Highway 14 to the Red Cliffs, which were eroded from a particularly intensely colored band of rocks.

Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert of Red Rock Canyon State Park
Although this was a short hike, it was quite a bit of fun and I spent nearly two hours exploring this unusual landscape. I saw a handful of other visitors during my time in the canyon: although the canyon is fairly far from the Los Angeles metro area and other major cities, its location right next to a major highway does make it fairly popular. While I wouldn't push you to make a trip out to this corner of the Mojave Desert just for Hagen Canyon, I do think it's a worthwhile addition to any trip to the Mojave or the Eastern Sierra.

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