So, a friend of mine says (via email), “Hey, want to meet me in Palm Springs?” Leigh and I look at each other. “Weeeelllll…” Then I remember – Palm Springs is right next door to Joshua Tree National Park! Let’s do this thing! Even better: reasonably-priced direct flights from DFW! And our friends in Temecula will be around that week!
We flew into Palm Springs (along with a large group heading to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Training Center), grabbed a car (with appropriate paperwork, don’t be alarmed!) and went to visit Temecula (about 90 minutes away). After several delightful hours with our friends, we drove the two hours up to Twentynine Palms, where we spent the next three nights.
Twentynine Palms is conveniently located near the North Entrance to the park, while Palm Springs is really not close to any entrance. The town of Joshua Tree is close to what they call the West Entrance, though it’s also pretty far north! There are numerous hotels & motels along highway 62, and they weren’t crowded this week. Which seemed a little odd, the popular spots in the park seemed well populated with tourists! Especially Skull Rock…
As the NPS will tell you, Joshua Tree contains parts of two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado (which is part of the Sonoran desert). The Mojave is at a higher altitude, so it’s a bit cooler and wetter…well, damper – it averages less than 5 inches of rain a year. And it has Joshua Trees! The Colorado Desert gets 2-3 inches, and has Ocotillo and more Cholla!
Bright and early the next morning, we slept in – it was cold out there! After giving it some time to warm up, we headed over to the Ryan Mountain Trail. Highly rated by our friends at AllTrails, it’s only 3 miles (out and back), just over 1000 feet in elevation. The top is over 5400 feet and we were just in from the lowlands in Dallas, so we thought it best not to go too extreme!
The parking lot was pretty full when we got there, but we found a spot. The trail was busy but not crowded. It starts uphill pretty much right away, passing between some rock outcroppings, yuccas, and a sprinkling of Joshua Trees.
It’s well-defined, a bit rocky in places, and mostly a gentle slope. The views off to the west are amazing!
At the top we rested a bit and took other people’s pictures at the “Welcome to Ryan Mountain” sign.
For example, this is our new friend Megan Trout, a voice actor, narrator, and theater performer in the Bay Area.
And, of course, the view from the top!
And then, as usual after walking up a mountain, we walked back down again!
From there we went to seek Skull Rock. I say “seek,” not “see,” because in a spectacularly boneheaded (rock-skulled?) move, I walked right past the thing itself! I thought I went where the sign pointed, and we found some great bouldering/scrambling/rock climbing, but completely missed the skull. In my defense…no, there’s no defense for that! 🙂 So we had a great time clambering around. We were lucky to get a nearby parking spot, there was a crowd!
After that, I felt the need for a cup of tea, so we swung by the hotel on the way to the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trailhead. AllTrails rates this as moderate, with just over 600 feet of elevation. This trailhead is a few miles west of the North Entrance down a small road off of Highway 62. There’s a sign, but not a large one! We use Google Maps…
Fortynine Palms is a bit off the beaten path, but Alltrails still describes it as “heavily trafficked.” Parking was not crowded when we got there around 3:30 – be careful, the parking lot is closed (and locked, they say) at “nightfall!” The trail takes you up and over a ridge, through pretty normal desert-type terrain and vegetation. Again, scrub brush, yuccas, I don’t remember seeing any Joshua Trees.
The trail itself is fairly rough and rocky, which is my excuse for the tumble I took when going downhill toward the Oasis! No major harm done, though I did wish: 1) that I had been wearing my gloves and 2) that I had remembered to bring my darn trekking poles! If you plan on doing any moderate or hard trails with any elevation, I would strongly suggest you take trekking poles. I missed mine more than once besides this particular incident!
But we cleaned up my hands as well as we could, and soldiered on! Ours is not to reason why… 🙂 Also because I wanted to see the oasis:
It’s a bit incongruous, seeing these huge palm trees rising up in the middle of the desert scrub, but they’re very cool. It’s fed by a spring and apparently there is sometimes open water there. We didn’t see any, but I must confess we didn’t look all that hard! These are California Fan Palms, native to the deserts of southern California. After enjoying the peace of the oasis for a while, we walked (much more carefully!) back to the car.
Our next expedition was to…CVS for bandages & such! We cleaned me up a little more thoroughly than with a water bottle & a hankie… 🙂 Then we headed out after nightfall to see how the sky was!
Well, looking toward the western horizon it was a bit bright. Perhaps something to do with a little town called Palm Springs being there. But that’s where a bit of the milky way was visible, so I tried a few shots that way. Then I started looking east, for Orion! I had to do at least one with a good Joshua Tree, so I found a tree I liked and shot it from several angles. If it looks like the tree is leaning a bit, that’s because it is! Then we went and found some interesting rocks to shoot before I called an early night.
The next day was again a bit chilly early in the morning, so we delayed our start until it warmed up a bit. The target was the Panorama Loop and Warren Peak trail, a 7.7-mile moderate trail with 1689 feet of elevation. It takes you up and along a mountain ridge, then down and back up a nearby peak. As the name suggests, you get some nice panoramic views along the way.
The trail starts near the Black Rock Campground and follows the Black Rock Canyon Trail. It’s a wide, sandy trail with a mild upslope and you pass through groves of Joshua Trees. It’s lovely but not incredibly exciting, and walking in the sand is a bit tiresome.
