After we completed the John Muir Trail (JMT), our original plan was to head to Colorado for some more multi-day hikes. However, when we saw the weather forecast of deep freezing temperatures, we changed our plans and headed South to visit some lesser-known parks in Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
First on the list was the Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), just one small notch in fame below the likes of Yosemite. In fact, it turned out to be more popular than we realized: when we tried to get a spot in one of the park’s many camping grounds on a Saturday, every single spot including the first-come first-served ones were fully occupied.
So, we stalled and spent Saturday night in an incredibly cute cabin (the Biltmore Bunkhouse) at the Desert Lily bed and breakfast in the outskirts of Joshua Tree town.
On Sunday morning we tried our luck again and headed into the park, planning to arrive at the camp ground around check-out time (noon) so that we could snag a spot as people headed home after the weekend. Looking for some remoteness, we picked the Belle camp ground, which has only 18 spots. Sure enough, there were several free spots to pick from when we got there, despite the fact that the sign at the entrance still said it was full.
We chose spot number 5 which has a nice very secluded camping area hidden behind the rocks in the back. It also protected us from the ferocious winds that picked up every night. Later we found out that some German guide book recommends this exact spot as an excellent place for star gazing, which meant cars coming and going throughout the night. Maybe a spot on the second loop further from the entrance would have offered more privacy.
We spent two nights at the Belle campground, and one night at Cottonwood campground on the way out to slab city and beyond to Arizona. Cottonwood is also a nice, but bigger, campground but it lacks Belle’s beautiful rock formations.
We did not do any multi-day backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park, just day hikes. Everything can easily be covered in day hikes. Also, the total absence of any potable water in the backcountry makes backpacking a bit more of a challenge (you have to carry all of your water).
As you drive through the park, there are numerous stops where you can get out for a short 10-minute walk through the rock formations, the Joshua trees, the Yucca plants, the Ocotillo plants, the mountains, etc. that are so typical for the park. I won’t list them, but don’t skip them – it’s definitely worth the hassle to stop everywhere and at least have a quick peek.
In addition to these smaller stops we did a couple worthwhile longer hikes, varying from just an hour or so to almost full day. Here are a couple worth mentioning:
First we did the classic hidden valley loop. It’s only a mile and it’s crowded, but as the name promises it takes you through a very nice hidden valley full of the characteristic rock formations.
On the first day we also did the roughly 4-mile return trip to the lost horse mine. Although the mine itself is small and fenced off to avoid accidents, it’s interesting to see an old tiny mining operation in good shape in the middle of nowhere. The landscape, however, does not show off the characteristic Joshua Trees nor the rock formations, which is why we opted for a simple in-and-out hike rather than the longer loop hile.
On the second day we did a hike recommended by one of the park rangers: the North View, Maze, and Window trail loop. This is a combination of three trails into a roughly 10-mile loop, and it was by far our favorite hike in the park. It is not mentioned on any of the park maps that they give you when you enter the park, and it is also not mentioned on any road sign. A photo-copied information sheet with a rudimentary map is available at the Oasis of Mara entrance visitor center if you ask for it. You start out at an unmarked small parking lot on the main-road in the park, 1.7 miles from the west entrance. Although there is no sign on the road, there is a small sign on the trail. Throughout the loop, signage is very sparse, but the trail is fairly easy to follow and any incorrect spurs are clearly “blocked off” with rocks on the trail. We had no trouble following the trail. I wish I had kept a copy of the map, so that I could give more precise distances, but let me try it by memory. There are several trails heading out from the parking lot. Start by following the North View trail. This section goes through the northern hills. After about 4 miles or so, it connects to the Maze trail. This section is amazing. It has beautiful examples of the famous rock formations, Yucca plans, and a few Joshua trees. After about 2 miles or so, the Maze trail connects to the Window trail, which takes you back to the starting point in the remaining 4 miles or so. Here, you skirt a big basin that is full of Joshua trees. All the intersections are very clearly marked with signs. During the entire hike, we only saw 4 other hikers.
On the third and last day, we hiked the roughly 9-mile lost palms oasis and mastodon peak loop. This loop is in the far South of the park. Although there are not that many rock formations or Joshua trees in this part of the park, the nature is very different and it is very worthwhile doing. After what seems to be an eternity of hiking through the desert, you suddenly stumble on a large group of 100+ palm trees in the middle of nowhere. It’s called an oasis, but don’t expect a lake or anything like that.