A Day In the Mojave Desert “Geologyzing”

Living in Los Angeles one can quickly forget the natural beauty that exists just outside of our city. Just “north” there are landscapes, formations, and a geologic historical record of California. One can say, figuratively and literally, that the state is molded by pressures and stresses; the results of which are nothing short of a spectacle!

The desert has always fascinated me –I’m talking about the wild, untouched, blistering heat, extreme cold, coyote comes out at night, watch out for the snake, and don’t forget the water! desert. Remote wonders of saturated color teeming with life and incredible solitude telling you an unfolding story as you traverse mile after mile through its canyons, gorges, and dunes.

In need of fresh air, I headed “north” into the desert. Winding my way up Freeway 14 the first stop was the Palmdale Aqueduct Overlook, a mile from Avenue S. From here you can see clear across the Antelope Valley; at its barren landscapes, cookie cutter track-housing, and USAF Plant 42. The hangars are monstrous and inside are some of the most amazing aeronautical machines of our times (FY22, B1 Bombers, B2 Bombers, F117). Unmatched flying machines that soar over the desert sky competing for dominance with eagles and hawks.

Avenue S is of particular interest because it is where Caltrans cut through the San Andreas Fault to lay the 14 Freeway. As you drive by this cut you will notice juxtaposed rocks, uneven layers, and deformed and twisted sediment. Some say that as you drive through you feel your body tingle, others feel nothing. It is however a spectacular reminder of the constant struggle for dominance between nature and man’s unyielding need to temper and dominate its environment.

From there I continued up “The 14” into Mojave. Combined with the Antelope Valley, this is THE spot where aeronautics (both flying and space) intersect. It is where man broke the sound barrier and where brave souls with “The Right Stuff” captured the worlds imagination. Here too is the Mojave Air and Space Port, littered with some of the most well-known aeronautical companies.

I made a brief stop at the Space Port in hopes of accessing the Mojave Airplane Boneyard, but it was closed. This site is littered with commercial and antiquated military ordinance which can be seen from miles away as the bright colors from the jumbo jets break the heatwaves rising from the desert ground. “The boneyard” however competes for your attention with the mile-long trains and unfathomable number of massive windmills in the Tehachapi Mountains and ridges.

In another 20 minutes I found myself at Red Rock Canyon State Park, which is described as: “…scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations. The park is located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Range. Each tributary canyon is unique, with dramatic shapes and vivid colors.” Here you can go to the Visitor Center for information and directions (take them, you’ll need them) as well as an overview of the sites. One can park next to the canyons and walk right up to them (get into the crevices and explore) or hike to some of the more remote sites. The two main attractions are Red Cliffs and Hagen Canyon; neither should be missed. The trails are 2-3 miles and fairly easy just make sure to take plenty of water and a hat!

Itching to explore further, I continued up “The 14” to “395” (highway to the sierras) past Little Lake and onto Fossil Falls. This too I must have passed dozens of times; I could not be happier about having stopped to take in the site. Fossil Falls was: “…formed by the interaction of rushing water from the Owens River (which in wetter prehistoric times flowed at a much higher rate) with lava that poured from nearby volcanoes as recently as 20,000 years ago. The result is this surreal, convoluted chasm of shiny, sculpted black lava. The drive into the parking lot is about 1.5 miles on a well-maintained dirt road, from there it is a ¼ mile hike to the site.

I cannot put into words what I saw. It was a splendid 60 foot fall of smooth black basaltic rock. It was an unexpected sight given the heavy, and massive, abrasive basaltic mounds that line the path to the Falls. You can climb into the fall (be very careful as it is very slippery) into the proper gorge and from there take in the splendor.

The sun was starting to set so I began the drive back home. Somewhere between leaving the Fossil Falls and entering Mojave I decided to make one final stop –at Vasquez Rocks. Whereas you can climb on the rocks (all the way to the top and many people do), I prefer observing its sheer size and splendor from the base. The site and rocks take their name from the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, whom it is said used the site to evade capture. The rocks where formed through erosion some 25 million years ago which then exposed the uplift activity along the San Andreas Fault. The site is also part of the National Register of Historic Places.

The uniqueness of their jagged up-heaved stature is not only a place made for professional photoshoots (which seem to be the hourly routine) but also a continual location for movie shoots. The site is within the TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone) -the extent to which a studio would travel for an “off studio” shoot. Bonanza, Werewolf of London, Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, and even Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey where shot here; frankly the number of movies is too numerous to list.

The sun finally set and the 25 minutes back home flew by as my mind recounted the day’s event: hiking, geology, rich colors, warm breezy air, and the juxtaposition of man and nature, man taming nature, and nature taming man. The desert-scape faded into cityscape and as dusk turned to night the lights of the San Fernando Valley overtook the sky.

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