If you stay in Red Rock Canyon State Park on a clear night under a crescent moon, make sure to spend some time looking up. Unzip your tent and step out after everyone else has gone to sleep and spend a moment alone on planet Earth. That's what I do on a recent trip here with my two teenage sons.
Shooting stars abound. The Milky Way looks like someone took a giant paintbrush and swiped the sky with glitter. The fluted cliffs abutting the campground look like dark curtains cast in moonlight.
Except for a random bird call, there's a silence that feels almost pristine.
Even during the day, visitors can easily find themselves alone on one of the many trails in the park.
There's stunning scenery, but for many travelers, it’s merely a pit stop on Highway 14 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Travelers point out the red cliffs on the way to Joshua Tree or Death Valley but many fail to delve deeper into this 27,000 acre state park.
“Lots of people just pull off the highway, take a few pictures and keep going,” says Park Ranger Damion Laughlin. “They don’t realize how much there is besides what you can see from the highway.”
Layers of mudstone and sandstone form buttes and cliffs that tower over Hagen Canyon. Joshua Trees stand guard on the desert floor, and there are way more lizards than people here.
It’s no wonder this place has been the backdrop for a lot of Westerns.
In the 1953 classic "Law and Order," Ronald Reagan stood on a rock near here and took shots to scare an outlaw.
Just a couple hours from Hollywood, this otherworldly landscape has been the setting for hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials: "Buck Rogers," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and even "Jurassic Park," for a scene that’s supposed to resemble the Montana badlands.
We weren’t chased by velociraptors, but my teenage sons and I did escape. We headed deep into the backcountry on some of the rutted dirt roads. It's good to have a four-wheel drive car with high clearance, and plenty of water in case you get stuck.
And if you are traveling with teens, they might notice that some of the dirt roads here don’t really require a driver’s license.
My 15-year-old decided this would be a safe place to learn to drive a stick shift. With no one around, we switched seats. But after he forgot to use the break and the car lurched forward one too many times, my nerves got frayed. After all, it wasn't what we came there to do. I’d rather watch the colors of the desert shift in the sunlight and the ravens soar overhead.