Every National Park has its own signature “must-do” hike. In Yosemite, it’s the Mist Trail and Half Dome. In Zion National Park, it’s Angels Landing. And, in the Mojave National Preserve, the signature hike is probably the Rings Climb/Ring Loop Trail. I say “probably” because I have to admit that I’m a big fan of hiking around the Kelso Dunes when I’m in the Preserve; and in my mind, it’s a tough call deciding between the two. However, in terms of pure hiking, I’m going to have to stick with my initial call: the Rings Climb/Ring Loop Trail is the signature hike of the Preserve.
Directions: The Rings Loop Trail leaves from one of two locations located at the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center parking lot. There is a trail entrance located at the East side of the parking lot, near the entrance, and another trailhead located at the picnic area at the North end of the Visitor Center lot. I’d personally recommend that you start your hike at the East trailhead in the Visitor Center parking lot. The trail is well marked from this point, and you have a clear, flat first quarter mile before you arrive at a grouping of boulders with petroglyphs on them. It is precisely for this reason that I recommend leaving from this trailhead rather than the other, as you are more likely to spot the petroglyphs than if you are approaching from the opposite direction. (However, if you’re particularly observant, and looking for them, I am sure that you will find them no matter which direction you travel).
After the petroglyphs, the trail continues for another half mile (.5) on mostly flat terrain, winding slightly to the North. At three quarters (.75) of a mile total distance, you will get great views of the opening to Banshee Canyon. From this angle, it looks like a fanciful castle with windows, turrets, and other openings. The trail then heads slightly uphill into Banshee Canyon, leaving you in the middle of the phantasmagorical rock formations that Hole-in-the-Wall is named for. These rock formations are the byproducts of an ancient volcanic eruption, which scorched the surrounding desert millions of years ago. Today, the various holes, openings, and other formations look like anything you can imagine.
Once you’ve taken an appropriate amount of time to admire the geologic features, you’re likely going to want to find your way out of Banshee Canyon (named for the howling sound the canyon makes in high winds, naturally). To the South is a slight slot that ends in a straight vertical wall with carved/worn hand and footholds. While this is an exit, it’s meant for climbers, and not the average NPS visitor. (I checked it out, and found it to be a good workout!). To the North, the NPS trail heads up another slot, until you reach the signature point – the rings.
The rings are simply that – metal rings that NPS has installed into the rock walls of the canyon. They are divided into two separate sections. The first section is steep, but at this point, the rings are placed to give a person more of an assist hiking, rather than being needed to actually ascend this portion of the trail. However, the second section of rings heads up a short rock wall, and are needed to actually climb up a section before hiking out.
Now, here’s where discerning readers will ask the thousand dollar question: Just how tough/dangerous is the ring area? Should I attempt it? First, let me give you the NPS answer (as I am former NPS employee): everyone should do what they feel comfortable with; and not try anything outside their comfort/skill level that will leave them in danger. Second, let me give you the LA answer: most people can do this. Yes, a fall from the first section would cause bruising or a broken bone at worst, while a fall from the second section could definitely result in something worse. Having said that, I’ve been on the cables at Half Dome, and the route on Angels Landing, both of which are NPS approved trails, and these Rings are easy compared to those risks. Things to note: the canyon through the ring section is somewhat narrow, so if you are a bit larger, you may feel that it is a tight fit. (I note that I am not a big person, nor small, but average sized, and I found it a bit tight in a spot or two). Also, if you are concerned about people passing up and or down, this is probably not the spot for you, especially if you’re a little claustrophobic.
Having said all of those important but serious things, I will also note that the rings are fun. I saw older people climbing them (70+) and junior mountaineers climbing and descending them with ease. And that is why I would call this hike a must-do and the signature hike of the Preserve – it’s fun, there’s great scenery, and you get to adventure up and down the canyons a little bit. From the rings, it’s probably a tenth of a mile (.10) to the trailhead by the picnic area, and a great overlook of the Hole-in-the-Wall formations. The loop is a mile in length total, so this hike is accessible at any time for just about anyone.
Tips: I’d recommend heading out at night (with proper lighting, of course) to view Banshee Canyon for a unique view of the formations under the moonlight.