Two hours east of San Bernardino through Cabazon (where the concrete dinosaurs in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure live), past Palm Springs and a series of steep climbs up into the Mojave desert you arrive in a magical landscape that’s as alien as any place you’re likely to find on the planet.
I’d been here before in 2019 for a few days during a super bloom. We booked a little cabin out in the desert with a hot tub and listened to the coyote howls surround us under sparkling starscapes. You can read that post here.
It certainly left an impression on me and when we returned this time we stayed for two months, the longest we’d stayed anywhere in the past year and a half.
The oldest known inhabitants of the area were the Pinto people who lived here between 8000-4000 BCE and later by the Serrano, the Cahuilla, and the Chemehuevi peoples, some of which still reside here today. The Mojave people also used this area when travelling between the Colorado river and the pacific coast. European contact came primarily after Pedro Fages founded the first Spanish mission in present day San Diego in 1769. As the church expanded and claimed native lands, the native people were driven off or forced into missions as converts. The region fell under Mexico in 1823 which continued native reductions and forced relocations (along with devastating small pox outbreaks) and later to the United States in 1848 who had promised land rights to natives only later to break those promises as they built railroads, grazed cattle, and discovered gold in 1850. By the 1900s these populations were reduced to only hundreds remaining.
Between 1860 and 1940 there were around 300 active pit mines and active cattle grazing (and cattle rustling) within the current park. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the area a National Monument and was later designated a National Park in 1994 which includes 1,235.4 sq miles and drew around 2.4 million visitors in 2020.
Overnight backpacking trip
Unlike many national parks, camping is permitted off trail pretty much anywhere in the park provided you stay at least a mile away from roads, 500ft from trails and water sources, and not in day-use-only areas. So one of our first adventures in the park was a short overnight near the Arch Rock area. My knees haven’t really been their best so we picked a spot only a couple miles away from the trail into a private area of rock formations. My equipment wasn’t rated for the level of cold at night in the high desert, so it was a bit uncomfortable in the hours before dawn but the night sky was stunning and we had a great time out.
I always mean to take star photos but for some reason, by the time the light is right, we’re snug in our bags and the effort to set up … doesn’t always make the cut. I planned ahead this time and had my camera set up so when I got up to use the bathroom I was able to snap a few pics before the cold became unbearable. The park is shielded from light by mountain ranges on all sides and there’s no development inside the park so there’s very little light pollution allowing for stunning night skies. The foreground light in these photos is entirely from the moon. It’s worthwhile to check the moon stages for a new moon during your visit for the best shots.
If you don’t have much time or can’t trek miles into the backcountry, the Hidden Valley trail is a short trail with spectacular rock formations and maybe pound for pound one of the most interesting spots in the park. You first hike up into a passage into the valley and then continue clockwise around the valley along the wall of mountains that surround it. As you near the end you hike back up into interesting rock formations carved with stairs and return to where you hiked in.
The Barker Dam trail is another excellent short trail with lots of diversity and things to see. Barker Dam was originally a small cattle watering hole that was later improved into a larger water cache. The first time I visited the area was like a small lake right up to the edge of the roughly 20′ tall damn, but this time though the water was entirely dry allowing us to walk right up to the dam base.
After the dam, the trail heads into a flat inland area with lots of Joshua Trees and other desert plants, then heads by a petroglyph cave area and views of the surrounding valley, and then hugs the rock formations back in a loop towards the entrance.
If you want to add some more miles there are spur trails leading to a mine and other parts of the park as well.
Snow in Joshua Tree!
How many times do you get to see snow in the desert? It surely gets cold enough in the high desert but you rarely see any precipitation. So when we started seeing this come down we had to rush into the park to capture this interesting landscape. Some of the best snow I didn’t get to shoot because I was driving on an errand but I’m happy with the time we got to play in the snow.
Arch Rock was another short trail with a good return. Located near a campground, the formation area is easily accessible and fun place to climb around on some truly unusual formations. The trail itself loops to the edge of the Arch Rock formation that you climb up to as a spur. The arch is popular so sometimes you need to wait in line a bit to get your postcard shot, but if you keep going past the arch you find yourself in a wonderful area of weird stone. The rock here is worn in enormous organic shapes like a splash in water frozen still. Or like the spine of some long forgotten dragon. This time I got to climb down a bit further until I found the dry stream bed that flows underneath the arch. From here you can hike back up the water channel through boulders and washed out canals to the trail spur but it’s a bit tight. And then if you keep walking the trail, the area just in front of the arch formation is really cool on its own.
There’s a trail head parking lot that’s not super close to the formation but we found parking near the campground on a pullout off the road to shorten the distance. There’s a small lot inside the campground but these spots are for walk-in campers and not recommended for day hikers.
Black Rock Canyon
The first month we stayed at a house in Yucca Valley, the more developed area just west of Joshua Tree proper. So the closest entrance to the park wasn’t the main entrance but a section called the Black Rock Canyon that had a closed campground, parking, and access to trailheads in the northwestern area of the park. Katy hiked this area extensively. It didn’t have the same scale of rock formations as the central part of the park but it was certainly less populated and had lots of beautiful landscape to explore.
Katy had decided to hike the California Riding and Hiking Trail through the park which is a 38 mile trail cutting through some of the best areas of the park. Originally planned as a 4 night solo backpacking trip, there really are no water sources inside the park, so we had to cache her water at each of the nightly locations she planned along the way. The most remote area was the first cache deep within the Covington Flats area in the northwest portion of the park. This required driving several miles on unmaintained sandy and rocky roads that required a 4WD vehicle. So we rented a car, bought the full insurance, and off we went on a bumpy adventure. It was actually really fun driving overland to her first cache spot and I got to see where she’d be camping that night. On the way back we took a short detour to Warren Peak and hiked around a bit.
Katy hiked extensively within Joshua Tree National Park and surrounding areas. Here are a few links to the trails she hiked on her blog, A Rambling Unicorn.
Boy Scout Trail Joshua Tree
Willow Hole Joshua Tree
Lost Horse Mine Trail
Barker Dam Nature Trail
Hidden Valley Trail
49 Palms Oasis Trail
West Side Loop Trail
Panorama Loop Trail
South Park Peak