Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park

There are so many reasons to love Palm Springs. For us, three features of the area that make it so attractive are the weather and seemingly sunshine, the great mid-century architecture and the scores of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

The last time I posted on Palm Springs, we recounted our visit to Frey II, Albert Frey's famous second residence. Today, I'm going to focus on one of our favorite spots in the area surrounding Coachella Valley - namely, Joshua Tree National Park.

Now, Joshua Tree is no secret spot. U2 helped put this stunning area on the map with their 1987 release of The Joshua Tree. Incidentally, people have tried to locate the famed tree from the album cover - this guy makes a convincing case that he found it. OK... not what I was planning to write about. Back to the real purpose of this entry...

Joshua Tree is maybe 45 minutes from Palm Springs. Taking the Twenty-Nine Palms Highway, you drive through towns like Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree to get to the closest park entrance. The park provides a great map online (similar to the one you'll get at the entrance) although you can find books via Amazon and through other sources. I have a copy of the Road Guide to Joshua Tree National Park - small and compact. Anyway, fees are only $10.00 per car to enter the park and you'll be covered for a week. Once you enter the park, you'll have to drive several miles to get to the first hikes. If you stop along the way, you'll be struck by deafening silence. On our first trip, we pulled over to take some shots and were astounded by the near absence of sound. It was eery at first.

Rather into providing detail on the history of the park, the flora and fauna, etc., I'll just share a few hikes that we've taken and enjoyed. Some are a bit more strenuous than others but anyone in reasonable shape can enjoy them. Most guidebooks recommend these hikes during cooler months and that is a wise suggestion. Then again, we have hiked in the park in July but I wouldn't emulate us - we're kind of crazy.

  1. Hidden Valley is one of the more popular hikes in Joshua Tree. In part, people enjoy it because it is short and easy. The hike is located near Jumbo Rocks so it is visually stunning and it provides a great introduction to the park. The hike is a 1 mile long loop.
  2. Barker Dam is similar to Hidden Valley as it also provides a nice intro to the area and is only 1.3 miles long. Walking along, you'll come across an old water tank used for cattle and a rock marked with indian petroglyphs.
  3. The Lost Horse Mine hike is longer - about 4 1/2 miles roundtrip - and has more of an elevation change but can still be easily navigated by most visitors. This hike is more barren and "wild" in that you traverse mostly rocky terrain but it provides insight into the area's rich mining history. We saw people taking the trail with children so it can be done as a family. By taking side trips and additional loops, you can actually turn this into a longer hike.
  4. Ryan Mountain was our most recent hike and perhaps our favorite. The hike is about the same length as the Lost Horse Mine Hike - 4 1/2 miles - but scurries along the side of steep terrain to the top of Ryan Mountain. You'll go through an elevation change of about 1100 feet but the hike is truly worthwhile. At the top of the mountain, you'll have a 360 degree view of the park. Similar to Lost Horse Mine, there is no shade.
A few no-brainer tips to make the hikes easier...
  • Carry a backpack with plenty of water. It gets hot so you'll need it, especially if you go in the summer like us.
  • Sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen are a good idea to have on hand.
  • We brought snacks so we could enjoy some trail mix while hiking or taking a break.
  • Don't forget your camera - you can snap a thousand pictures on these trails.
  • Watch for snakes - we saw some big ones one the Lost Horse Mine trail
  • Don't touch the cholla cactus - you'll be sorry.
If you check out any of the hikes we mention, you can take the main park road on a big loop and pop up closer to the northeast end of the park. There are a few restaurants along the main road as well as the typical junk food options that should probably be overlooked. Ultimately, make the trip out to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs - it really is worth it. If you're not in the Coachella Valley but in the LA area, the 1 1/2 - 2 hour trip is one you should not miss.

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