Stark windy desert trek alone but near crowds & cars
Trekking plains and rolling hills through stark desert, wearing raingear against bitter winds from snowy mountains soaring to the west. Camping in the shelter of washes or rockpiles, huddling beneath a large juniper tree to cook out of the wind. Strolling through forests of Joshua trees. Sighting distant “Winnebagos” on the horizon and meeting hordes of hikers by every trailhead—yet camping alone every night. Black tree silhouette against pale peach and flaming red sunsets; camp bathed in full moonlight.
These are my memories of a 105-mile February hiking trip through Joshua Tree Wilderness.
An unusually cold, wet, and snowy winter in the West brought 150 percent snowpack to the 11,000-foot San Bernadino mountains rising above this desert wilderness north of Palm Springs and a few hours east of Los Angeles. This may explain why all but three days of our 12-day adventure featured chilly winds up to 20 mph even in the resort town of Twentynine Palms!
I had already been surprised by abnormally cold weather and frequent (but needed) rainstorms in southern Arizona where we spend the winter. I was looking forward to what I thought would be a warm backpacking trip in desert. (I had been spoiled by previous winter trips to Arizona border wilderness in elevations around 1000 feet. )
But most of our Joshua Tree trek was in Mojave Desert with elevations ranging from 4000 to above 5000 feet—and most of it was quite chilly.
After a harrowing day of rude commercial trucks and aggressive pickups on Interstate 10 from Arizona, lonely Highway 177 around the park was a welcome change—although we would have taken scenic Pinto Basin Road north across the park ( ) had we known it was paved! We found our way to 29 Palms Inn, where we left a suitcase for a mid-hike layover and resupply.
On a cool grey afternoon, we drove through north end of park to make start our “water drops” near the Riding Trail, our core route. Stashing water behind large rocks near spur trail to the Arch and Windows, we joined crowds of day hikers; so many lined up that David postponed taking a picture of the Arch until our return a week later.
We left our hotel the next ice-cold morning to finish water drops; assaulted by gale force winds every time we left our vehicle. Cloud cover was replaced by dazzling white snow on the peaks west of us—perhaps the source of cold battering winds that met us on every ridge and high point.
Joshua Tree human historyPeople have lived in the Joshua Tree area for at least 5,000 years including the Pinto Culture, Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla. Cattlemen and miners came in the late 19th century, and white homesteaders arrived in the 1900s. Joshua Tree has 501 known archeological sites and 88 historic structures.
Joshua Tree Wilderness covers 600,000 acres of desert in southern California below towering San Bernardino Mountains and north of Palm Springs, 85 percent of Joshua Tree National Park.
Forests of tall Joshua trees (a tree-like form of agave) and colorful rock formations are main features. Rolling ridges and valleys 4000 about feet up to volcanic ridges near 6000 feet in the northwest are Mojave Desert. Eastern parts mostly below 3000 feet are Colorado Desert, a subset of lower Sonoran Desert, with creosote, ocotillo, jumping cholla and some Saguaro cactus.
Two paved roads, Park Boulevard, looping between the north and west entrances, and Pinto Basin Road, heading south to Cottonwood Springs and Interstate 10, transect the wilderness. They are “cherry stem” non-wilderness corridors common in national parks which cater to vehicle-based recreation. Hikers can see and even hear vehicles in many places throughout the wilderness; but the roads allow strategic water drops to support a backpacking loop.
There is no water for hikers in Joshua Tree Wilderness. Due to drought and higher temperatures from climate change, 60 percent of springs went dry between 2006 and 2016 according to the Park Service. We saw no springs or even potholes. We spent our first day driving Park Boulevard and Covington Flat graded dirt road to make 7 water drops for our trip.
Our 12-day trip (including water drop day, layover, and day hikes) circled the northern half of the wilderness counter-clockwise starting and ending at Black Rock Mesa Trailhead on far northwest, hiking into town of Twentynine Palms for a two-night stop, and short cab ride to a trailhead to finish our trek. Our main routes were the 38-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail (Riding Trail), parts of the Boy Scout Trail and Bigfoot Trail, and other side trails.
Backcountry reservations now must be made through the unwieldy online recreation.gov site, reserving campsites in various zones. Or hikers can visit the park’s permit office 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday in building 100 near the flagpole at park headquarters, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, (south of the north entrance on Park Boulevard). Since much of this complex is closed, perhaps call the park at 760-367-5500 to help find the office.
We saw few backpackers; a few do weekend trips on short trails like Boy Scout Trail. Most popular seem to be scenic driving and day hiking, with crowds near all trailheads.
Visit statistics: 12 days (including stopover), 108 miles at 2.4 mph, with 325 feet per mile elevation change.
Go to map below for more information on trailheads, daily routes, mileages, elevation changes and photos. (Click on white box in upper right corner to expand map and show legend with NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS.)
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt lobbied to preserve Joshua Tree. After moving from Mississippi to California she fell in love with the desert but was appalled by careless destruction of Joshua trees and cacti. She founded the International Desert Conservation League. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. (designer of Central Park) appointed her to a commission to recommend new state parks for California.
Mrs. Hoyt wanted Joshua Tree to be national park. The National Park Service (Park Service) proposed a 138,000-acre monument but she pushed for more acreage. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the 825,340-acre Joshua Tree National Monument. In 1950 Congress transferred almost 290,000 acres back to public lands for mining and grazing. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 returned this land to Park Service and designated Joshua Tree as National Park. Most of the monument became wilderness in 1976 with more acreage added in the Desert Protection Act and in 2009.
Although 85 percent of Joshua Tree is wilderness, we saw and even met motorized vehicles as our route passed near wilderness-exempted Park Boulevard, Covington Flat, the Geology Road and a spur road up Eureka Peak. We met no backpackers until last day of our trip!
Cold camps, late starts, sandy sloggingOur backpacking trip started with a very chilly camp on edge of the wilderness at Black Rock Campground. Our campsite reserved online was on a barren windy hill. Although the campground was only a third full and many sheltered campsites among big Joshua trees were unused, the rule-driven Park Service required camping in the site you reserved, no exceptions.
So I took our cook pot, food, and stove and dropped down a hillside towards Black Rock Canyon, finding shelter from the wind beneath a big juniper tree, while David set up the tent.
I wore a turtleneck and stocking cap in my sleeping bag all night against the bitter windy night; my nose got cold if I put it outside the bag. Next morning, we stayed in the tent until sun hit it around 7:30. This would be our practice most mornings on this wintery desert hike.
At the trailhead I chatted briefly with two day-hikers who had hiked previous day and agreed the wind was outrageous (“I wore three layers all day,” she said). We followed them but parted company where David left the Riding Trail for a trudge up sandy canyons and side trails that eventually arrived Eureka Peak—at 5500 feet the highest point on our trip—besieged by gale force winds. This did not deter the photographer with tripod happily recording 360-degree views; I did not linger to chat but scampered down the road. We missed a trail turnoff and did an extra switchback or two, meeting two Off-Road-Vehicles before we rejoined the Riding Trail. We camped early by our first water drop, in a sheltered side canyon by oak and juniper trees.
Warm breakfast in the sunny nook and a milder day hiking down and up several low passes. I saw a bundled hiker far ahead of us whom we never caught. We left the main trail for side loop by dry Stubbe Spring. Day-hiker couple said they searched down canyon through willows and found nothing. After much sand slogging, we camped near top of a mesa and short spur trail to a great view of Coachella Valley and Santa Rosa Mountains 30 miles away on other side of valley.
In process of update…to be continued
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)