Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"Ridgecrest is located in the Indian Wells Valley . . . surrounded by four mountain ranges:   
the Sierra Nevada on the west, the Cosos on the north, the Argus Range on the east,
and the El Paso Mountains on the South . . . Ridgecrest evolved into a growing
and dynamic city during the 1950s and 1960s as a support community, vital
to the mission of the Navy, by providing housing and services for Federal
employees and contractors [at China Lake NAWS]."
~ City of Ridgecrest webpage

Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake continues to be the major source of employment for residents of Ridgecrest, which has a population of about 27,000 people.

We chose the RV park at China Lake, which is adjacent to town, as a base of operations this week to explore some national parks that looked to be nearby on the map and a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

View from the PCT down into the large Indian Wells Valley

I did hike on the PTC twice but the only national park we visited was Death Valley. Two others in the Sierra Nevada Range were just too far away to be practical, especially after a second long day trip to the Lone Pine/Whitney Portal/Alabama Hills area.

We didn't do much in Ridgecrest itself except go to the visitors center and adjacent Maturango Museum, which have interesting cultural and natural displays inside and handsome landscaping and art work outside. I also planned to hike with Cody in Sand Canyon, a 25-mile drive from the base.

This entry focuses on those two activities.


It was relatively balmy overnight (58 F.) but so windy during the day that the mid-50s to low 60s felt colder. The camper was shaking all afternoon and the mountains to the west (Sierra Nevada Range) were white from dust and clouds, not brown like at the Yuma Proving Ground and LTVA nearby.

The wind seriously restricted our activities today so we decided to stick close to "home" and do some activities on base and in town.

One of the places we went was the Maturango Museum and visitor center to get information about  trails in the area and where spring wildflowers might be in bloom. One of the women in the visitor center was very helpful and I got a bunch of flyers and brochures.  

A hike I wanted all of us to do is the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Monument north of Kernville. The trail is only a mile long but goes through a forest of huge sequoia trees that would remind us of the large trees we've seen in northern California. It also sounds like a scenic drive along the Kern River to get there.

I called the National Forest Service office to see if dogs are allowed on the trail and was a bit shocked to find out the trail and last part of the road to it are still under snow at 6,000+ feet! The road isn't even open yet.

Above and below:  Down here at 2,200+ feet elevation it's springtime!
This interesting shrub is on the grounds of the Maturango Museum.

We're so used to warm desert temperatures this winter and spring that we hadn't counted on snow levels this low. That ruled out any mountain hikes like the lower part of Mt. Whitney or Telescope Peak in Death Valley NP. Phooey.  

There are plenty of other hikes/day drives we could take at lower elevations north of Kernville, on US 395 north, and in Death Valley so I spent part of the afternoon learning more about those and tweaking our plans for the week.

While I was inside the building I made a quick pass through the exhibits in the visitor center and museum, which features the natural and cultural history of the Upper Mojave Desert.


In addition to the exhibits, the museum sponsors various educational programs and uber-popular spring and fall tours of the world-famous Coso petroglyphs that are located on China Lake property. 

I quote from the museum's webpage about the petroglyphs:

In the canyons and plateaus of the Coso Mountains are thousands of images left by hunter-gatherer people who populated this region in times past. The images, called petroglyphs, are carved into basalt rocks, and range in age from Paleoindian times to the present. This is the largest known concentration of petroglyphs in the western hemisphere and is located on the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. Public access is permitted . . . in Lower Renegade Canyon (AKA Little Petroglyph Canyon). Access is limited to tours with Navy-approved guides.

Petroglyph displayed outside the Maturango Museum;  is it real or a replication??

Of course we were interested in one of these tours! We seek out petroglyphs and pictographs while traveling around the western USA.

Alas, the museum's tours are booked for several weeks beyond our stay. We had to be content with reading about them at the museum and online. I'd return to this area if for no other reason than to go see that canyon.


This is a good article from the DesertUSA website I often used to read up on hikes at Joshua Tree National Park. It describes a hike with one of these tours in Little Petroglyph Canyon.

Before leaving the visitor center and museum we walked around the nicely-landscaped grounds outside. I loved all the metal sculptures, which mimic some of the ancient petroglyphs, and the stone labryinth:






Let your shadow tell the time . . .