However, this trail runs into the Panorama Loop, a much more challenging and interesting hike! At the junction, we turned left, having been advised (by one of the reviewers on AllTrails!) to take the loop clockwise. I can’t remember their reasoning and I didn’t notice anything that would have made a big difference. Either direction will go a little bit better with trekking poles! Have I mentioned trekking poles? 🙂 You start off on a relatively flat stretch down a canyon, reminded me of some hikes out in west Texas, rocks & cacti & so forth.
After a while you start climbing up the side of the ridge and soon you’re looking out over the canyon you were just traversing. The trail is rocky and occasionally steep, but not too difficult and the views are a definite payoff! Though the persistent layer of haze over Palm Springs is not all that lovely…
The highest point on the trail is along the ridge, approximately where Leigh is poised upon the rock. From that point we went downslope for a while, back toward the canyon we had been traversing originally. Still more Joshua Trees and cacti, great hiking!
Then we started back uphill…
The trail up to Warren Peak was relatively steep in parts, but generally pretty good. There is a stretch that goes up a fairly steep wash that was fun! It would not have been amiss to have trekking poles here. The view from the top was not all that different from the panorama view earlier. But I liked the dead tree… 🙂
And it was all downhill from there. Scrambling back down Warren Peak to the sandy-bottomed canyon and the almost level stroll back to the campground. Leaving there, we stopped at the room for a bit and headed back to Skull Rock, this time determined to get photos of the elusive beast itself… 🙂
We got there in time to enjoy sunset among the rocks and Joshua Trees.
And then it got dark!
And so to bed!
The next day was our last hiking day and we had to pick up a friend at the airport in Palm Springs. We chose a relatively short, flat trail near the west entrance to the park, the North Trail and North Canyon Trail loop, just inside the park. This trail had a different character than the others we had done, it was in among the huge rockpiles that populate this part of the park rather than up and down the mountains.
They say the big rock formations were magma extrusions formed underground and then everything around them eroded away. I wasn’t there so I’ll take their word for it!
There’s no parking area for this trail, we parked along the side of the road a couple of hundred yards down from the unmarked trailhead. Following the trail on AllTrails, we walked away from the road toward the edge of a rockpile. There were rock ridges all around us, along with the usual flora.
Around the corner of the main (as far as I can tell, unnamed) rock mountain we came to the side trip that I guess is the North Canyon Trail. It goes down a dry wash at the saddle between two of the mountains. Like most dry washes I’ve run across in deserts, it’s sandy on the bottom with periodic rock/boulder interruptions. There were a couple of scrambling moments. The rock walls were amazing and a little bit scary – some of those boulders didn’t look all that secure! And since most AllTrails trails are described as having “beautiful wildflowers” I had to include a picture of the one we saw… 🙂
That was the most fun part of the trail, partly because we didn’t stop at any of the tempting boulders and walls to do any climbing. You could spend hours out here clambering over the rocks.
Once you get out of the ravine and over the saddle, the trail levels out and goes the rest of the way around the mountain. There are a number of trails across the flatlands over there, so we had to be careful not to take a wrong turn – mostly so AllTrails would give us credit for the trail! 🙂 Most of the crossing trails would have gotten us back to the car.
That was the end of our hiking in Joshua Tree! Back to the car and off to the airport (only a little late!) and the rest of the day being sociable with an old friend! We went back to Palm Springs and went out to a nice Italian restaurant – Trilussa, quite enjoyable.
And since we moved our base of operations to Palm Springs, we thought we’d head into the South Entrance of the park and see what was going on there! The southeastern part of the park is (as I think I mentioned) in the Colorado Desert, which is part of the Sonoran Desert (the hottest American desert! We just thought we’d do a loop starting in the south and then up to show our friend a bit of what we’d already seen. And see some new things!
Palm Springs not being close to the entrance, it took us about an hour to reach the Cottonwood Visitor Center inside the south entrance. (One thing to watch for, the visitor centers at the north and west entrances are just off highway 62 and not actually inside the park!) We looked around, grabbed a paper map, and made sure we had our passport stamps and such.
From there we drove up Pinto Basin Road into and through Pinto Basin. Crossing Porcupine Wash and Fried Liver Wash, we stopped to check out the Ocotillo Patch. As some of you may remember, I’m rather fond of Ocotillo. I spend a lot of time around them down in Big Bend Country and I’m still working on the best way to capture them. With my wife and friend in front of one is a good way!
A little way past the Ocotillo you come to the Cholla Cactus Garden, a large area of cacti that you need to be careful around. Sometimes known as “jumping cholla,” their spines can be difficult to remove. I carry tweezers with me, but they might not be adequate to the task. Attached to one of the fence posts by the parking area, you can find the recommended tool: needle-nose pliers!
From there we went up to Keys View (by way of Skull Rock) to get a nice view of the…permanent haze over the Coachella Valley. The mountain in the back right is Mount San Jacinto, more than twice the height of any mountain in the park! In theory you can see the San Andreas Fault in there, but I can barely see the ground.
It was cold and windy up at Keys View so we didn’t hang around too long! On the way toward the park exit we stopped a few time for scenic Joshua Trees and such.
And that was the end of our adventures in Joshua Tree. It was a beautiful place and I can hardly wait until I get a chance to go back there! I’d like to go in the late spring or summer when the core of the Milky Way is high. And so is the temperature – average high in May is around 95, maybe that would keep the crowd down. Of course, June, July, and August average over 100…
I hope you’ve enjoyed our adventures in Joshua Tree! Don’t forget to visit my updated website – even though I haven’t added any Joshua Tree photos… 🙂