Joshua Tree National Park
I love exploring our national parks! There are 61 designated parks, and I have visited less than half of them. But the ones that I have been lucky enough to explore have offered incredible landscapes, beautiful views of the sky and interactions with wildlife. While in Southern California in February, my husband and I had 7 hours to spend in the desert park, Joshua Tree. It is where the high, western Mojave Desert collides with the low, eastern Colorado Desert creating almost 800,000 acres of sandy open spaces, rock formations and differing ecosystems.
We drove 3.25 hours from San Diego to the northwestern entrance of the park, stopping at the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center for a park map and a much needed restroom break. After chatting at length with a National Park Service staff member, we created a plan to view a variety of terrain types within the desert park.
Hidden Valley was the first stop on our southeast Park Boulevard drive. We walked on the 1 mile loop through a rock-enclosed valley, said to have been used by cattle rustlers (thieves) in the early 1900’s. The path is sandy, winding along boulder piles and scraggly desert shrubbery. Joshua Trees, natural to the high elevation of the Mojave desert, dot the flatlands in this section of the park.
Hike difficulty: Easy
According to park literature, Barker Dam was created by cattle herders in the early 1900’s. We tried to walk the Barker Dam “loop” but part of the trail was closed, so we completed an out and back trek. Desert landscape is so unique! We saw many Joshua Trees and cactus plants. The dam was pretty, and I spent a little too much time taking photos of the reflective water. Bighorn sheep are reputed to frequent this area, but sadly, we didn’t see any during our excursion. Our “loop” was a brief walk: 1.8 miles with virtually no elevation climb.
Hike difficulty: Easy
Keys View, 5,185′
Keys View path is a short, paved, .12 mile uphill walkway with gorgeous views of western and southern California. Looking northwest, visitors can see the snow capped Mount San Gorgonio, an 11,455′ peak in the Angeles National Forest. South and slightly east of San Gorgonio, is Palm Springs, sandwiched between Mount San Jacinto, 10,831′ and Joshua Tree park. The Coachella Valley, a developed extension of the Colorado Dessert, is also visible from the overlook.
On clear days, the Salton Sea is visible from Keys View. This saltwater lake is a low point of the Colorado Dessert, positioned on the San Andreas Fault, 230′ below sea level. Further south, Mount Signal, a 2,562′ peak on the US-Mexico border can be seen on fog free days.
Ryan Mountain, 5,458′
Ryan Mountain is the second highest peak in Joshua Tree. The switch backs and rocky steps make this 1.5 mile, 1,070′ incline relatively easy to navigate. We passed small patches of snow, which confused me a bit, since we were trekking in desert country. The view from the rocky summit was far different from what I am used to seeing in the Western Rockies or the Eastern Appalachian Mountains.
It took us 1 hour 26 minutes to walk the 3 miles and take a bunch of photos at the top. I am sure that it is more challenging to complete during the hot summer months. The February weather was perfect for this hike!
Hike difficulty: Moderate
Cholla Cactus Garden
Where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in the western Pinto Basin, a natural 10 acre garden of Cholla Cactus thrive. We walked the .25 mile loop through the grove of 4-7′ Cholla (pronounced choy-ya). The fuzzy looking brown and golden yellow cacti fill the sandy flat region.
Unfortunately, we had very little time to explore the southern most section of the park. The Cottonwood Spring region is an oasis in the desert. We did not see gushing springs, but rather wet areas that feed the large fan palm trees, some of them over 75′ high.
Bright wildflowers filled the flatlands leading to the southern exit of the park. Fields of purple, white and yellow flowers were a beautiful contrast to the gray Cottonwood Mountains and a perfect view for our exit of Joshua Tree National Park.
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