Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Owl Canyon

Colorful Owl Canyon
4.5 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, rock scrambling necessary in the upper canyon
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

Owl Canyon is a narrow slot canyon displaying vivid colors and interesting rock forms in the middle of California's Mojave Desert. Protected in the Rainbow Basin Natural Area, the canyon makes for a fun and scenic half day of exploring. Casual hikers will be travel up the first mile of the canyon, while visitors are up to do some rock scrambling over a few dry falls can explore the most colorful heart of this canyon. Owl Canyon is best combined with a driving tour through Rainbow Basin and, unlike most other natural features in the Mojave Desert, it is usually accessible by 2WD vehicles without high clearance.

As this hike follows the bottom of a narrow canyon, it is extremely dangerous when there is a threat of precipitation. Additionally, recent precipitation can make the roads in the Rainbow Basin area impassable. 

I hiked Owl Canyon during a November road trip through the Mojave Desert and the Eastern Sierra. Owl Canyon is about a two hour drive from Los Angeles and is an even shorter drive when coming from the Inland Empire or suburbs like Victorville. The closest town, Barstow, is right off I-15, partway between LA and Las Vegas, and is a 20-minute drive away from Owl Canyon and the Rainbow Basin Natural Area. To reach Owl Canyon, I left I-15 at exit 183 for Barstow Rd (Highway 247). I followed Barstow Rd north into town, turning left onto East Main St. at the T-intersection at the end of Barstow Rd. I followed East Main St. to the west for 3 blocks and then turned right onto 1st Ave, which I followed north over the bridge over the railroad depot. Shortly after crossing the bridge, I turned left onto Irwin Road and took it north for 6 miles; I then took the turnoff to the left for Fossil Bed Road. Fossil Bed Road was a good gravel road that I followed west for 3 miles to the turnoff for Rainbow Basin Natural Area. I made the right turn here and followed the road towards Rainbow Basin for 500 meters and then turned right again onto Owl Canyon Road, which I followed to its end at a small parking area just beyond Owl Canyon Campground.

From the trailhead, an obvious trail led up the canyon, first descending slightly and then entering the wash. Here, the canyon was fairly wide but already colorful. While the wash itself was bounded by steep, eroded cliffs a few meters high, the walls of the canyon itself were set apart here but had been eroded to expose underlying rock with a grayish-green tint.

The entrance of Owl Canyon
The trail proceeded up the wash. For the most part, there was no constructed trail through Owl Canyon: hikers just follow the dry streambed. However, at times, there were use paths that stuck to the alluvium above the streambed or that navigated around obstacles in the wash itself. The canyon narrowed as I hiked up it; the set apart walls dotted with Joshua Trees at the start soon began to converge and soon I was bound in by colorful, highly eroded walls.

Colors in Lower Owl Canyon
The lower part of the canyon was enjoyable but not particularly spectacular until I came to a cave carved into the side of the canyon at about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead. The cave lay on the right side of the wash and was very obvious, as the entrance was tall enough to easily walk into. The cave- really a tunnel- was just deep enough to require a flashlight, which I used to navigate through its short passageways to emerge into another slot canyon on the other end. This side slot canyon was fairly short and did not take long to explore; afterwards, I made my way back through the cave and rejoined the main trunk of Owl Canyon.

Cave in the canyon wall
Past the cave, the canyon became increasingly dramatic. Soon, nearly vertical walls rose above a narrow passageway, forming a slot canyon.

Slot canyon
At one mile from the trailhead, I arrived at a dry fall. Here, a rocky barrier seemed to obstruct further travel up the canyon; indeed, this is where many visitors turn back. I scrambled up the rocks to the right of the dry fall to gain the top of the rocky ledge. After passing the initial dry fall, I took just a dozen steps before being confronted with another major dry fall. Using my hands and feet, I pulled myself up this second dryfall and unlocked access to the mysterious and beautiful upper canyon.

Dry fall
Above the second dry fall, the canyon remained narrow and slot-like. The colorful walls rose vertically above and centuries of erosion had carved out a small rock window in the canyon walls directly above the second dry fall.

