- Location: High desert, San Bernardino County north of Barstow. From I-15, take the Barstow Road/Highway 247 exit (183) and head north one mile to a T-junction at Main St. Turn left and go 0.2 miles to North 1st Ave. Go 0.9 miles and bear left onto Irwin Rd. Go 6 miles and turn left onto Fossil Bed Road (signed for the Rainbow Basin Natural Area). Follow this dirt road for 2.9 miles. Though rutted out in places, it should be negotiable for all vehicles. Turn right onto the Rainbow Basin Scenic Drive. Go 0.3 miles and turn right onto Owl Campground Road. Follow it 1.5 miles to its end. The day use area is at the northern end of the campground.
- Agency: Bureau of Land Management/Barstow Field Office
- Distance: 4 miles
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 2 hours
- Best season: October – April
- USGS topo map: Mud Hills
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
- Recommended gear: head lamp or flash light (cave exploration)
- More information: BLM homepage here; Summitpost page here; trip descriptions here and here
- Rating: 8
For Thanksgiving: a hiking destination named after a different kind of bird.
Millions of years ago, the high desert received heavy rainfall, creating many twisted slot canyons in the foothills north of current day Barstow. The most popular hike in the Rainbow Basin area, Owl Canyon, provides an opportunity for a moderate 4-mile excursion with up-close looks at the geology. It offers hikers a taste of canyoneering without requiring a drive to Valley of Fire or Bryce. No technical or navigational expertise is required, although a few small “dry” waterfalls do present challenges that should not be taken lightly. Watch out for tarantulas as well (the author saw three on my recent visit, one of which was alive) since you will often have to use your hands as well as your feet. Avoid this hike if heavy rains are expected; slot canyons are dangerous during floods.
From the campground, follow the signed trail into a wash, heading north. Wind your way up the wash as the rock formations become more and more visually striking. Older granite and newer volcanic rock merge with each other, gnarled through the ages by wind and water. At 0.7 miles, look for a pair of caves on the right. The lower one is a tunnel that leads 100 feet to the other side of the ridge; intrepid hikers can explore with a flashlight or headlamp (the author did not).
Shortly after the tunnel, you’ll reach the first dry waterfall. This can be a good turnaround point for hikers with small kids or dogs. Those who want to continue will hoist themselves up the waterfall and travel a short distance to a second one, also about six feet. At this point, the going becomes somewhat easier, although the narrow canyon is still not a good place for the claustrophobic.
At 1.4 miles, the canyon widens into an “amphitheater” with jagged formations ringing the top. The narrow canyon continues on the north side of the bowl. Negotiate two smaller dry falls before arriving at the north end of Owl Canyon, about two miles from the start. Farther north, the wash continues to a ridge called Velvet Peak. By this point you may hear the sound of off road vehicles on the roads north of Rainbow Basin. For a moderate day hike, this is a good turnaround point, although those with rock-climbing experience can explore the ridges above the canyon, making any number of possible loops back to the campground.
Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.