Nightmare Gulch Loop – Red Rock Canyon State Park

“Always be willing to take the next step”
~Rollin from “Southbounders”

I can’t think of a better way to start the year off than to spend it hiking. New Year’s Day we joined the Kern River Hiking Club led by Alice Khteian to explore and hike Nightmare Gulch in Red Rock Canyon State Park. The day was calm, clear, and very cold.


LENGTH 8.8-mile loop trip
TRAILHEAD A half mile north of the entrance to Red Rock State Park at a small turnout on the east side of the highway
DIFFICULTY Easy to moderate (great family outing)
BEST TIME TO HIKE September – January 31 (can be very hot during the middle of summer) the area is closed February 1-July 1
ALTERNATE ROUTE  Leave from the Red Cliffs parking area and hike the reverse of this trip a couple miles into the canyon then retrace your steps back.

  • The area was once home to the Kawaiisu Indians, who left petroglyphs in the El Paso mountains and other evidence of their inhabitation.
  • During the early 1870s, the colorful rock formations in the park served as landmarks for 20-mule team freight wagons that stopped for water.
  • About 1850, it was used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers.
  • The park now protects significant paleontology sites and the remains of 1890s-era mining operations and has been the site for a number of movies.


The gulch

Nightmare Gulch is a small, colorful, highly scenic canyon in Red Rock Canyon State Park in Southern California. The area attracts many birds of prey. To protect the raptor nesting sites, this area of the park is closed to hikers and vehicle travel yearly from February 1 to July 1. This is a relatively easy hike with a small amount of elevation gain and loss. There are just a few more weeks to visit and explore this unique area this month.


The cross-country route starts just a half mile north of the entrance to the park at a small turn out on the east side of the highway. The route travels north then east around ridge tops offering panoramic views of the gulch and the Southern Sierra Nevada.
Views from the ridge toward the gulch are breathtaking.

View south to Nightmare GulchThe route then descends and turns south to the entrance to Nightmare Gulch.

Entrance into Nightmare GulchThe beauty of the desert, combined with the geologic features are stunning.

Cholla CactusBirds of prey build their nests in the canyon walls.

Falcon NestColorful rocks and unique formations abound.

Entering narrows

The gulch has many side slot canyons just waiting to explore. This area resembles Bryce Canyon National Park’s hoodoos, don’t you think?

At the heart of the gulch the canyon narrows.

After exiting the gulch turn north to head back to the trail head.

Exiting the gulch

Joshua Tree


View the complete trip photo album 


  1. Your hike description is very informative and the pictures are great. I am thinking about going in a couple weeks (end of December 2011). Did you camp? Was the campground busy?

    • Perfect timing before the gulch is closed. There is a great campground across the highway in Red Rock State Park that is scenic, not crowded, and has additional hikes. Here is the link to info for the park:
      Cal State Parks
      Have fun!

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