Fossils At Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

This web site is dedicated to the paleontology, geology and natural wonders of Red Rock Canyon State Park

Click Here to go directly to the web page Contents section; and click here for the Introduction

The world-famous Red Cliffs along Highway 14, at Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California, backdrop for many Hollywood movies, videos and commercials. The dramatically colored, geologically sculpted strata belong to the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation of the Ricardo Group, roughly 10 million years old; at the very top is a resistant volcanic tuff breccia. Along the cliff-face, the prominent red bands are channel sandstones, deposited in ancient stream and river channels; the whitish bands represent tuffaceous sandstones, sedimentary material that was subjected to contaminants from volcanic eruptions, ash ejecta; the grayish bands are beds of sandstone that were deposited along great floodplains.

Two representative fossil specimens from the Upper Miocene (roughly 10 million years old) Dove Spring Formation of the Ricardo Group, El Paso Mountains, Kern County, California. Left to right--(1) A lower jaw from a Pronghorn Antelope; in actual size, the specimen is 94mm long. Identified by Dr. David Whistler, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The vertebrate fossil was spotted several years ago in Dove Spring Formation exposures that at that date occurred well outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park, on Public Lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management; today, the bone-bearing exposures where this specimen had weathered out on the surface now lie within the expanded borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park, California.

(2) A natural cross-section of a petrified palm root from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation of the Ricardo Group, collected in Last Chance Canyon long before that area was assimilated by the expanded borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park; today, Last Chance Canyon lies within the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park--fossil collecting there is obviously forbidden, except by special permit from the state park system, a permit issued solely to qualified, trained scientists with a degree from an accredited university whose research can be verified by independent investigators. The species of palm from which the fossil came is called scientically, Palmoxylodon mohavensis. This particular specimen reveals excellent preservation of the epidermis (the thin, whitish outer "rind"), cortex (yellowish-orange area) and vascular cylinder (stele--the circular, dark area in roughly the center of the root, with many lighter-colored oval structures); it is 5mm in actual diameter.

Introduction

Come along on a cyber-visit to world-famous Red Rock Canyon State Park on California's Mojave Desert, which lies roughly 130 miles north of Los Angeles (30 miles north of the town of Mojave)--a noted backdrop for many Hollywood movies, videos and commercials, including of course an early scene in the first Jurassic Park film by Steven Spielberg (there are, of course, no dinosaur remains anywhere near Red Rock Canyon, but Spielberg apparently liked the great desert setting and used it in place of a genuine dinosaur-producing region, such as the badlands of Montana). Red Rock Canyon State Park in California's El Paso Mountains is a classic desert district of badlands and outrageously colored, geologically sculpted strata some 12.5 to 8 million years old, a paleontologically invaluable place that happens to yield the best late Middle Miocene through middle late Miocene (late Barstovian through early late Hemphillian Stages of the Miocene Epoch) vertebrate fossil succession in all the western United States. Some 88 species of fossil plants and animals have been documented from Red Rock Canyon State Park, all collected from what geologists call the Dove Spring Formation of the Ricardo Group. An older, obsolete designation for the fossil-rich strata was the Ricardo Formation. The Dove Spring Formation was deposited primarily by streams, floodplains, lakes, ponds, alluvial outwash, and periodic volcanic activity, which left some 18 distinct layers of volcanic ash and a two basalt flows interbedded in the predominantly sedimentary section.

The fossil floral list from Red Rock Canyon State Park includes eight species of plants known from beautifully preserved petrified woods (in some cases the wood has been opalized)--a classic late Miocene paleobotanical association roughly 10 million years old whose closest modern representatives now live in the Upper Sonoron zone of the San Jacinto Range between San Jacinto Peak and Santa Rosa Mountains, southern California. From the finer-grained, lake-deposited beds in the Last Chance Canyon district of Red Rock Canyon State Park (whose boundaries were expanded only a few years ago to include Last Chance Canyon, by the way), paleobotanists, who refer to the rich fossil plant locality as the Ricardo Flora, have identified Black Locust, Mexican pinyon pine, cypress, California live oak, red-root (New Jersey Tea), acacia, desert thorn and palm (which may have been allied with the modern Washingtonia palm).

