Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 11:34 am | Fog/Mist 67º

 
 
 
 
Outdoors

Ray Ford: Joshua Tree National Park a Land of Enchanting Stone — and Hikes

Evening light at desert park is some of most spectacular you’ll find anywhere; it imparts a rich golden coloring on thousands of gigantic boulders and rock walls

Evening light on the Split Rock Loop Trail emphasizes the beuaty of the Jumbo Rocks area in Joshua Tree National Park. Click to view larger
Evening light on the Split Rock Loop Trail emphasizes the beuaty of the Jumbo Rocks area in Joshua Tree National Park. (Ray Ford photo)

The evening light at Joshua Tree National Park is some of the most spectacular you’ll find anywhere. What sets it apart from other places is the rich golden coloring it imparts on the thousands of gigantic boulders and rock walls found throughout the park.

Although the park is named after its ubiquitous Joshua trees — so designated by Mormon settlers because of their unique shape, to them emblematic of a biblical story in which Joshua lifts his hands to the sky in prayer — for me it is the rock that makes it so special.

Easter Eggs and Billiard Balls

I got to Joshua Tree early on a Tuesday afternoon, with just enough time to settle into camp at Jumbo Rocks, which I was really fortunate to be able to snag before I headed out for a hike.

The rocks here are jumbo sized and they match the camp’s name perfectly. The area is strewn with Easter egg- and billiard ball-shaped boulders the size of three-story buildings, piled atop each other to create these amazing formations.

The rock is known as monzogranite. It is a unique type of granite that formed from molten rock that cooled underground then began to fracture along almost perfectly horizontal and vertical lines as mountain-building processes began to push the layer skyward.

Over millions of years, as water began to erode away the rock along the fracture lines, the boulders first began to take on the look of large rectangular blocks. Then the edges and corners were worn down to create the rounded shape of the boulders we see here now.

Sunset Light

A favorite hike of mine is just a mile east of the campground. It features a small picnic area the end of a short spur road and a 100-foot-wide boulder that has a diagonal cut through it, as if the hand of God cleaved it in two. It’s called Split Rock, and it’s a great place to set the kids free to play while adults relax and enjoy the views.

There is also a really, really nice two-mile loop hike that circles around a series of outcroppings similar in size and beauty to those at Jumbo Rocks. It takes about an hour and a half, depending on how many times you stop for photos or to admire the views. I’d definitely consider it a “must-do” walk.

The Split Rock trail is the perfect evening hike, winding through and then around some of the most beautiful rock the park has to offer.

In March and April, when the wildflowers bloom and the yucca stalks begin to emerge, the Maze hike is one of the best in the park. Click to view larger
In March and April, when the wildflowers bloom and the yucca stalks begin to emerge, the Maze hike is one of the best in the park. (Ray Ford photo)

I was out of my truck and on the trail about two hours before sunset, heading clockwise around the loop to a point where I could get the best views of the rock as it turned golden with the setting sun.

Within a few minutes, the trail winds its way up into and then around a series of boulder fields, to the point where the setting sun is hitting them, lighting up a half-mile of rock, the golden color dazzling both in its richness and breadth. What a way to end a long day on the road getting here.

Park Boulevard

Joshua Tree National Park is huge, at just under 430,000 acres and just over the size of the state of Rhode Island.

There are three ways into the park: two main entries from either Yucca Valley or Twentynine Palms, which are the most popular routes in, or through the more remote southeastern part of the park via Interstate 10.

The quickest route from Santa Barbara is through Yucca Valley, either by Interstate 10 through Los Angeles or around the horn via the Highway 14 freeway in Santa Clarita then due east through Victorville and Apple Valley.

A beautiful, meandering two-lane road known as Park Boulevard connects the Yucca and Twentynine Palms entrances and, as is typical at most parks, tourists don’t venture too far off it. The old adage that 97 percent of visitors use less than 3 percent of the space available at most parks holds true here.

There are plenty of turnouts and picnic spots along the main thoroughfare and trails out from them to nearby rocks, but few venture more than a quarter-mile or so from Park Boulevard, with the exception of a few shorter trails near Hidden Valley Campground.

A hiker works her way through the boulder fields on the North View Trail, located not too far from the west park entrance. Click to view larger
A hiker works her way through the boulder fields on the North View Trail, located not too far from the west park entrance. (Ray Ford photo)

For those who want to experience more of the park, the good news is that you’ll rarely come across too many people on any of the more serious hikes. These range from shorter hikes like the two-mile loop at Split Rock to longer 6-8 mile loops that get you far enough into the desert that you’ll want to have the National Geographic map of the park or one of a number of geo-referenced maps you can download to your smart phone.

