Trek Date: October 10, 2015
Driving along U.S. 395, I’d often seen areas that looked like they had been blasted from the depths of the earth, the rocks melted and strewn across the barren landscape. And doesn’t that thing over there look like a cinder cone? What’s that rumbling?
Fossil Falls is located on the east side of U.S. 395, about 45 miles north of Ridgecrest, Cal. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the exit for Cinder Road. If you make the turn-off, a mile later you’ll be at the parking area and trailhead for the Falls. It’s only about .2 miles to the falls, but if you visit anytime during warm weather, make sure to take plenty of water with you.
I parked Tacoma Red and gathered my thoughts, sunglasses, camera and water and hit the trail. Contrary to the name, I saw no fossils and no water falls. Blatant false advertising. What I did see was an amazing landscape. No wide open desert spaces that travelers along 395 are familiar with. Rather, a field of volcanic rock for as far as my eyes could see. Odd shapes, sharp rocks, hidden nooks. The short hike could have easily taken several hours with the photo opportunities on all sides of the trail.
Way back when, runoff from the rains, snows and glaciers of the last ice age fed tremendous amounts of water into the Owens Valley, creating a system of lakes and rivers. The Owens River flowed through this narrow valley between the Coso and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges and during periods of volcanic activity, enormous amounts of lava flowed through the same channel cut by the river. Later, water would again flow through and form the polished and sculptured features we see today at Fossil Falls. Further evidence of the volcanic activity in this region is the red cinder cone visible to the north, Red Cinder Mountain, which last erupted some 10,000 years ago. Disclaimer: I’m in no way a geologist, so don’t hold me to this brief synopsis of how the Falls came into being. :-)
The trail is very easy to follow, with rocks of all shapes and sizes eager to slice you, cut you, to feed the parched ground. Maybe that's a bit dramatic, but be careful, as the rocks can be very sharp and jagged.
Taking a look back, there's Red Cinder Mountain in the distance. With that as a landmark, it would be difficult to get lost out here.
The scooped out, sculptured rocks have plenty of places to capture rain water, a boon to the local wildlife.
This view is looking westwards, taken from near the top of the Falls. It's pretty steep, I kept my distance as the rocks are slippery and not always solid.
I only explored a bit along the northern rim of the canyon. It would be easy to spend an entire day or two here hiking and wandering about. There is a campground near the parking area, which was empty during my visit.
Yes, I do take lots of pictures of rocks.
Heading back to T-Red, this shot of Red Cinder Mountain opened up. It's the result of a violent ejection of trapped gases and molten material into the air from a vent in the earth's crust. When exposed to the air, the molten material cools quickly and forms a porous rock known as scoria. The scoria built up around the original vent and formed this cone-shaped hill.
It wasn't long before I was back to my truck and heading south again on 395, one of my favorite routes in the west. Do take the time if you're in the area to visit Fossil Falls, it's an experience you won't forget.
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