Among the vertebrate fossils identified from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation, abundant skeletal elements have been recovered from animals that lived in diverse paleohabitats. For example, lake and water-loving critters collected from the Ricardo badlands include a small fish (sucker), frogs, toads, three kinds of salamanders, a pond turtle, an extinct goose, an otter and a beaver. Dove Spring Formation animals that would typify a plains-like habitat include ten species of horse, four kinds of camels, two varieties of rhinos, three prongbuck antelopes, a vulture, a pika, two species of ground squirrels, rabbits, deermice and two kinds of extinct proboscidean gomphotheres. Representatives of a brush-land habitat include a peccary, two extinct sheep-like animals called oreodonts, a species of extinct three-toed browsing horse, one ring-tailed cat, a small skunk, a species of short-legged camel, a wolverine, two kinds of weasel-like animals, two varieties of foxes, four different kinds of spiny lizards, a night lizard, a rosey boa, racer snakes, a chipmunk, a hedgehog, two species of gopher-like rodents, two kinds of pocket mice, a bat and three species of small perching birds. Animals that probably frequented areas near permanent bodies of water include two alligator lizards, one species of mole, one kind of small rear-fanged snake and four different types of shrews. And then there are several animals that likely ventured into any kind of habitat they chose to investigate: a very large bear-like animal, six different species of dog, and three large cats, including a saber-tooth; a special thanks here to Dr. David Whistler, retired curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, for compiling this faunal list in his excellent article in the Fall 1982 issue of Terra Magazine, published by the Los Angeles County natural history museum. Dr. Whistler is the world's leading authority on the fossils and geology of Red Rock Canyon State Park. For an excellent, layman's overview of the general geology and fossil wealth of Red Rock Canyon State Park, read the online version of the article that Dr. Whistler had published in the Fall 1982 issue of Terra Magazine for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, entitled, Red Rock Canyon--A Geologists's Classroom; it's in the Contents menu below, under the heading, Dr. Whistler Article.

Today, of course, fossil collecting is not allowed within the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park--except by special permit from the California State Parks authorities, a permit issued solely to qualified, trained scientists with a degree from an accredited university whose research projects can be verified as authentic by independent investigators.

Please Note: All fossil specimens figured at this web page were spotted well outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park on Public Lands, long before the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon were expanded several years ago, an act that assimilated into the state park system rich fossil sites that had once existed outside the borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

And now for the obligatory words of caution. Endemic to the Mojave Desert of California, including the Las Vegas, Nevada, region by the way, is Valley Fever. This is a potentially serious illness called, scientifically, Coccidioidomycosis, or "coccy" for short; it's caused by the inhalation of an infectious airborne fungus whose spores lie dormant in the uncultivated, harsh alkaline soils of the Mojave Desert. When an unsuspecting and susceptible individual breaths the spores into his or her lungs, the fungus springs to life, as it prefers the moist, dark recesses of the human lungs (cats, dogs, rodents and even snakes, among other vertebrates, are also susceptible to "coccy") to multiply and be happy. Most cases of active Valley Fever resemble a minor touch of the flu, though the majority of those exposed show absolutely no symptoms of any kind of illness; it is important to note, of course, that in rather rare instances Valley Fever can progress to a severe and serious infection, causing high fever, chills, unending fatigue, rapid weight loss, inflammation of the joints, meningitis, pneumonia and even death. Every fossil enthusiast who chooses to visit the Mojave Desert must be fully aware of the risks involved.

Contents For: Fossils At Red Rock Canyon State Park, California:

Complete Fossil List 

Here is the complete list of fossil plants and animals identified by paleontologists from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation of Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California. It is a PDF file, which means that you'll need the free version of Adobe's Acrobat Reader to access the file. The fossil list was scanned from the scientific paper, Geologic History of the El Paso Mountains Region, by David P. Whistler, San Bernardino County Museum Association Quarterly, Inland Southern California: The Last 70 Million Years, Volume 38 (3 and 4), Fall 1991. According to Dr. Whistler (personal communication), several taxa names have been revised, changed, since publication of the original paper--plus, the horses need revision, "and if anyone gets around to reviewing the big picture of the Camelidae, there will also be changes." Also, Dr. Whislter said that Dr. Xiaoming Wang of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is revising the dogs.

Dr. Whistler's Article

Here is an online version of an article that Dr. David Whistler, retired curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, wrote for the Fall 1982 issue of Terra Magazine; it is a layman's guide to the paleotological and geological wonders of Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California--a very interesting and informative piece of writing, indeed, with several quality color photographs of scenery and fossils. The online article is here presented in PDF file format, which means that you'll need the free version of Adobe's Acrobat Reader to access the files. Many thanks to Dr. Whistler for allowing me to upload his Terra Magazine article here.

