To the casual observer Joshua Tree is a forbidding lifeless place. However the desert is very much alive with lizards, spiders, snakes, hares, coyotes, and birds calling the park home. Sunset and sunrise is the best times to see wildlife as activity is greatly reduced during the daylight hours. Its vast size make Joshua Tree a quiet place. Hike no more than a mile away from any road and the only sound you will hear is your own breath and the crunch of the sand under your feet. At night the sky comes alive free of the light pollution from the massive urban centers to the west. If Joshua Tree National Park could be summed up in two words it would be spectacular desolation.
There are six entrances, with three of them allowing connections by car to other regions of the park. Most visitors enter the park at the North Entrance found at Twentynine Palms, California. The West Entrance is located at Joshua Tree and the South Entrance is by the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Additional entrances can be found at Black Rock Canyon, Indian Cove and Canyon Road, all located in the northern section of the park.
Park headquarters is found at Twentynine Palms at the Oasis Visitor Center. Key attractions include the Oasis of Mara with its fan palms and wildlife. A half-mile long nature trail loops through the trees. Technically located outside of the park, the actual North Entrance sits about four miles to the south.
People wishing to take an auto tour through Joshua Tree should begin at the West Entrance located in Joshua Tree, California. Heading southeast on Park Boulevard your first stop will be at Hidden Valley. Here you can enjoy a picnic and take a trek on the mile long Hidden Valley Trail. The easy nature trail loops through massive boulder fields on the Mojave Desert side of the park. A little further east from the Hidden Valley Picnic Area is another spur road that leads to Hidden Valley. These granite boulders attract rock climbers from around the world and Hidden Valley is one of their favorite spots. A short hiking trail takes you to an old cattle rustler hide out.
From Hidden Valley the road turns sharply to the south, Park Boulevard continues east and Keys View Road begins. At this intersection you can park at the Cap Rock Trailhead and take the half-mile long nature trail through the region. Heading south on Keys View Road, it comes to a dead end at 5,185 feet Keys View, one of the highest points in the park. From this mountaintop vantage you can see the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the south, and large portions of Joshua Tree to the north and east. On the return from Keys View you can take a right onto the dirt spur road that leads to the Lost Horse Mine Trailhead. This strenuous four-mile trail climbs up the side of 5,278 feet high Lost Horse Mountain, site of the now abandoned ten-stamp mill.
As you head north back toward Hidden Valley you can turn right onto Park Boulevard toward Sheep Pass or continue north to the dirt road that heads east toward Barker Dam. If you decide to head out toward Barker Dam be sure to check with rangers on road conditions. The two routes are a true toss up because both provide very different perspectives.
If you head toward Sheep Pass you can stop at the Ryan Mountain trailhead. The three mile round trip is strenuous up the side of the 5,461 feet high peak. The trek provides you a tremendous reward with fantastic views of Lost Horse, Queen, and Pleasant Valleys.
If you take the dirt road east out toward Barker Dam you are in for a different kind of treat. Created by cattleman in the late 1890's, the dam was formed to catch natural rainwater to support the cattle that used to graze in this area. The cattle are long gone but the dam still remains. Today the reservoir is a source of life giving water for birds and wildlife and awe by park guests. An easy 1.1-mile long loop trail is also available, accessible at the Barker Dam parking area.
Eventual the two roads cross in Queen Valley. You can take the dirt Geology Road south into the Pleasant Valley. The first 5-1/2 miles of the road is accessible by car and the last eight miles, a one-way loop, is strongly recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles. There are sixteen stops along the eighteen-mile route; the first ten are accessible by normal passenger car. The road twists its way through the fractured and weather worn remains of ancient mountains that were formed 1.7 billion years ago.
The next stop as you head back east on Park Boulevard is Jumbo Rocks. Like Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks is another region littered with massive boulders forming countless climbing routes ranging from simple scrambles to advanced technical climbs requiring proper gear and training. A short quarter mile long hiking trail can be taken to Skull Rock and is accessible from the campground.
Making your way east again the road comes to an end. You can take Park Boulevard north toward the North Entrance at the Oasis of Mara, or head south on Pinto Basin Road to the Cholla Cactus Garden.
The Cholla Cactus Garden sits on the border of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. The short quarter mile long nature trail loops through the beautiful cactus. The Cholla are also called jumping cactus for good reason. An accidental brush with the cactus will result in dozens of extremely sharp needle like spines finding their way into your skin, so be extremely careful while trekking through the garden and watch children as well as pets.
As you continue to drop in altitude you will come to another garden area, the Ocotillo Patch. The road continues to drop into the dry Pinto Basin toward the South Entrance at Cottonwood Spring. Cottonwood is the second easiest oasis in the park to get to. Taking the one mile long hiking trail from the parking lot, Cottonwood is alive with fan palms and is one of the best places in the park to see birds and wildlife.
If you are up for a real challenge consider hiking out eight miles to the Lost Palm Oasis, the largest in Joshua Tree. The secluded oasis is located in the Eagle Mountains at the southern edge of the park. A side trip to Victory Palms is possible on this route, but will require you to do some technical scrambling.
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