Desert Treasures: Step back in time by visiting this ancient desert treasure

Wildflowers bloom in California's Fossil Falls.

John Dittli

Editor's Note: Sally's blog is part of a four-part series in which our staff explore some of the desert treasures we're working to preserve and protect from potential energy and other development.

Breathing in the cold, clear air of the Eastern Sierra, it felt so good to almost be home. I’d spent a week in southern California and the desert, and was happy to leave hazy skies behind for the cerulean blue of the eastside. I needed to get out and stretch my legs a bit before driving the final stretch back up to Mono Lake on Highway 395.

Just a couple minutes off the highway, I pulled into an empty parking lot and headed out on the half-mile long interpretive trail that leads to the falls.

California’s Fossil Falls is a remarkable place—ancient and almost indescribable. It is also relatively easy for travelers to visit.

Fossil Falls features landscapes of polished basalt. Photo: Sally Miller

Fossil Falls is one of many places the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering protecting from renewable energy and other uses. Renewable energy is a key player in the fight against climate change, but it should not occur in our most precious places. Important landscapes like Fossil Falls should remain free of development and preserved for their cultural heritage, geological wonders and scenic and recreational opportunities.

No water currently runs through it, but Fossil Falls was once the location of the Owens River, made from glaciers that melted during the last Ice Age. Imagine a prehistoric torrent flowing through the desert, polishing pitch-black lava until it’s as smooth and shiny as glass.

Photo (left): Sally Miller

At the edge of a dramatic 40 foot drop over basalt cliffs, the Owens River carved amazing rock formations. Little grottoes, grooves and potholes pepper the landscape. Against this volcanic backdrop, the snowcapped Sierra Nevada looms to the west, while a foreboding expanse of black lava stretches east.

Fossil Falls is also an important cultural heritage site. I found many “metates,” which are grindstones that were used by Native American peoples that once inhabited the area up to 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. If you look closely, you might be able to spot rock rings that indicate the locations of archaic homes and structures.

Rock ring at Fossil Falls. Photo: Sally Miller

As I walked up ancient streambeds rimmed by walls of lava I came upon a huge hill of glass—black, shiny obsidian flakes that were used to make arrowheads and other tools that were used to hunt giant mastodons and wooly mammoths.

Close-up of a "metate." Photo: Sally Miller

The sun moved behind a cloud, and I realized that my short rest-stop had turned into an hour-long stroll through lava and obsidian. I never did find the bighorn sheep petroglyphs I’d been told about, nor did I have a chance to wander downstream below the falls to see what treasures lay in the other direction. But I’ll be back to further explore this special place and ensure that I can be a voice for its long-term protection.

Traveler’s tip: Fossil Falls is about 45 minutes north of Ridgecrest, just south of the Coso Junction rest area. This region is best appreciated in the winter, spring or late fall, when daytime temperatures are cool. The developed recreation site contains a half-mile long trail, picnic facilities and restrooms and a nearby primitive campground. Bring plenty of water, even for a short hike.

Planning for the future of our desert: Learn more about the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and see how you can help preserve Fossil Falls and other desert treasures.

Also in this desert blog series: