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March 22
1875 - Construction begins on San Fernando Railroad Tunnel [story]

Commentary by Linda Castro
| Thursday, Sep 28, 2017

A California desert jewel lies about eight miles north of the Barstow in the Calico Peaks Range: Rainbow Basin Natural Area. As the name suggests, the rocks in the area are colorful, ranging from pinks and tans to greens and purples.

However, Rainbow Basin does not look like a basin. It is merely an opening in a mountain wall where geological artistry appears in splashes of color and layered waves of stone. The area holds a breathtaking variety of hills, washes and scenic canyons where water and wind have sculpted layers of sandstone and sediment to expose brilliantly colored formations.

Despite its close proximity to the city of Barstow, the area remains virtually undiscovered. The area does not contain an information center and holds minimal signage. However, it is well worth a visit. Visitors to the area can find scenic opportunities for hiking, rock scrambling, camping, photography, sightseeing and horseback riding.

For those who enjoy hiking or rock scrambling, the Owl Canyon Trail provides excellent opportunities for exploration. The Owl Canyon trailhead is located at the back of Owl Canyon Campground.

Other than the very beginning of the trail, there is no actual trail. Hikers just need to follow the wash into the canyon. For those looking for an easy, short hike, they can hike from the campground for a little less than one mile, where they will reach a six to eight-foot rock wall, at which point they can hike back to the campground. Beyond this point, there are parts of the canyon that are rated as “Class 3” scrambling, so it is recommend that only those with adequate rock scrambling experience go beyond this point.

About one-quarter mile into the canyon, be sure to look for a “cave” on the right (east) side of the canyon, which is actually a tunnel. If you have a flashlight with you, continue to walk through the cave very carefully. The other entrance lets out into a small, narrow canyon.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Rainbow Basin Natural Area, has designated the area as an “area of critical environmental concern” and a California Desert National Conservation Land, due to the nationally significant landscape features and paleontological resources in the area.

The Rainbow Basin area was once a verdant marsh and the home of many prehistoric creatures. Miocene-age horses, camels, mastodons, saber-tooth cats and countless insects once lived in this valley. Their remains are embedded in the canyon walls, buried by sediments over time.

Many of the fossils found in Rainbow Basin are now on display in museums around the country. So many fossils have been discovered here that the geologists have called the geologic period the “Barstovian Stage” (referencing the close proximity to Barstow). Although you might find fossils in the area, it is important to keep in mind that permits are required to remove them. If any are found, please leave them in place and notify the BLM Barstow Field Office at 760-252-6000.

Within this area of critical environmental concern, routes are posted with “OPEN” route markers. The use of passenger vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles is permitted only on designated and signed open routes.

The Fossil Canyon Loop Road is an interesting route for vehicle touring that provides multi-colored scenic views. This is a narrow, one-way dirt road that winds through narrow gorges and gouges. It is best driven with a high-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicle.

Weather extremes and poisonous snakes are desert hazards common to this area. Rainbow Basin has a flash flood risk, as well. Avoid low-lying areas during storms, and remember that rain upstream can cause flooding even though it is not raining in the immediate area.

To get to Rainbow Basin Natural Area, take old Route 58 to Fort Irwin Road, proceed north, then turn left on Fossil Bed Road and follow the BLM signs. From Main Street in Barstow, go north on First Avenue across the railroad tracks. Turn left at Irwin Road and go 6 miles. Then turn left on Fossil Road for 3 miles to Rainbow Basin Loop Road. Turn right and travel 1 mile to Owl Canyon Road, turn right and travel about 2 miles to Owl Canyon Campground.



Linda Castro is a nature enthusiast and animal lover. She is the Assistant Policy Director for the California Wilderness Coalition and serves on the board of the SCV-based Community Hiking Club.  Her commentaries relate to California’s deserts.




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  1. jim says:

    Once upon a time (before George Deukmajian crapped on the California Junior Colleges), you could take an AA in mining and geology at AVJC. If you did take it, you would have learned how to do stratigraphic mapping at Rainbow Basin as part of the curriculum.

    And not just for the fossils, but for an understanding of the geologic and geomorphic processes that created that pocket-sized wonderland.

    Granted, you did need to have an understanding of the local flora and fauna, other wise you might walk up to without recognizing the Mojave Green rattlesnakes that abound in the area. Nasty buggers, with a very nasty attitude. If you stopped in front of them on the road, they would sit there coiled up; if you got out of the vehicle, being pit vipers they would follow your heat signature. And then they would head straight for you with murderous intent.

    I loved that weekend at Rainbow Basin, and only had to dodge the Mojave Greens twice. And I left them and their progeny for the rest of you.

  2. stan kirby says:

    It is nice to see reports around Barstow, the hi desert is really a great place to be.
    There is alot to know or simply to injoy

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