Any of the hikes I’ve listed below will make you want to come back for more.

I’ve included a link to a geo-referenced PDF map I created recently that you can download. It’s a large file (107MB file) so it may take as long as 10 minutes to load. Add it to your smart phone when you visit Joshua Tree and you’ll always know exactly where you are.

World-Class Climbing

Vector, Acid Crack, Pinhead, Slashface, Saturday Night Live, Stem Gem Not So Thin Lizzie, White Rastafarian, Illicit Sweetie, Trash Can Rock, Nuclear Reactor, Pathetic Dome, More Monkey Than Funky, Room to Shroom, Bankrupt Wall, Diarrhea Dome, Perry Masonry, Pea Brain, The Weenie, Mystic Cove, Gilligan’s Island, Outward Bound Slab, Suicide Horn, The Techulator, Pernicious Dome, Brownie Girl Dome.

These are just a few of the hundred of climbs available to climbers of all ability within just a few miles of one another. Some are even within spitting distance of Park Boulevard while others require extensive hikes well off the maintained trails. Together they form one of the most impressive places in Southern California to test one’s skills on the rock.

It also means that it may be difficult to secure a campsite in many of the campgrounds due to Joshua Tree’s increased popularity as a climbing mecca.

If you’re thinking about climbing Joshua Tree but need more information, pretty much everything you need to know can be found at a really cool website called the “Virgin's Guide to Climbing at Joshua Tree.” 

Six Great Hikes

But if you’re a hiker like me, you may like watching the climbers a time or two, but getting out on the trail is what it’s all about.

There is not a bad campsite at Joshua Tree. This one is located at Hidden Valley in the middle of the park. Click to view larger
There is not a bad campsite at Joshua Tree. This one is located at Hidden Valley in the middle of the park. (Ray Ford photo)

Having recently spent eight days on two separate trips to Joshua Tree, I can’t say enough about how incredible a place it is to explore on foot. Included here are six great hikes, many of them easy enough for the kids, but there are plenty of longer ones that will test your endurance and route-finding skills.

» Hidden Valley Loop — 1 mile

An easy hike and great for children. The trailhead is at the Hidden Valley picnic area. A short hike up over a knoll drops you down into a wonderland of boulders that enclosed a half-mile wide area once used as a cattle pen. The trail circles the area and takes about an hour or so.

» Barker Dam — ½ mile to 2½ miles

Also an easy hike out to the dam, which features a small lake and the best picnic spot around. Kids will love this area. A longer loop can be made by continuing past the dam and then circling around a somewhat weird rock art known as the Disney Pictographs, named for the unusual coloring that was added to make the paintings more visible for a Disney movie. The trailhead is a half-mile north of Hidden Valley Campground on a spur road.

» Wall Street Mill – 2½ miles out and back

Moderately easy. One of the most unique hikes in the park in that it takes you past the ruins of the Wonderland ranch house — painted a vibrant pink — the remains of what much have been two elegant cars during the Speakeasy days and the Wall Street Mill, which processed gold ore extracted from the Desert Queen Mine in the 1930s. On the way back down, adventurers will want to explore the drainage heading due west next to Wonderland Ranch. It is a favorite area for rock climbing, is easy to follow and contains a number of rock art sites you may happen upon.

» Split Rock Loop — 2-mile loop

As described above. Moderate in difficulty. It takes you through and around a number of boulder fields that are as picturesque as any in the park, and then drops down into a lower valley that has a much rockier tread and a number of climbs and drops. The spur road leading to it is a mile or so east of Jumbo Rock Campground and a half-mile up the spur.

Heading out on the Wall Street Mill Trail, a family tries to make sense of why this classic 1930s truck was abondoned here. Click to view larger
Heading out on the Wall Street Mill Trail, a family tries to make sense of why this classic 1930s truck was abondoned here. (Ray Ford photo)

» North View Loop and Maze

A mile past the western entry station to Joshua Tree, look for a small unsigned parking area on the left (north) side of Park Boulevard. Though it is easy to miss, if you’re up for an extended hike that will take you on one of the nicest walks in the desert, the Maze area is an absolute must. The ultimate Maze hike is close to 8 miles long but along it you’ll find almost everything you could want: stunning views, beautiful rock formations, desert wildflowers and, most of all, solitude — and lots of it! The short version of the hike is just over 4 miles long and loops up, over and around the North View Peaks and back along the western edge of the Maze. Add 2½ miles and a second cutoff will take you completely around the Maze. For the ultimate hike add another 1½ miles and loop around Window Rock, an opening near the top of one of the nearby peaks that looks like a bird in flight. Note that route finding skills are a must, along with plenty of water and a map.

