hiking joshua tree

Out of the Park

These High Desert hikes lead to sand dunes, a palm oasis, and even a volcanic crater.

Steven Biller Attractions, Current PSL, Hiking

hiking joshua tree
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT

You can probably rattle off a long list of good reasons to hike in Joshua Tree National Park: the boulder-strewn landscape, the Martian rock formations, the fiery sunsets with those namesake yucca palms in silhouette. They all factor into the park’s spiking visitation, which has doubled in the past 12 years — from 1.4 million visitors in 2010 to more than 3 million last year — causing backups at the entry gates (especially the West Entrance in Joshua Tree), parking shortages at popular spots, and traffic on some of the trails.

While my partner, Edgar, and I frequent the park, we also like a quiet, solitary experience in nature. So, over the past several months, we set out on a variety of High Desert hikes outside the park boundaries — places with an equally satisfying measure of prickly ocotillo and cholla, sunbaked boulders, and surprising oases.

Here are five hikes, two of which — Fortynine Palms Oasis and Rattlesnake Canyon — are technically part of the national park but accessible from its outer perimeter, that we recommend you try this spring.

KELSO DUNES
kelsodunes

Distance: 3 miles, out and back
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Take Interstate 15 north to Kelbaker Road and exit south to Kelso Dunes. Or, from Highway 62 in Twentynine Palms, turn left on Adobe Road, continue about 1.5 miles to Amboy Road. Turn right, continue for 35 miles, and then turn right onto National Trails Highway. Continue for 6.6 miles and turn left onto Kelbaker Road. Continue for 26 miles and turn left on Kelso Dunes Road. Follow the graded dirt road about 3.5 miles to the parking area.
Website: nps.gov/moja/kelso-dunes.htm

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kelsoduneshike

Edgar and I refer to the wind-sculpted Kelso Dunes in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve as “our spot.” We like to arrive early, hike out, and watch the sun rise from the sandy peak — a 650-foot ascent from the trailhead at the parking area. 

The Kelso Dunes are clustered over 45 square acres in a basin surrounded by the Granite, Providence, Old Dad, and Kelso mountains. The active dune sand contains a variety of minerals, mostly quartz (up to
80 percent) and feldspar. Geologists suggest the unique, Tatooine-like environment formed over thousands of years by an accumulation of fine, gradually blowing sands from the Mojave River Wash located to the northwest, near Afton Canyon.

We secured our keys and phones in zippered compartments of our backpacks, which we loaded with water, snacks, and an extra layer in case we became cold. If the temperature is moderate, you can hike barefoot on the dunes. In cold or hot temperatures, the sand can feel like freezing or boiling water. Either way, you’ll want to protect your feet when you’re off the dune and back on the trail.

The path starts out reasonably walkable, flanked by desert vegetation that wanes as the sand deepens. That’s where the trail disappears, and the climb begins. A couple hundred yards into the hike, we felt like we entered a sea of sand, where the wind ripples the surface. It’s like the setting of the famous surrealist painting, The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dalí — except for the wavy paths of sidewinders and paw prints of kit foxes. Otherwise, it’s sand as far as the eye can see, undulating with dramatic light and shadow.

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We trudged the 1.5 miles up the soft, steep slopes to the summit of the tallest dune. On the other side, a field of smaller dunes fills an expanse known as Devil’s Playground.

Edgar and I frequent Kelso Dunes but only recently (finally!) heard the rare, natural phenomenon known as “booming dunes” — the low-frequency kettle drum sound that occurs during avalanching. Others describe the sound and vibration, which we did not feel, as eerie. Maybe next time ...

Where to eat: There are no restaurants or services in the vicinity. The closest structure is the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, which offers exhibits showcasing different aspects of the Mojave Desert, from its wildlife to its mining and ranching histories. But no food or drinks. Pack your cooler before you head out.