Window in the wall of Owl Canyon
A short distance above the second dry fall, the canyon widened up into a particularly colorful landscape. Ahead, odd rock formations of varying colors rose above the desert wash. Over the next quarter mile, the trail passed through successive layers of red, orange, and teal colored rock, each of which displayed unique rock textures and shapes.

Entering the colorful upper canyon
Red walls of the canyon
Teal and red rock Owl Canyon
At just under a mile and a half from the trailhead, I entered an area of remarkably colored badlands. For me, this area was the absolute highlight of Owl Canyon: collections of teal, pink, and gray hoodoos rising around the wash. Both the forms and colors of the rocks here impressed and I lingered here for a while to appreciate this fantastic landscape.

Owl Canyon
Colors in Owl Canyon
Owl Canyon
Leaving the colorful badlands, I traveled further up the canyon, which continued to be spectacular. As I hiked under red rock cliffs and spires here, the wash started becoming quite rough again, with boulders strewn in the heart of the wash a number of dry falls to scramble around. While the terrain here was a bit difficult, anyone who can handle the earlier dry falls at the one mile mark can handle the terrain deeper in the canyon as well.

Approaching the upper end of the canyon
Rocky upper canyon
Towards the end of the canyon, a magnificent mountain of color rose to the left of the wash. Vivid bands of pink, teal, and burnt red rock cut across the exposed face of this hill. As I navigated around the base of this hill, I could see ahead that I was approaching the end of the main trunk of Owl Canyon.

Multicolored rocks in the upper canyon
At just under 2 miles from the trailhead, I reached a lone Joshua Tree that marked a major split in the wash. Here, the steep canyon walls faded away to the gentler slopes of the Mud Hills, which were less colorful but were adorned with characteristic Mojave Desert vegetation. Hikers only wishing to experience the canyon itself can turn back at the tree, but I chose to continue onward a bit, hiking up into the higher reaches of the Mud Hills to see some Joshua Trees and catch views of the surrounding desert. I took the right fork at the first Joshua Tree in the wash and followed it just slightly to a second fork. Here, a well-trodden path cut from the canyon up onto a ridge of the Mud Hills, leading towards the crest of the hills. I hopped on that path and began following it steeply uphill along the ridgeline. For hikers who choose to go this far, this is the only stretch of sustained elevation gain on this hike.

As I hiked up the ridge, the views of the surrounding desert and mountains progressively improved. I soon had views back down Owl Canyon and over the surrounding badlands of the Mud Hills. Joshua Tree- a yucca endemic to the Mojave Desert- grew on the slopes around the ridge and made the ascent more enjoyable.

Badlands and Joshua Trees above Owl Canyon
A sustained and very steep uphill eventually brought me sweeping views over colorful Owl Canyon and views that stretched out to the other mountains of the Mojave Desert near Barstow. In the distance, I could see across the entirety of the flat western Mojave Desert to the high ranges of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains near Los Angeles.

Looking back down into Owl Canyon
After soaking in the views, I returned the way I came, enjoying my second pass through the vivid colors of Owl Canyon. Before heading back to Barstow, I ended my afternoon with a sunset tour on the Rainbow Basin Scenic Drive, the dirt road that visits the heart of this colorful desert landscape. The drive was a one-way dirt road that I was able to handle in a two-wheel drive standard clearance vehicle; the best viewpoint along the road was at a clearly marked pulloff and provided a stunning look at the multihued badlands carved out of the rock of the Mud Hills. Be sure to add this half-hour drive onto any visit to Owl Canyon.

Rainbow Basin
Owl Canyon and the associated Rainbow Basin Natural Area is a lovely spot to explore California's Mojave Desert. Unlike most other desert canyons in the Mojave Desert, Owl Canyon is actually accessible without a 4WD vehicle. While not exactly overlooked, the area is still a bit off the standard tourist track. The canyon's beautiful and colorful forms and the fun scrambling necessary to navigate this canyon both contribute to making this an excellent hike. 

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