Off-Road Trip: Inscription Canyon & Petroglyphs in the Mojave

Inscription Canyon Story petroglyphs
(Photos/ eye2eyephotography) Intricate details. A humanoid figure that could be that of a Shaman perhaps...

One of the highlights of any off-road adventure is finding unique landscapes, features, and history. Living in Southern California means easy access to plenty of desert, and there’s a lot of human history hiding out there. With the Mojave, Colorado, and Great Basin deserts covering a little over 159 million acres, (that’s roughly 25% of the surface area of the State of California, kids) there is plenty to explore!

One of my favorite trips was to Inscription Canyon, a lava flow located in the Mojave Desert. It’s a place where Native Americans expressed themselves through rock art, leaving behind hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs, some believed to be up to 8,000 years old.

Inscription Canyon lava rock flow and canyon
Photos: Eye2eyephotography – Click on any image to enlarge.

The surprisingly small canyon is the result of an ancient lava flow that yielded a perfect canvas for our native friends to leave some amazing artifacts. The canyon itself isn’t that impressive as a geological feature, but the history it contains is incredible. With 10,000 or more inscriptions in the rocks, you’ll want to leave plenty of time to explore.

It should go without saying, but leave no trace, take only pictures, and FFS please don’t carve anything into the rocks. It’s amazing to think that the art here has existed for so long. The fact that places like this aren’t behind gates is only because we all treat it with the respect it deserves. Sermon, over.

How to Plan This Trip

backdrop of red rock canyon state park campground in california
The Camp Crew (L to R: Dave, Maria, Ayshea, me, Louie, and Bella the Pug)

Our trip was a two-night, three-day adventure using Red Rock Canyon State Park as the base camp and bookending a full day trip to Inscription Canyon. Red Rock Canyon is located on the northwestern side of the Mojave. It is an amazing place to visit, with a self-pay kiosk leading into a semi-developed campground with picnic tables, fire rings, vault toilets, and water spigots with potable drinking water.

Inscription Canyon Story the jeeps and a ford

It’s $20 per night for two vehicles and the spots are first-come-first-served with no reservations accepted. The campgrounds are stunning, set against dramatic hoodoo-like cliffs that have been carved out by centuries of wind and water erosion. It’s a really badass spot.

As cool as Red Rock Canyon is, the real goal of the trip was to get into the Mojave, near the Black Mountains, and see Inscription Canyon.

Driving to Inscription Canyon

Inscription Canyon Story ol blue on road

After the first night, with breakfast in our belly, we loaded the two Jeeps with a table, chairs, coolers, and food for the trip out to Death Valley to see Inscription Canyon. It’s about a two-hour drive from camp to the canyon with a mix of highway and ~37 miles of Jeep trails leading into the desert.

That means at least four hours of driving per day (if you stay at Red Rocks), so plan for that and have good lights on your vehicle if you’re going to burn all the daylight hours playing around in the canyon.

The drive out through the desert was as beautiful as always. Once we rolled up on Inscription Canyon it was awe-inspring. Really breathtaking. To think that people have been here and left their mark as long as 8,000 years ago is barely comprehensible.

What to look for at Inscription Canyon

Inscription Canyon Story ancient storytelling
On the left, is a snake obvi, and on the right…a mask perhaps?

Archeologists believe the area was popular because the hard quartz found here is good for making tools. The easily marked lava rock also led to an abundance of the ancient art forms in this particular canyon.

There were so many things represented in the designs. We observed circles, lines, and zig zags. There were some that looked like shields, baskets, and possibly masks as well as the obvious images of animals like desert tortoise, deer, bighorn sheep, and snakes. Even some that were obviously humanoid figures…like, maybe a Shaman. There were three or four tribes that inhabited or passed through the area over the past several thousand years including The Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Kawaiisu, among others.

Inscription Canyon Story story
Inscription Canyon Story birthing rock
Maria taking a rest on what we’ve nicknamed “Birthing Rock”
Inscription Canyon Story so much to see

We did our fair share of looking around and taking a boatload of pictures. It was such an awesome place. After we were done exploring the site, we went back out to the Jeeps, unloaded the table and cooler, cracked a few beers, started the stove, and made some lunch.

Inscription Canyon Story lunchtime

The weather was perfect. The sun was shining with the temperature at about 63ºF. There was a slight breeze and wispy clouds in a super blue sky. We were out in the middle of nowhere, hanging out, chatting, having hot dogs and beers. Sitting where thousands of years ago, tribespeople were traveling to this very spot to leave their mark. It’s so amazing to think about.