PIONEERTOWN MOUNTAINS PRESERVE
PipesCanyonTrail

Distance: 6.5-mile loop
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: From Highway 62, take Pioneertown Road to Pipes Canyon Road and turn left into the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. Or, take Highway 247 (Old Woman Springs Road) to Pipes Canyon Road and follow until it ends in the preserve.
Website: wildlandsconservancy.org/preserves/pioneertownmountains

pioneertown
chaparrosapeaktrail

When the weather finally broke last fall, Edgar and I began going on longer hikes. Our first was the scenic, 6.5-mile Indian Loop trail in the lesser-known Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. Located in the Pipes Canyon Wilderness and surrounded by the Sawtooth Mountains, the pristine 25,500-acre preserve packs everything we love about the High Desert landscape. The terrain varies with steep climbs and descents, eye-catching rock formations, and a trickling stream that cuts through a field of cottonwood trees.

On our first outing here, we followed the well-maintained loop clockwise, ascending the mountain for about 2.5 miles from the east on the Chaparrosa Peak Trail and enjoying the panoramic views as we connected to and crossed the Indian Springs Trail. (We skipped the 1.5-mile out-and-back spur trail to Chaparrosa Peak but agreed to try that route on our next visit.) We continued to gain elevation on Indian Springs, met a few other hikers (two with leashed dogs) coming counterclockwise, and descended on Pipes Canyon Trail.

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Once down the mountain, we came to a wooded area offering plenty of shade and well-placed stones to traverse the stream. (The canyon is situated in a riparian corridor and attracts wildlife most of the year.) At the trail junction, a very short spur trail leads to the Olsen homestead ruins — another spot to rest and enjoy the views.

Whether starting on the Pipes Canyon Trail or the Chaparrosa Peak Trail, the hike steps off from the parking area, near The Wildlands Conservancy Ranger Station, where you’ll also find an information board, maps, and a restroom. The preserve is open from dawn to dusk.

Where to eat: The legendary restaurant, bar, and music venue Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace and the new Red Dog Saloon are located a few minutes from the preserve. For something more foodie, you want a late lunch at La Copine on Old Woman Springs Road in nearby Flamingo Heights.

FORTYNINE PALMS OASIS
fortyninepalmsoasis

Distance: 3 miles, out and back
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: From Interstate 10, take Highway 62 into Twentynine Palms, turn right on Fortynine Palms Canyon Road, and continue 1.7 miles to the parking area and trailhead.
Website: alltrails.com/trail/us/california/fortynine-palms-trail

palmtrees
streams

I’d seen many palm oases in the lower desert — in the Indian Canyons, Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms Oasis — but none in the High Desert until Edgar suggested we hike to Fortynine Palms Oasis, one of six oases within the boundaries of the national park alone. 

This hike begins with a reasonable 300-foot ascent, offering expansive views of the city of Twentynine Palms, the Bullion and Sheep Hole mountain ranges, and Fortynine Palms Canyon. At a high point on the ridge, the oasis comes into view about a mile in the distance — the refreshing reward for those who cross the great basin filled with creosote bushes, yucca, barrel cactuses, brittlebush, jojoba, arrow-weed, and catsclaw.

We followed the well-maintained trail to the cluster of desert fan palms on a precipitous hillside. The sun beamed through the trees’ bright green fronds, animating the gray-granite canyon. Beneath the canopy of indigenous Washingtonia filifera, we marveled at the oasis. According to lore, miners planted the trees in the early 1900s to mark the location of the spring, which in turn irrigates the trees at the base of the mountain ranges. The pools among the rocks make this a popular spot, but also a sensitive one, as it holds the critical water supply for plant and wildlife, including Peninsular bighorn sheep.

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hikesafety

The hike to Fortynine Palms Oasis and back is relatively easy; however, the story of 51-year-old Paul Miller reminds us to always bring a buddy and stay on the trail. Miller was an experienced hiker from Ontario, Canada, who came to Joshua Tree on vacation in July 2018. On the morning of the 13th, he told his wife, Stephanie, he was going for a short hike. When he failed to return, search and rescue teams combed the area for five days but found no trace of him. About 18 months later, a drone image led authorities to Miller’s remains and personal belongings (including food and water). They said he was located far off the trail, probably seeking shade from the blistering summer sun.