» 49 Palms — 3 miles out and back

The best early morning hike in the area though it is only accessible from outside the park a few miles from Twentynine Palms. 49 Palms might be considered moderately difficult, if only that the hike involves a 350-foot climb to a high point then a 300-foot descent down into a secluded canyon oasis where the palm trees are located. But from the very beginning, the views out over the desert make the climbing well worth it. Three-quarters of a mile along, you reach a high point and from this point on the palm trees are in sight. The oasis itself contains two clusters of palm trees and plenty of spots to sit back under them and soak in their beauty. The side road leading to 49 Palms is about 4 miles from town and is well signed.

Other Hikes of Note

Other possibilities you might want to consider include the Lost Horse Mine, the Boy Scout Trail, the Panorama Loop trails, Johnny Lang Loop, Pine City, Ryan Mountain and the Desert Queen Mine. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting information online about any of these.

One Last Caution

Joshua Tree tips were in full white blossom in mid-April on the Window Rock Loop  Trail. Click to view larger
Joshua Tree tips were in full white blossom in mid-April on the Window Rock Loop Trail. (Ray Ford photo)

You can never have too much water so bring plenty. If you think two bottles are enough, then bring three. Better to bring some home than to hit the wall miles away from your vehicle with your bottles empty.

4-1-1

The Basics: Telephone 760.367.5500 • Website • Park Map

Visitor Info: There are visitor centers at all three entrances into the park: Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Yucca Valley entrance, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. all year; Oasis Visitor Center, Twentynine Palms entrance, open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. all year; Cottonwood Visitor Center, Interstate 10 entrance, open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. all year.

Park Amenities: Restroom and picnic areas along Park Boulevard. No food or other concessions within the park. There is one emergency telephone at Hidden Valley. Don’t expect to have cell reception within the park, though you may be able to connect in some locations with line-of-sight to the nearby communities.

Park Camping: Five campgrounds within the park have approximately 300 sites. All are first-come, first-serve. The busiest season is from October through early May. It is almost impossible to get a campsite if you arrive later in the day, especially in March and April when the wildflowers are at their best and the weather is really nice.

There is a 30-day limit on camping within the park, with a 14-day limit on camping from October through May. Cost per night is $15 for all of the park campgrounds except Cottonwood, which is $20 per night.

The most popular are the Hidden Valley, Ryan and Jumbo Rocks campgrounds due to their proximity to the main park attractions. The Hidden Valley area has some of the best climbing areas in Southern California and is considered to be a world-class site. As a result, it is very difficult to find space at Hidden Valley.

Barker Dam and the small lake behind it are one of the most popular hikes at Joshua Tree. Click to view larger
Barker Dam and the small lake behind it are one of the most popular hikes at Joshua Tree. (Ray Ford photo)

Belle and White Tank campgrounds are located on the road to Cottonwood Canyon and Interstate 10 and are smaller. Cottonwood Campground is located approximately 5 miles off Interstate 10 and has more amenities than the other camps, but it is quite a ways from the most popular parts of the park.

Only the Cottonwood Canyon campground has water and flush toilets.

Within the park, Ryan Campground has designated horse camps and is located near the California Riding & Hiking Trail, which is a popular route for equestrians.

Outside the Park: There are two campgrounds located outside the park: Black Rock Campground, located 6 miles off Highway 62 in the Yucca Valley area, and Indian Cove Campground, located on Highway 62 nearer to Twentynine Palms. Black Rock has equestrian-designated sites. Reservations can be made for either of these camps at Recreation.gov.

Other possibilities you might want to consider include the Lost Horse Mine, the Boy Scout Trail, the Panorama Loop trails, Johnny Lang Loop, Pine City, Ryan Mountain and the Desert Queen Mine. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting information online about any of these.

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.

The oasis at 49 Palms is outside the main part of the park, but one of the best short hikes out and back close to Twentynine Palms. Click to view larger
The oasis at 49 Palms is outside the main part of the park, but one of the best short hikes out and back close to Twentynine Palms. (Ray Ford photo)

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