Every so often you come across somewhere close to home that's so magnificent it stops you in your tracks, leaving you wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
Nevada meets the El Paso Range and just two hours north of downtown L.A. — is one of those places. The 4,000-acre swath of spectacular desert scenery could easily be a double for the Southwest. Exploration on foot is the main attraction, and camping brings you flush up against the scenery.
Here, pleated sandstone cliffs sporting horizontal stripes in hues of pink, orange, tan and dark chocolate soar more than 1,000 feet above a shimmering white-sand basin speckled with Joshua trees, fishhook cactuses and the rare Red Rock tar plant. Volcanic rock six stories high and the gray-black color of weathered asphalt caps the sky-scraping cliffs.
The towering medley of colors and breathtaking rock formations are people magnets. Although there's a well-marked trail that winds from a parking lot up the center of Hagen Canyon, the loveliest in the park, most visitors stray from the path within minutes and hike, scramble or climb up cliffs.
Unlike granite cliffs, which tend to be steep and jagged, these have been eroded smooth. At a distance, they resemble not so much dangerous vertical rock outcrops as they do supersized runs of melting ice cream. Few nature lovers can gaze upon the cliffs here and not feel a profound desire to explore them.
Cinematographers also have been drawn to the park's stunning cliffs, buttes and valleys, which have been a backdrop for dozens of westerns, scores of TV commercials and early series (among them "Lassie," "Lost in Space" and "Rawhide"), and movies as varied as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," "Westworld" and "Jurassic Park."
To explore the cliffs on foot (indeed, it's the only way because bikes and other vehicles are restricted to roads), try either of two hiking trails; the nicer one begins near the entrance of the park. It's a shorty — barely 1 1/2 miles up and back — and best traveled in the morning when it's cool and when black-tailed hares, desert horned lizards and antelope ground squirrels are active.
If you visit the park on a weekend, check out the visitor center, which contains some interesting information about the people who inhabited the area 10,000 years ago as well as the gold miners who worked the canyons a little more than a century ago.
Staying overnight means camping at one of 50 primitive (few amenities) sites at the Ricardo Campground. The sites vary little from one to the other except with regard to privacy. Nos. 1 to 25 are closer to one another than the rest; 49 and 50 are secluded, behind a bend in a cliff. The bathrooms (pit toilets) are nearest campsites 20 through 30.
If you leave shoes outside overnight, give them a good shake before sliding your feet in. This is scorpion and tarantula country — and they like a new bed.