But visitors have been safely enjoying the oasis for almost a century. Randall Henderson, founder of the city of Palm Desert and editor of the original Desert Magazine, went for his first hike into the canyon in 1940 and recounted it in that year’s December edition, writing, “I have come to regard 49 Palms as one of the three most picturesque palm oases in the Southwest. The other two are Seventeen Palms [Oasis] in the Borrego Badlands and Hidden Springs Palms in the Orocopia [Mountains] foothills.”

Where to eat: Fortynine Palms Oasis is situated between the downtowns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. In Joshua Tree, you’ll find a variety of casual restaurants, including Country Kitchen, Crosswalk Café, The Dez, Natural Sisters, and Joshua Tree Saloon. For restaurants in Twentynine Palms, see the entry for Rattlesnake Canyon.

AMBOY CRATER
amboycrater

Distance: 2.5 miles, out and back
Difficulty: Easy
Access: From Interstate 10, take Highway 62 to Adobe Road in Twentynine Palms. Turn left, continue about 1.5 miles to Amboy Road and turn right. Continue 40 miles and turn left on National Trails Highway. Turn left at Crater Road.
Website: blm.gov/visit/amboy-crater-national-natural-landmark

amboycraterlandmark
amboycraterhike

If you’ve ever wanted to climb into a volcano, your moment will come shortly after arriving at the volcanic cinder cone known as Amboy Crater, a monumental remnant of the turbulent era when molten rocks forced through Earth’s crust and exploded onto the desert floor. Many craters dot the California desert landscape, but this one is notable for its symmetrical shape, formed by the layering of liquid and ash over successive eruptions, the last one occurring about 6,000 years ago, according to a consensus of geologists.

Located off old Route 66 and National Trails Highway south of the Mojave National Preserve, the crater is 250 feet tall, 1,500 feet in diameter, and easily seen from the roads. To some people, its mere presence triggers anxiety and even fear: Could this thing
erupt again?

No, it can’t. You’ll see why once you’re at the top — if the viewing gazebo, picnic tables, and restrooms fail to put your mind at ease when you pull into the shiny new parking area. Amboy Crater was designated as a national natural landmark in 1973. 

We hiked an easy 1.2 miles on the well-marked lava field trail, stepping over jagged obsidian, to the breach on the west side of the cone. We followed the path to the top, circled the entire rim, and took in the 360-degree view of expansive Mojave Desert.

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amboycraterelevation

The next logical move was to descend into the caldera. We ran around like kids down there, examining chunks of volcanic glass and taking pictures to post on Instagram. We hiked back up the interior wall of the cone to the rim trail, which we followed to the path leading down the outer wall and back to the parking area.

Stay on the trail when hiking in the lava field wilderness. Once you lose sight of the parking area, it’s easy to get turned around and disoriented. In 2017, Kathie Barber, 58, of Yorba Linda, called 911, reporting that she was separated from her companion, Gen Miake, 60, and out of water. The temperature was 113 degrees, and Miake had a heart condition. When the search and rescue team arrived, they couple was found dead more than a mile east of the trailhead, “approximately 100 yards from one another in the open desert with no shade,” according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

This may seem like common sense, but we can’t say this enough: Avoid hiking in hot, cold, and wet conditions.

Where to eat: The only business near Amboy Crater is Roy’s Motel & Café and gas station, where you can find drinks, snacks, T-shirts, and souvenirs.

RATTLESNAKE CANYON
rattlesnakecanyon

Distance: 2.6 miles, out and back
Difficulty: Difficult
Access: From Interstate 10, take Highway 62 into Twentynine Palms, turn onto Indian Cove Road, and continue for 2.7 miles until it dead-ends at the campground. Turn left at the intersection and continue another mile to the day-use parking and picnic area.
Website: alltrails.com/trail/us/california/rattlesnake-canyon--2

indiancovecampground
rockformationsjoshuatree

There’s a narrow ridge in Rattlesnake Canyon where my fear of heights always gets the best of me. I slide across this precarious curve on my butt rather than trust my tread and balance.

If you check online, you’ll find most sites rate this hike as easy or moderate.

I beg to differ — not because it’s strenuous (it’s not), but because there’s no trail at all. It’s more of a scramble than a hike. There are no footprints to follow along the rocky terrain and steep slopes, and once you reach the slot canyon, with its waterfalls and pools, you’ll need technical skills to repel into its depths. 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The hike starts in a sandy wash, which you enter from the day-use area at Indian Cove near Twentynine Palms, and leads to the ascending scramble. With no defined trail or markers, you make your own route and go as high and far as you desire. We made our way up the monzonite-walled ravine, clutching onto the granite and squeezing through a claustrophobic passage between two massive boulders, to reach the smooth and sometimes slippery rocky plateau that was dotted with deep potholes filled with water. We could see cottonwood trees farther in the canyon, but we stopped here to take in the views (and some water) and scramble on the boulders.

rockformationsjoshuatree
rattlesnakecanyonhike

We were unprepared for the repels into the slot canyon but will try it another time with the proper gear and a more experienced guide. We might also take the route from Rattlesnake Canyon into Joshua Tree National Park’s Wonderland of Rocks — a challenging adventure, even for experienced hikers and climbers.

Despite Rattlesnake Canyon’s name, we have yet to meet anyone who has ever seen a rattlesnake here. But that hardly means the hike is without hazards; it can, in fact, put you in a difficult spot or two. Don’t try it (or any other desert hike) alone. Sometimes, you need a second set of eyes or hands to make your next move.

We descended the same way we came up and followed the wash back to the parking and picnic area. 

Incidentally, you can spend a night or more amid the rock formations at the adjacent and wonderfully scenic Indian Cove Campground. It’s a popular spot, so reserve your campsite in advance.

Where to eat: Rattlesnake Canyon is close to downtown Twentynine Palms. Our favorite spots here are Campbell Hill Bakery, Edchada’s Fine Mexican Food & Cocktails, GRND SQRL, Kitchen in the Desert, and The Rib Co. 

BE PREPARED
hikingprecautions
We know you’re excited to hit the trails and check out all the plants, wildlife, and panoramic views, and we’d like you to live to tell about hikes. We don’t care how many miles you run, laps you swim, or weights you pump. You’re no match for the extreme desert climate, terrain, and solitude. You can easily become too hot, too cold, or dehydrated — all life-threatening conditions. Here’s our best advice for a safe and enjoyable outing:

Tell someone where you’re going. If you lose cell service and become lost or injured, someone needs to know where to look for you.

Check the weather forecast and dress and pack appropriately.

Print a map of the trail — or download it to your phone. 

Hike with a buddy. You never want to be alone if you’re lost or injured.

Wear a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and hiking shoes. Leather hiking boots with rugged soles and thick socks are best.

Invest in a sturdy, padded backpack. You’ll need it for everything else on this list. Choose a bright color that’s easily seen on the landscape. 

Take water and snacks. Bring more water than you think you’ll drink. You’ll need it. 

Pack an extra layer. It may be hot when you start your hike, but if the sunset beats you back to the trailhead, it’ll probably be cold before you make it to your car.

Carry a first-aid kit, flashlight, and compass. You can get dinged up and caught out there after sunset.

Stay on the trail to avoid getting lost — and to minimize damage to the fragile terrain. 

Avoid wildlife and reaching into places you can’t see. It could be dangerous.

Leave no trace. Carry out what you take in, leave what you find (rocks, plants, artifacts, etc.), respect wildlife, and be considerate of others. Visit lnt.org for more information.

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