After a visit to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve on a windy day last April, Cindy and I were looking for a worthwhile way to cap off our day trip to Palmdale. At first look, the desert community 60 minutes north of Los Angeles isn’t a particularly inspiring tourist destination. But if you’re an amateur geology geek like me, Palmade is unique in that it's one of the many stitches along California’s ominous San Andreas Fault.
While this feared rift hasn’t yet plunged western California into the sea, it is responsible for plenty of curious geological formations along its path. And it was in this moment of need I suddenly remembered one—the Devil’s Punch Bowl—which I’ve seen on our many drives across the desert to Vegas and beyond. But first, it was time for lunch!
On our way across the desert, we happened upon Charlie Brown Farms, a quirky, old-school gift shop and convenience stop. With everything from a dusty “craft soda” room, to homemade jerky, to aging plaster dinosaurs, it was the type of kitschy desert gem that might take a pair of heavily tinted rose-colored glasses to enjoy. However, they served some pretty legit, classic American BBQ and boy did it hit the spot!
With full bellies and a great value for our buck, we returned to the car and took off up the hilly roads. Though undeniably still desert, the area around the Devil’s Punch Bowl is a unique transition point between the Mojave Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains. This hilly region benefits from a tad more rainfall, squeezed out of the atmosphere by the San Gabriels, so there’s a bit more vegetation than down on the desert plain. Still, it’s pretty hot and dry.
By the time we reached the entrance to the Devil’s Punch Bowl Natural Area, it felt as though we were in the apex of this transition point. In one direction, we could see snow still glowing on the peaks of the San Gabriels; in the other, we could see straight out to the furthest reaches of the Mojave out on the horizon; in the middle, absolutely wild rock formations, churned up by the San Andreas Fault. These are the vistas that lend themselves to panoramas.
For a few practical details, the Devil’s Punch Bowl is a Los Angeles County Park open from sunrise to sunset, every day. Park admission is free, as is the Nature Center, open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. The park features picnic facilities, equestrian and hiking trails, and educational events throughout the year.
We figured the best way to make the most of our stay was a rally through the Loop Trail, a one mile hike down into the Punchbowl Valley and back. Despite being ill equipped (in our Converse and Vans) we took off!
The first half of the hike was particularly easy as it is entirely downhill. Weaving in and out of the park’s northern ridges, we descended into the valley basin where a modest creek trickled through. The babbling brook hardly seems very forceful but it is responsible for so many of the crazy rock formations in the area.
We took the time to relax around the creek. The temperature was perfect and hardly anyone was around.
This would have made for the perfect day if not for one thing: the return hike was entirely uphill! At first, the hike wasn’t so bad and allowed for some unique views of the layered, sedimentary rocks.
As we grew in elevation however, so too did we realize how hot and tired we were. Tremendously out of shape, we took breaks frequently, taking time to admire the side of the park’s primary rocky bluff. At the time, we could see a few rock climbers taking advantage of the space.
By the time we had reached the top, we had the most unique view in the park—a glance right down the barrel of the valley. On one side was the steep hill we were hiking and on the other, what looked like a rocky plateau that was picked up, turned 90°, and then jammed into the earth. It was a pretty neat sight.
I’m sure we could have spent more time exploring the area. Easily! But our macaroni salad had been sitting in the car for an uncomfortably long period and it was time to return home. We crested the hill where the lookout and parking lot was perched and returned to the car.
Compared to the crowds amassed in the poppy fields, the Devil’s Punch Bowl felt empty and misunderstood. It is a wonderfully isolating and exploratory day destination, just 90 minutes from Los Angeles. If you’re considering making the trek from Los Angeles to the cinematic Vasquez Rocks, the Devil’s Punch Bowl is easily worth the extra 45 minute drive. I imagine we’ll be back!
For more photos of these crazy, rocky hills, check out the attached gallery. I personally think you get a better sense of how cool these rock formations are in the close-ups below!