 

Irma Webber's 1933 Paper 

Read pertinent passages from a classic scientific paper by Irma E. Webber, Woods From The Ricardo Pliocene Of Last Chance Gulch, California, Contributions To Paleontology, Carnegie Institute Of Washington Publication 412, issued in September 1933. This is the definitive paleobotanical study of the fossil woods from Last Chance Canyon, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California. Many thanks to the Carnegie Institute of Washington for allowing me to include portions of Webber's paper here.

     

Vertebrate Fossils

Here are several images of vertebrate fossils from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation, El Paso Mountains, Kern County, California. All specimens were spotted a number of years ago on Public Lands in exposures of the Dove Spring Formation that at that those dates existed well outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park. Recently, the borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park were expanded exponentially to include those bone-bearing and plant-bearing beds that had once occurred on Public Lands, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Vertebrate fossils from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation are of legendary paleontological proportions. The fossil list is amazingly diverse: a small fish (sucker), frogs, toads, three kinds of salamanders, a pond turtle, four different kinds of spiny lizards, a night lizard, a rosey boa, racer snakes, two alligator lizards, one kind of small rear-fanged snake, an extinct goose, a vulture, three species of small perching birds, a pika, two species of ground squirrels, rabbits, deermice, a chipmunk, a hedgehog, two species of gopher-like rodents, two kinds of pocket mice, a beaver, an otter, one ring-tailed cat, a small skunk, a wolverine, a bat, ten species of horse , four kinds of camels, two varieties of rhinos, three prongbuck antelopes, two kinds of extinct proboscidean gomphotheres, a peccary, two extinct sheep-like animals called oreodonts, a species of extinct three-toed browsing horse, a species of short-legged camel, two kinds of weasel-like animals, two varieties of foxes, a very large bear-like animal, six different species of dog, and three large cats, including a saber-tooth.

Fossil Plants

Several images of petrified Black locust wood and palm roots from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation, El Paso Mountains, California. All specimens were collected from exposures on Public Lands that until recently existed well outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California. All of the classic, world-famous plant-bearing beds now lie within the newly expanded borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park and are completely off-limits to all unauthorized collectors who lack a special use permit from the California State Parks authorities, a permit issued solely to qualified, trained scientists with a degree from an accredited university, whose research projects can be verified as authentic by independent investigators.

The fossil floral list from Red Rock Canyon State Park includes eight species of plants known from beautifully preserved petrified woods (in some cases the wood has been opalized)--a classic late Miocene paleobotanical association roughly 10 million years old whose closest modern representatives now live in the Upper Sonoron zone of the San Jacinto Range between San Jacinto Peak and Santa Rosa Mountains, southern California. From lake-deposited sandstones in the El Paso Mountains, paleobotanists, who refer to the rich fossil plant locality as the Ricardo Flora, have identified Black Locust, Mexican pinyon pine, cypress, California live oak, red-root (New Jersey Tea), acacia, desert thorn and palm (which may have been allied with the modern Washingtonia palm):

Visitors Center/More Bones 

Photographs of the Visitors Center/Interpretive Center at the entrance to Ricardo Campground, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California. The center features several dioramas that help to explain the geologic story behind the rocks one sees at Red Rock Canyon State Park; included are display cases that contain actual vertebrate fossils that paleontologists have collected from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation in the Red Rock Canyon district. Other displays showcase the rich American aboriginal heritage of the El Paso Mountains area. The center is also a great place to purchase books, maps and various brochures that pertain to the Mojave Desert and nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. The rangers there are very helpful and enthusiastic, eager to share their knowledge of the natural wonders at Red Rock Canyon State Park:

Here are several images of vertebrate fossils from the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation, El Paso Mountains, Kern County, California. All specimens were spotted a number of years ago on Public Lands in exposures of the Dove Spring Formation that at that those dates existed well outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park. Recently, the borders of Red Rock Canyon State Park were expanded exponentially to include those bone-bearing and plant-bearing beds that had once occurred on Public Lands, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

 

     

Red Rock Canyon

Images of Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California, as seen along Highway 14 during drives through the park:

The Badlands 

Scenes from the 10-million year-old bone-bearing badlands of the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation, El Paso Mountains, Kern County, California:

 Ricardo Campground

Scenes from Ricardo Campground at Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County, California; also some images of the rugged, sculpted scenery in the immediate vicinity of the campground.