I saw some shrubs, trees, and flowers that were new to me, too, including this agave (?) that appears to have a giant stalk of asparagus behind it!

I can't make up this stuff. It was there and I don't think it was one of the sculptures.


Since low snow levels ruled out hiking the Trail of 100 Giants (ancient sequoia trees) to the west of China Lake, I hunted for other hikes I could do with one or both dogs that weren't too far away.

One that caught my attention in the pile of leaflets I picked up at the visitor center was Sand Canyon in the Owens Peak Wilderness Area. The BLM says the perennial stream that flows through the lower canyon creates a sanctuary from the searing heat of the desert and is one of the longest stretches of riparian woodland in the eastern Sierras.

Since it's in a wilderness area, the trail is an excellent site for birding. Dogs and horses are allowed on the trail but no bikes or motorized vehicles.

More than ten miles of trails lead to the north and south forks of the canyon, so hikers can go out and back any distance they want. Elevations range from 3,150 feet at the trailhead to 4,900 feet at the end of the highest trail (there is a north fork and a south fork farther up the trail). The ridge top, which can be accessed off-trail, tops out at about 7,000 feet elevation.

Sounded like my kind of trail. Since Jim had other plans on Wednesday morning, I took Cody with me and planned to hike up the lower canyon two or three miles, then back down.

The road to Sand Canyon is located northwest of Ridgecrest off US 395. It was a 25-mile drive from the RV park at China Lake to the trailhead parking area. Here's a map where I marked the RV park with a yellow dot and Sand Canyon with a purple dot:

The dotted purple line paralleling US 395 on the west is the Pacific Crest Trail, which I hiked on Friday and Saturday.

To reach Sand Canyon from China Lake, I drove several miles west of Ridgecrest on CA 178 toward Inyokern, with nice views of the southern Sierra Nevada Range:

Note the horizontal line across the sides of those mountains in the next photo I took another day when we drove out this road. That is the east branch of the lengthy California Aqueduct, which I passed under later on this trip:

I turned right (north) on US 395 and drove a few more miles to the Brown Rd. exit. I crossed the frontage road on the west side of US 395 and took a graded dirt road toward the entrance of a large sand and gravel quarry:


I continued following the BLM directions, turning left just before the quarry entrance and driving this increasingly-narrow dirt road several miles to the trailhead.

I passed under one or two large aqueducts that provide water to lots of folks downstream (the black pipe may carry something other than water):


The road gets more narrow the farther back into the canyon you drive:


Over a cattle guard; I didn't see any critters grazing, even in green forage next to water.

I was doing fine in our low-clearance 2WD Honda Odyssey minivan until I came to a cement crossing with water running over it. I got out to gauge the depth of the water by just looking at it -- and misjudged how high it would come on the car.

As soon as I drove through the water I could smell the brakes and feared I'd messed up something really badly. I don't think I scraped any rocks, just got the brakes too wet.

I drove to the trailhead (next picture) about 1/4 mile farther and saw water coming out from under the front end of the car. That freaked me out.

No one else was around and I didn't have a phone signal to call Jim to explain what happened and see if he might know what damage I'd done.

Great. Now what??

Instead of hiking, I immediately turned around, went back through the water (no smell that time), and high-tailed it back to US 395 where I had a signal and could call Jim. Fortunately, I got back to the camper OK and apparently didn't do any damage to the car. [It still runs well two years later, despite its advanced age of 16 years!]

Photo of the second pipeline, taken as I was going back out to the highway

OK, lesson learned about driving through water. I need to walk through any water in a dip in the road next time to more accurately gauge the depth, not just eye-ball it.

I considered going back another day and parking just before the water crossing, walking to the trailhead, and hiking up the canyon. However, I didn't get back out there on this trip. The description of the trail and forks sounds interesting so if we're ever in this area again, I may try it again.

This is one of many times I've wished for a high-clearance 4WD vehicle like a Jeep! The Odyssey is just too practical for us to give up, though.

Next entry:  a long but fun day trip north to Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal Road, Nine Mile Canyon, and Kennedy Meadows

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil