Rose and I got up around 4:30 am, grabbing our ready to go hiking packs, spare water, and shoes before getting into the rental car and setting out for the one and half hour drive from Palm Springs, California to Joshua Tree National Park. With high winds ripping across the sandy landscape, I drove slowly through the sand that whipped around the car. By the time we had reached the South Entrance, the sun was rising and the mountains and hills surrounding the park were illuminated in a cream orangesicle glow.
Our goal was to sneak in two hikes before the heat of the day settled in. The first, Mastodon Peak, was the longer of the two. An easy-moderate hike that promised expansive views of the valley at the halfway point. With the knowledge in mind that Joshua Tree trails can be hazardous during the day, my friend and I had packed roughly 5 liters of water between the two of us, plenty of snacks, and all manner of accessories to keep us protected from the heat and the sun.
Right off the start of the trail we were met with incredible beauty, tall wild palm trees stood in a proud grove. Warm light orange sand stretched out around us, and the area was surprisingly lush compared to what I picture of a desert.
Throughout the hike we were treated to fascinating and seemingly perfectly crafted rock formations. The view at the halfway point did not disappoint, and was worth the 3-4 minute scramble to the top of Mastodon Peak. The trail also took us past an old mining site, and we took a snack and water break near the old mining entrance.
Our second hike of the day brought us into a landscape I can only describe as otherworldly. Smooth wind and water formed granite surrounded us, rising in tall pillars and arches (the name sake for the trail, Arch Rock). Once off the sandy trail and into the rocks, it was like wandering through a maze, with several options at each turn. I could have explored all day there, but with the weather warming, we settled on going back to the car and to the air conditioning of our hotel.
Day Two, we attempted an even earlier start, getting up at around 3:30 am, with the goal of arriving at the park at 5:00 am for star gazing and a sunrise hike. The drive took a little longer than expected, due to slow driving through an intense sand storm that coated the highway better than a thick San Francisco fog. We drove through the quiet park and pulled over on a wide shoulder.
Looking up, I saw so many constellations that I hadn’t seen in years. The sky was wide, a deep velvety navy blue glimmering with bright stars and planets. It was one of those moments that made me wish I had a professional camera, that I could use to capture the incredible view.
Continuing on our way to the trailhead, we tested the limits of our rental car (a Toyota Camry) on some light off-roading. The drive to Pine City Trailhead took us off the paved main road of Joshua Tree, and onto a narrow rocky road. Though nervous about the Camry’s clearance, the road was lined with Joshua Trees (the namesake of the park), silhouetted by the rising sun, making the rocky terrain worth it.
The hike itself was easy, and offered panoramic views as we walked.
There are two sections to this trail, the main one which is a maintained trail, this also accounts for the first two or so mile. The second section is unmaintained, and I strongly recommend using a trail map. Rose and I hardly made it 500 feet into the unmaintained section before we completely lost sight of the trail and had to turn around and find where the maintained section ended.
Our time in Joshua Tree was limited, and I cannot wait to find another opportunity to return and explore more. The park offers several areas for climbers of all types (bouldering, top-roping, trad, etc…) and I plan to bring my climbing gear with me for the next visit.
Whether you are like Rose and I, and need a little break from the winter weather that the Northern US has to offer, or you dream of visiting another planet but don’t have a cool billion to throw towards a space shuttle, you should add Joshua Tree National Park to your “must-see” list.
- Start your hikes early in the morning, or for more experienced hikers with the proper equipment (i.e. headlamps and flashlights), in the evenings.
- Trails here can be tough to follow. The terrain is sandy, meaning that what is on trail and what is off trail look very similar. Be mindful of any rocks or branches that may be arranged to block off trail areas, and check for regular signs along trails to ensure you haven’t veered off. Apps like All Trails can be helpful for downloading a trail map to follow offline.
- Pack more water than you think you will need. In the event that you should get lost and end up spending more time in the park than planned, your number one necessity is going to be water.
- Sun protection, sun protection, sun protection! Pack a hat, sunglasses, a long sleeved loose fitting shirt, and a bandana that can be wet with water to help keep you cool.
- Check the park’s website for more helpful information.
What We Brought:
- 3-4 liters of water each
- A wide brimmed hat
- A long sleeved, loose fitting, breathable shirt
- Roughly 2,500 calories worth of snacks per person
- Flashlight and headlamp
- Phones and portable charging packs
- Small first aid kit
- Map of the park