Joshua Tree National Park Hikes
Lost Palms Canyon
One of the signature wilderness expanses in Southern California is Joshua Tree National Park. With great rock climbing routes and nighttime stargazing, the park’s reputation as a premier wilderness destination is well deserved. Aside from the rock climbing and the Joshua Trees the park is also a great spot to go on a hike. While hiking in the desert presents some challenges depending on the time of year, Joshua Tree has a plethora of hikes designed for all skill levels. The best hike in the park for a visitor looking to get off the beaten path, and explore the “unseen” portions of Joshua Tree in a day is the Lost Palms Oasis Hike.
This hike departs from the Cottonwood Springs trailhead, which is located near the Cottonwood Visitor Center in the park. This is the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park, and is not near the “popular” rock climbing areas or the main visitor center. The best way to access this portion of the park is to follow Interstate 10 to Cottonwood Springs Road, which will take you to the Cottonwood Visitor Center, and the trailhead. Because this area of Joshua Tree is fairly remote, I would recommend that any potential hikers check in with the Rangers at the Cottonwood visitor center before heading out on the hike. While the Lost Palms Oasis trail is maintained and marked by the National Park Service, it does cross several washes; and as such it is possible for novice hikers in the area to become lost while traversing the trail.
When I went on this hike, it was a balmy, muggy day – unusual for the desert – but what was not unusual were the warm temperatures (mid-nineties). The Lost Palms Oasis trail is not a trail with any shade; and as such, if you attempt it as I did, be sure of your conditioning, and be sure to be prepared for the conditions, and bring plenty of water. I set out from the Cottonwood Springs trailhead in the early morning, and from the moment I parked my car, I saw two things and two things only: desert beauty, and complete solitude. From the trailhead, the trail heads out through a small wash with palms, and then gradually ascends to the Mastodon Peak trail junction over the course of a mile.
At the one mile mark, the trail leveled out, and even though I was already hot, I was impressed by the vast desert terrain around me, including the Eagle Mountains which were visible to the Northeast, and the Cottonwood Mountains which were visible to the Southwest. Further, even though this area of the park is not known for its bouldering and climbing, I could spot a number of prominent features that had great routes, some of which I explored, and others I mentally marked for a later visit.
After two miles, the trail began to descend and ascend through a number of canyons, which while scenic, required a small amount of routefinding. While I never felt like I was “lost”, I did pay particular attention to the National Park Service signs and other directional materials that I had through this section of trail. Because it had rained the day before, and the ground was still moist, there were no footprints of other hikers that I could follow; and because two of the National Park Service markers were down, I did have to consult my map to ensure that I was on the correct route. All of this goes to what I already mentioned: as this is a remote area of the park, be sure to be prepared, and as always, it is a good idea to let the Park Service – or other third parties know where you are headed, especially as people do get lost while hiking Joshua Tree occasionally, as many of the park’s features can look similar to one another.
Once I had navigated my way out of the canyons, I followed the trail up through a small grove of ocotillos. As I ascended a slight ridgeline, I had a stunning view to the South, where I could see the Salton Sea, and the Jacumba mountains. This ridgeline was the three mile mark, and I continued to follow it up to the overlook above Lost Palm Oasis. At that point, 3.6 miles up the trail, I was at my destination – a stand of fan palms that has been hidden for hundreds of years from most people and most desert creatures. I spent a while listening to the silence of the desert, before returning to my car for a 7.2 mile roundtrip hike that covered some of the most desolate and beautiful portions of Joshua Tree National Park.