Friends, beers, the great outdoors, the beauty of the desert, and amazing California history. How fortunate we were.

How to Get to Inscription Canyon

inscription canyon california location shown on a map

Inscription Canyon sits about 3.5 hours from Los Angeles, 3 hours from Bakersfield, and 3.5 hours from Las Vegas. Map it directly from any of those and you’ll miss out on a few cool things compared to our route from RRCSP, though.

onX map for overland route from red rock canyon state park to inscription canyon in california
Red Rock Canyon SP on the left; Inscription Canyon on the right.

Our route passed through the small (ghost) town of Randsburg (formerly Rand Camp), then another (ghost) town called Johannesburg, then about 4-5 miles past the small town of Red Mountain before turning east onto the dirt on Hoffman Road. After this, it’s mostly where streets have no name and you’ll find offshoots aplenty. Map it in advance to avoid getting lost:

GPX File: RRCSP to Inscription Canyon

terrain map and property boundaries showing inscription canyon in the mojave desert

Inscription Canyon sits on the north side of the Black Mountain Wilderness inside the Mojave Desert. It sits on BLM land and is nearly encompassed by a checkerboard pattern of State, private, and DOD (Department of Defense) land, with the Black Mountain Wilderness Route running through all of it.

If you’re planning on exploring a wider area, check your favorite app to see property boundaries and follow public routes and trails.

Are there other routes?

Yes! In fact, I’d recommend heading south from Inscription Canyon and driving through Black Mountain Wilderness! If you have a more capable vehicle, there are more challenging roads that get you into hillier terrain.

And since so much of the land there (including Black Mountain Wilderness) is BLM land, it’s generally fine to camp along the route as long as you adhere to Leave No Trace principles and any fire restrictions. You could easily make a loop, heading south to 58, then coming back around to RRCSP or wherever else you want.

Do I need a 4WD vehicle to get to Inscription Canyon?

No, not really, at least not on the route we show here. This is definitely a tamer overland trip than technical off-road driving. Once we left the pavement off the 395, it was ~90 minutes to the canyon. The entire trail could be done with a two-wheel drive vehicle with decent clearance and all-terrain tires. Let a little pressure out of your tires (see our guide here) for the deeper sandy sections and you should be fine. But if you’re not sure, a 4×4 or AWD vehicle would be stress-free. As always, DYOR and explore any new route at your own risk.

What gear do I need for this trip?

The weather for our trip was close to perfect. No rain, but pretty damn cold at night…like, low 30s (ºF) cold…so we brought the right cold weather gear to be comfortable. Your weather may vary, check it and pack accordingly. Think beyond clothes – include blankets, ground pads for sleeping on, heaters (or fans), and other creature comforts in your planning.

Red Rocks Canyon State Park has spigots, but they’re not at every site. We wanted to pick a cool site, not settle with whatever was closest to a water spigot. So we brought enough water for everything we needed, found a good spot, and set camp. The spigots meant we could top off as needed without dictating our location.

I always recommend having at least the basic recovery gear for your vehicle. There is some soft sand, so traction boards and a shovel are smart additions.

What Time of Year is Best for This Trip?

The best time of year for this trip is late fall, winter, and spring. This is the desert, and it gets really hot here in the summer. The rest of the year has mild to moderate daytime temps, which are when you’ll be outside and active, but it will get much colder at night. Temperature swings of 30-40ºF are not unheard of.

Rainfall is rare, but it can happen, which can lead to flash flooding. Seek high ground if it starts to rain, and if you’re boondocking, don’t make camp in low areas or in or near creeks and washes.

Anything else?

I’ve said it before…and I can’t stress it enough. Over-prepare and be safe. Let other people know where you will be. Don’t travel alone, pack enough food and water…and then pack more. DO NOT underestimate the desert landscape. Be prepared.

More Stuff to Do Near Los Angeles

If you’re coming in from out of state, it’s worth adding a few days and heading to the greater LA area. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Swimming, surfing & lounging on the sunny shores of the Pacific Ocean
  • Camping, hiking & mountain biking in the San Gabriel Mountains
  • Soaking up the urban culture of Los Angeles proper
  • Catching the live entertainment in Hollywood
  • Eating and drinking. Seriously, follow @losangeles_eats
  • Snowboarding the snowy peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains

Or skip the traffic and stay east to keep exploring the vast, semi-arid landscapes of the many deserts. Death Valley has a huge selection of unpaved/backcountry roads to explore, but it’s definitely better in the winter…summer temps routinely exceed 100ºF! Joshua Tree is also amazing!

That’s it for now….see ya next time. Venture forward, be careful, and have fun!

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