After spending too long hanging around the barren land that surrounds Imperial Dam and Yuma, heading up to Joshua Tree National Park was 1000% the right decision. We found ourselves a spot on the popular BLM area near the south entrance of the park and happily settled in for a two-week stay.
Last time we stayed here, we took the road to the left and easily found an open spot. The problem is that the whole area is becoming one big open spot (because for some reason people don’t seem to understand that if you drive on top of the bushes they will die!) and as a result, you run the risk of having a neighbor sneak in and park too close.
This time, we took the road to the right where the “sites” are farther spaced with vegetation and deep sand between. The sand keeps people from driving their rigs all over the place, but it also means that the road has a few soft spots that could be detrimental for larger RVs. We did not scout the road first, and the result was one tense moment where without 4WD we would have been in trouble. Right after that, we pulled into a spot and decided not to go any farther. It was a good choice as the road past our spot deteriorated into a deep sandy mess.
When we weren’t at home enjoying our spot, we spent our time hiking in and around the park. Tim has been working roughly a 7:30-3:30 schedule, which, while not so good for his natural sleeping rhythm (he is not a morning person), does allow us to get outside and play for a few hours before the sun sets. The south side of Joshua Tree offers up far fewer hiking trails than the popular north side, but we didn’t let that stop us.
The cottonwood springs trailhead is only a 15-minute drive from camp, making it the perfect after-work spot to jump on the trail. Twice we hiked the Mastadon Peak Loop. Both times we extended the 3-mile loop by venturing off-trail or doubling back and turning the loop into a figure eight.
The south side of the park might not have any of those wacky Dr. Suess-like trees that the park is so famous for, but let me tell you, Joshua Trees or not, the Colorado Desert portion of Joshua Tree NP is not to be missed.
The other trail that starts at the Cottonwood Springs TH is the Lost Palm Oasis hike. We also hiked this one twice. The first time we did it after work and challenged ourselves to hike the whole 7.5 miles before dark. It was close. We left the parking lot at exactly 3:30, made it to the palms in an hour and 15 minutes, spent 15 minutes looking down into the canyon while snacking, and fast hiked back to the truck getting there at exactly 6 pm.
The sun slipped behind the mountain at 5:30, and by 6:00 it was dark, but not so dark that we had to pull out the flashlights. My favorite part about hiking around the desert at this time of day is the amazing evening glow that occurs right before sunset!
The second time we hiked to the palms, it was our last full day in the area and neither of us felt like driving all the way to the other side of the park. So back to the palms we went. This time we hiked at a slower pace and stopped often to take in the views.
When we reached the palm canyon, we took the unmaintained trail down to the bottom so we could explore the palms grove up close. The descent into the canyon was very steep. Add to that a layer of tiny loose rocks on top of the hard-packed trail, and you have a recipe for slippery footing – even with our hiking poles. All that was forgotten though when we reached the palms.
I will never tire of visiting the native palm groves around southern CA. It is such a wonder to see these majestic, tropical trees growing wild in the desert.
Since we arrived at the BLM area on a Saturday and stayed 15 days (shhh…don’t tell that we overstayed the 14-day limit), that meant we had four weekend days for exploring. On two of those days, we drove up the northern side of the park. It was about an hour and 15-minute drive to get to where we wanted to hike, and with limited parking and big crowds, we made sure to leave the house early. On one hand, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning on a weekend kind of sucks. On the other hand, when it means that you get to hike around an area that looks like this without crowds, it’s so worth it.
The photo above is from the Maze trail. There are several ways to hike this popular trail. You can follow the 5-mile Maze loop which will take you through a wonderland of jumbled rocks, spiny cactus, and Joshua Trees.
Or, you can widen the loop by adding the Window and North View trail for a longer, 8-mile loop. Of course, we chose the latter option. I mean, if we’re going to leave the house at 7:30 and drive over an hour to get to the trail, you better believe we’re hiking for as long as we can.
Also, this was one of those trails that was so incredible we wanted to make it last as long as possible. We even took a side trail to see the “Big Pine” (spoiler alert – it was a big pine is very dead) and managed to clock in around 9 miles total. It was a truly amazing loop around some of the spectacular scenery that makes this park so special.
The other trail we hiked on the north side of the park was the Lost Horse Mine Loop. Again, we left early and got to the trailhead at 9:30 to find only one other car. By the time we made it back to the truck around 12:30, it was jam-packed and there was a Lot Full sign at the start of the road. The key to hiking on the weekends in this park is to start early!
This is another trail with a couple of different hiking options. You can either do an out and back to the mine for a total of 4 miles, or you can hike a full loop to the mine, around the backside of the mountain, and through a flat area filled with Joshua Trees for a total of 6.5 miles.
The mine itself is really cool, and a hike out and back would be great on its own. However, the downside to not hiking the full loop is that you miss the section with the Joshua Trees.
The day we hiked this trail it was cold and windy. I am talking temps in the low 40s when we started the trail kind of cold. This was one of the few cold days we had during our two-week stay so I really can’t complain, but it did diminish our enjoyment a little. Especially at the end when the clouds rolled in.
Finally, we did a little hiking outside of the park as well. The BLM area where we parked is large enough that you can walk for several miles in either direction which made for a nice option when we didn’t want to drive anywhere. There is also a dirt road that runs alongside the water pipeline that makes for an easy place to walk.
Only about half an hour away is the Mecca Hills Wilderness area where hikers and OHV enthusiasts tend to congregate. One Sunday, we met some friends there for a hike on the Ladder & Painted Canyon trail. This is the kind of hike that I feel like I should rave about. I mean, it had all the elements – cool scenery, interesting geography, and physical challenges – but in the end, I would assess it as just okay.
Part of the downside was that we didn’t follow our own rules about arriving early, and as a result ended up hiking with masses of other people. This was particularly annoying at the ladder section where we had to wait for a large group who were hiking in the wrong direction to descend. (That giant 6-foot arrow on the ground telling you which way to go is there for a reason). Large crowds in slot canyons are not much fun.
Also, I will be that first to admit that the slot canyons we hiked around in southern Utah have forever ruined us for all other slot canyons. I try really hard to stay in the moment and enjoy wherever I happen to be, but sometimes it’s difficult not to play the comparison game.
So yeah, the Painted Canyon hike was cool, but on the scale of slot canyon coolness, it ranked somewhere in the middle so I probably wouldn’t do it again. That said, we had a great time hiking with Shannon, Dave & Mike, which is really what it’s all about.
And that concludes our two weeks of hiking in and around Joshua Tree NP. This is a really busy, really popular national park, but it’s also an amazing place and well worth the hassle of dealing with or trying to avoid the crowds. Until next time, Joshua Tree!