Rainbow Basin and Owl Canyon

Owl Canyon

Tucked away in the middle of the Mojave Desert is a little known area called Rainbow Basin.  I had read about it on Nina’s blog, Wheelingit.  It sounded intriguing.  Rainbow Basin is a few miles north of Barstow, California.  When we mentioned our destination to our eldest son, he immediately remembered the place from the days he was posted at Fort Irwin.  He enjoyed hiking the trails with his dog and assured us that we would have a good time.

Fall rains blanket the desert floor with a carpet of green

Heavy rains in the weeks previous to our arrival had us a bit concerned, especially knowing that the 5-mile road into Owl Canyon Campground is dirt.  I called the local BLM office to check on road conditions, but was unable to get a definitive answer.  We crossed our fingers and forged ahead.  When we turned off of Irwin Road onto Fossil Bed Road, we could see where the “Road Closed” signs had just been taken down.  Whew!  Fossil Bed Road was in fairly good shape, a bit washboarded, but it was graded and wide.  We took it very slowly and pulled into Owl Canyon Campground after almost an hour of driving.

Aerial view of the Owl Canyon Campground. We are on the far left in the upper loop. The lower loop is on the right.

Owl Canyon is a very well-maintained BLM campground.   Sites are first-come, first-serve, with a 14-day stay limit.  There is a self-registration box and sites are $6 per night, only $3 if you are a senior citizen.  Each site comes with a picnic table, fire ring, and shelter.  There is a very clean vault toilet, but no water, dump station, or trash collection, so pack it in, pack it out.  We pretty much had our pick of sites since there were only a couple of people camping.  We set up camp and decided to explore the area before sunset.

We hopped in the truck and headed out of the campground toward Rainbow Basin.  Fossil Canyon Loop Road is a narrow, one-way road that takes you deep into Rainbow Basin.  There are several warning signs posted at the entrance.  “No motorhomes or vehicles towing trailers.”  Check.  “High clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles recommended.”  Check, check.  And off we went.  What a fascinating drive!  We went up, down, and around.  At times the canyon walls were so close, we could have each stretched our arms out the truck windows and touched the walls!  At one point, the hairpin turn was so tight, we had to bring our side mirrors in and hold our breaths, wondering if we would be able to make the turn!  It was fun to drive it in our long pickup truck, but it would have been more fun in a Jeep!  We reached the end of the loop drive and found a spot near the entrance where we could set up our chairs in the bed of the truck and wait for the sunset.  Desert sunsets never disappoint.  Sometimes I think God makes them extra spectacular in the desert just to show us that there is beauty EVERYWHERE.

The next morning, we decided to hike into Owl Canyon.  The trailhead is at the top of the upper loop of the CG.  It was an easy hike, only a few miles roundtrip.  The scenery was incredible.  Whoever thinks the desert is bland, dull, colorless, and lifeless needs to schedule a trip here.  As we picked our way through the canyon, over rocks and around bends, the canyon walls rose up higher and higher.  Because of the recent rains, flowers bloomed and plant life carpeted our path with bright green.  We hiked until we reached a wall that couldn’t be breached,…at least not by us.  We settled in for a rest and a snack before heading back to camp.

In the afternoon, the winds picked up and Alan did some kite flying.  We also spent time talking with some fellow campers and they encouraged us to try the trail that followed the ridgeline of the canyon and we would find an unmarked grave.  Hmm, that sounded interesting.  We ended the day with a fire and soon headed to bed.

The ridgeline trail was first on our agenda in the morning.  We headed out of the campground toward what looked like a trailhead.  We soon found out that the ridgeline trail is an “unofficial” trail.  We had to really pay attention to where we were going.  It wasn’t as though we could get lost.  We could see the campground on our right and Rainbow Basin on our left.  We just wanted to remain on a trail so as not to cause unnecessary damage to the vegetation on top of the hill.  After hiking for an hour or more, we came upon “the grave.”  Was it for real?  It looked a bit small for a person, so perhaps it was for someone’s dog?  And then, maybe it was just a hoax.  At any rate, it gave us something to think and talk about while we hiked.

The mysterious grave

At several points along the trail, we stopped and waved to our new-found friends at the campground.  Then as the trail turned toward Rainbow Basin, we saw them driving the Fossil Bed Loop Road.  They were having a great time keeping tabs on us and taking a lot of pictures of us “youngsters” as we hiked.  The further in we went, the more pronounced the ridgeline became.  Dramatic, steep drop-offs were on both sides AND it was at this point that the wind picked up.  We had to very deliberately plant our trekking poles before taking a step for fear of getting blown into the canyon.  Between the wind, the sun, and the changing temperature, I think we peeled off and put on our coats 4 or 5 times during the hike.  Crazy desert weather!

We had been to Barstow about 12 years before while visiting our son.  We took a drive into town and couldn’t believe how much it has expanded and grown!  No doubt Fort Irwin has helped the economy, but Barstow is a major stop on the I-10 route across the southwest.  You can find shopping, restaurants, and gas stations galore.  We stopped at the BLM office for some maps and info and told the officer there about the mysterious grave on the ridgeline trail.  He had heard about it and was trying to get an archaeologist to come out and investigate it.  Maybe someday we’ll have our questions answered.

Night descended on the campground.  We lit a fire and settled in for a relaxing evening.  Suddenly we noticed many, many headlights slowly making their way up the long road into Owl Canyon.  Our quiet time was abruptly interrupted while a local Boy Scout troop arrived and began setting up their tents in the dark.  Truthfully, we found it to be quite entertaining.  After spending many years in charge of groups like that, it was nice to just sit back and watch someone else do it.  The next morning, the Scoutmaster came up to our site and apologized for all the chaos.  We just laughed and told him we enjoyed the evening’s entertainment.

The view from the ridgeline trail looking east toward the campground and Soda Mountains

If it weren’t for our batteries and fresh water reaching the “dangerously low” point, we would have loved to stay longer at Owl Canyon and do more hiking, relaxing, and reveling in the beauty and quiet of the desert.



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