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Natural Formation - Barstow:

Owl Canyon

Owl Canyon is a canyon east of Rainbow Basin that is drained by a streambed that flows 3 miles to lowlands about 9 miles north of Barstow.
Owl Canyon near Rainbow Basin in Barstow area

Exploring the Geology of Owl Canyon

Nestled within the Rainbow Basin Natural Area near Barstow, California, Owl Canyon stands as a testament to the dynamic and colorful geological history of the Mojave Desert. This area is renowned for its striking rock formations, vivid colors, and rich fossil beds, offering both scientific value and natural beauty. An exploration of Owl Canyon’s geology reveals a captivating story of sedimentation, volcanic activity, tectonic forces, and erosion.

Lithology and Stratigraphy

The bedrock of Owl Canyon primarily comprises sedimentary rocks from the Miocene epoch, dating back approximately 10 to 15 million years. These rocks include sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, which were deposited in various environments such as river channels, floodplains, and lakes. These deposits provide crucial insights into the region's ancient environments and climatic conditions.

Interspersed within these sedimentary layers are deposits of volcanic tuff, a type of rock formed from volcanic ash. These tuffs often appear as lighter-colored bands within the sedimentary sequences, indicating periods of volcanic activity that influenced the region's geological development. The presence of these tuffs points to a time when the area was subject to volcanic eruptions, adding another layer of complexity to the geological history.

Owl Canyon is also notable for its fossil beds, which contain a rich record of prehistoric life. Plant fossils and vertebrate fossils, including those of ancient mammals, are abundant within the sedimentary layers. These fossils provide invaluable data for paleontologists studying the evolution of life and the environmental conditions of the Miocene epoch.


The landscape of Owl Canyon has been sculpted by extensive erosion, creating intricate patterns in the rock layers. Water and wind erosion have carved out steep cliffs, narrow ravines, and unique rock formations that define the canyon's dramatic topography. The erosional processes at work here reveal the dynamic nature of the region's geology.

Owl Canyon is part of the larger Rainbow Basin syncline, a structural downfold in the Earth's crust that has exposed the colorful stratified rock layers. This synclinal structure creates a natural amphitheater-like setting, showcasing the varied geology in a spectacular fashion. The syncline’s exposure of different rock layers at the surface offers a unique opportunity to observe the sequential deposition of sediments over millions of years.

Colors and Patterns

One of the most striking features of Owl Canyon is the vivid coloration of its rock layers. The name "Rainbow Basin" aptly describes the range of colors visible in the canyon walls, including red, pink, green, yellow, and brown. These colors are the result of varying mineral content and oxidation states within the sedimentary layers. Iron oxides, in particular, contribute to the red and pink hues, while other minerals impart different shades.

The alternating bands of different rock types and colors create visually stunning patterns. These bands, clearly visible in the canyon walls, are a testament to the complex geological history of the area. Each layer represents a distinct period of sedimentation, with variations in mineral content and environmental conditions contributing to the diverse coloration.

Geologic Processes

The formation of Owl Canyon’s geology involved a series of intricate processes over millions of years. The initial deposition of sediments in ancient water bodies was followed by lithification, a process where sediments are compacted and cemented to form solid rock. Volcanic activity contributed to the deposition of ash layers, adding to the geological diversity.

Tectonic forces played a significant role in shaping the region, causing faulting and folding that formed the syncline. These tectonic movements exposed the rock layers at the surface, allowing for the spectacular display seen today. Erosion and weathering continue to shape Owl Canyon, gradually wearing down the rock formations and revealing new geological features.

Visiting Owl Canyon

For those interested in geology, Owl Canyon offers a fascinating destination to explore. A network of hiking trails provides access to the canyon’s unique features, allowing visitors to observe the colorful rock formations and intricate patterns up close. The area is also popular with photographers, fossil hunters, and nature enthusiasts, all drawn by the canyon’s natural beauty and geological significance.

In conclusion, Owl Canyon’s geology presents a vivid narrative of the Earth's past, showcasing the interplay of sedimentation, volcanic activity, tectonic forces, and erosion. This remarkable landscape not only offers a window into the geological processes that have shaped the Mojave Desert but also stands as a natural wonder to be appreciated by all who visit.


Owl Canyon is located 8 miles north of Barstow, California, off Irwin Road (not Fort Irwin Road). The main access route is Fossil Bed Road.

Rainbow Basin/Owl Canyon Campground


Rainbow Basin Natural Area is an Area of Critical Environmental Concern with outstanding views and geological and paleontological features.. Many visitors come to see exciting multi-colored rock formations and walk the scenic canyons. A variety of desert adapted wildlife are found here, including the desert tortoise.

Rainbow Basin has a diverse landscape of hills, canyons and washes. Multicolored rock walls and mesas are accented by changing light conditions, making for many photographic opportunities. The washes are good hiking trails for experiencing the area's natural beauty.

Wildlife viewing is best during early morning and evening hours. In Fossil, Coon, and Owl Canyons, birds tend to gather in thick vegetation. Vegetation is critical for wildlife water, food, and shelter. So, washes in Rainbow Basin have been closed to vehicle travel to protect these areas.

Within this Area of Critical Environmental Concern, routes are posted with "open" route markers. Use of passenger vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles is permitted only on designated and signed "open" routes. All routes not signed as "open" are CLOSED to vehicles. Staging of off-highway vehicles (e.g. ATVs) is not allowed in the Rainbow Basin area or at Owl Canyon Campground. The Fossil Canyon Loop Road is an interesting route for vehicle touring. This one-way narrow dirt road is best driven with a high clearance or four-wheel drive vehicles.

Weather extremes and poisonous snakes are desert hazards common to this area. Rainbow Basin has a flash flood risk as well. Avoid low-lying areas during storms and remember that rain upstream can cause flooding even though it is not raining in the immediate area.

Owl Canyon Campground is a first-come first-served campground with 22 campsites (no hookups). Campsites include a picnic table and a fire ring. Fee is $6.00 per night.

There is a single tap centrally located for potable water that is brought in weekly by truck. It is advised to bring your own drinking water. There are vault toilets , but no dump facilities. Holding tanks can be emptied at facilities in the towns of Baker and Barstow. Please take all trash out with you.

Permits are needed to remove fossils. If any are found, please leave them in place and notify the BLM Barstow Field Office at (760) 252-6000. Activities include hiking, camping, photography, sightseeing, and horseback riding.

Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. Bring sufficient water, food, clothing, equipment, and first aid supplies for your activity. Rainbow Basin is a mix of public and private lands, including those held by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Respect private landowners? rights. Land ownership status can be found on the "Cuddeback Lake" Desert Access Guide. These BLM maps can be purchased from any of the California Desert District BLM offices.


Rainbow Basin Natural Area is located 8 miles north of Barstow, California, off Irwin Road (not Fort Irwin Road). The main acess route is Fossil Bed Road.

Adapted from BLM

Map to Owl Canyon and Rainbow Basin

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