     

Last Chance and Hagen Canyons

Images from Last Chance Canyon and Hagen Canyon. Last Chance Canyon is a famous fossil-bearing area of the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation that up until only a few years ago, before the exponential expansion of the park's boundaries, used to lie outside the boundaries of Red Rock Canyon State Park. Last Chance Canyon has yielded to paleobotanists a classic fossil plant deposit known as the Ricardo Flora. Fossil collecting of any kind in Last Chance Canyon is no longer permitted, of course, except by special permit issued by the California State Parks authorities, a permit issued solely to trained, qualified scientists with a degree from an accredited university whose research project can be fully verified as authentic by independent investigators. Hagen Canyon is a major tributary of Red Rock Canyon, proper, and contains some of the best scenery in all the Red Rock Canyon district.

 Wildflowers

Red Rock Canyon State Park, California, and the El Paso Mountains, in general, have long been a noted place to view wildflowers on the Mojave Desert. Red Rock Canyon ranger Mark Faull compiled an excellent, inclusive list of plants identified from Red Rock Canyon State Park ; he's identified 243 wildflower species.

Here are some images, from my personal collection, of wildflowers from Red Rock Canyon State Park, California, and vicinity:

Wildflowers: Public Domain

Here are some Public Domain images of wildflowers that were photographed at Red Rock Canyon State Park, California; all images are courtesy of CalPhotos:

     

Links To Kern County 

Few counties in the United States display a greater diversity of geography than Kern County, California. The County Seat is actually Bakersfield, which lies at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley (the Great Central Valley), one of the richest, most productive agriculture regions in the world. But Kern County also takes in a good portion of the southern end of the high Sierra Nevada Mountain range, parts of the southern Coast Ranges, in addition to impressive portions of the northwestern Mojave Desert, within which can be found Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Here are a few links to pertinent web pages that pertain to Kern County, California:

Email And Weather

Contact me in cyberspace. Comments, suggestions, or questions are all welcome: 

My Email Address

Click for Mojave, California Forecast
Weather for the town of Mojave, California, courtesy the Weather Underground; Red Rock Canyon State Park in Kern County lies roughly 25 miles north of Mojave along Highway 14 in the northwestern sector of the Mojave Desert.

Click for Inyokern, California Forecast
Weather for the small community of Inyokern, courtesy the Weather Underground, which is about 30 miles northeast of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Click for Ridgecrest, California Forecast
Weather for the community of Ridgecrest, courtesy the Weather Underground, which is roughly 35 miles northeast of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Click for Palmdale, California Forecast
Weather for the city of Palmdale, courtesy the Weather Underground, which lies around 45 miles south of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

My Web Pages

Everyone's invited to visit several other web pages I've created:

In addition to my many Web pages pertaining to matters paleontological and geological, I also have 8 sites up and running that feature my solo, acoustic, instrumental 6 and 12-string guitar playing--in addition to songs I have recorded with my parents over the years (family music) And it's all free music--for listening and for downloads of the mp3 files.

Jump on over to The Acoustic Guitar Solitaire Of Inyo--A Cyber-CD for 30 covers of some of my favorite songs--all played on a 1976 Martin D-35 6-string guitar.

For 32 mp3 selections of original compositions and covers of some of my favorite songs--all played on a 1970 Stella 12-string guitar, a 1976 Martin D-35 guitar and a Sigma DMISTCE guitar, head on over to Beyond The Timberline--A Cyber-CD .

At The Distant Path--A Cyber CD listen to me play 32 covers and original compositions on a 1976 Martin D-35, a Sigma DMISTCE 6-string guitar and a 1970 Stella 12-string guitar.

Over at Inyo And Folks--A Musical History I've created a page that features 110 songs I recorded with my parents--all played on acoustic 6 and 12-string guitars, banjo, kazoo, maracas, and tambourine.

Go to Acoustic Stratigraphy: I play 34 covers of some of my favorite songs on acoustic 6 and 12-string guitars.

Back To Badwater--A Cyber-CD: Listen to me play 32 covers and original compositions on 6 and 12-string guitars; it's all free music.

For an all-text page that includes all 300 of my guitar mp3 files placed on the Internet, go to All Inyo All The Time. That's where you'll find access to all of my musical selections, in order of their appearance on the Web--from my first Cyber-CD ("The Acoustic Guitar Solitaire Of Inyo") to the last, "Inyo 7."

Inyo 7--A Cyber CD: Listen to me play 30 covers of some of my favorite songs, plus originals.

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