A short but strenuous scramble up a mountainside in the backcountry of Joshua Tree National Park. Opportunities for extra rock scrambling and exploring, with fantastic views of both the park, and the Mojave desert north of the park. Orienteering experience is helpful on this trip.

I think as a National Park, Joshua Tree gets a bit of the short-end of the hiking stick. Maybe just because it’s so close, the 2-3 hour drive doesn’t seem like you’re really leaving civilization. And if you’re coming from L.A., you’re driving through the never ending shopping mall sprawl of Interstate 10. If you’re going to Sequoia or Death Valley, not only does it take twice as long but you also drive through vast stretches of open countryside, which definitely increases that feeling of remoteness.

The park is justifiably known primarily as a rock-climbing destination, and despite having some great trails and mountains, not a lot of people go hiking there. Is the hiking on par with Yosemite or Sequoia? Probably not. But it’s still worth seeing.

Me, I love Joshua Tree. Even though I don’t go there as often as I could or should. The first time I went there, I was very much guilty of ‘carseeing’ until I decided to try the Ryan Mountain trail on a whim. I got caught in a desert thunderstorm, nabbed my first 5000ft+ peak, and probably got infected with the Desire to Hike. The next time I went it was cold enough to warrant winter hats and gloves. I had my first run-in with the cholla cactus and visited an incredibly well preserved gold mine. And of course, there are the forests of twisted Joshua trees and otherworldly rock formations that look like they were dropped out of the sky …

This time, I wanted to visit the backcountry and see what else the park had to offer.

But because I was going solo, I didn’t want to go too far into the backcountry.

Over any holiday Weekend the park gets filled up quickly. On the way in, signs were posted at all the entrances saying that all campgrounds were full until Tuesday. There were plenty of cars parked at the North Visitor Center, and as I walked in to pay my increased entrance fee, rangers were busy answering the usual Important Tourist Questions – like “Where are the bathrooms?” and “Where are the Joshua Trees?” There was even a small traffic backup at the entrance gate. But as soon as I turned from the main paved road and onto a dirt one, I could have easily had the entire park to myself.

A short drive down the semi-washboard road and I was parking my trusty Accord alongside mud-spattered 4x4s from across the country. There were about five other cars in the tight cul-de-sac, but no one else was around, visibly or audibly. I put on my sunscreen, laced up my boots, checked my maps and GPS, and got my mountain in view:

Distant Queen
I noticed an old wooden sign pointing north and a large group of footprints that seemed to take its direction. So I followed. And after a short distance traveling on a dirt path, the road forked. A few prints continued north while the others wound east. I had a clear line of sight to the wash I’d be climbing up and it was definitely not north, so east I went. And then the path started curving south back toward the parking area.

So far, my backcountry pathfinding skills were showing themselves to be severely lacking. But as the footprints I was following also seemed a bit confused, I didn’t feel quite so bad.

Instead of keeping with the circular path, I instead just shot east toward the mountain in a straight line … and it wasn’t too long before I found a few more sets of footprints winding through the brush. And soon enough, I was at a wide, sandy wash.

Wash Trail
Everything I’d read about this mountain said to keep going east until you hit a second wash, but again I stuck with the footprints. And sure enough, the wash I was on narrowed and disappeared completely, sending the footprints scattering in all various eastwardly directions. It was at this point when I stopped trusting other peoples’ feet and started trusting my own eyes. And my compass.

If you head northeast from the parking lot, the first wash you’ll encounter is the wash you’re supposed to be in. Stay in the wash until around the half-mile mark when the wash starts to turn to the northwest. Here, the trail leaves and travels over a rocky ridge to the northeast. From there, it’s pretty much a straight shot across the desert to the northeast until you reach a second wash. Follow this wash as it narrows and approaches the base of Queen Mountain. It will get much rockier, and you’ll note a defined use-trail / scramble route on the canyon’s western wall.

The Way Up
I cracked my knuckles and stretched out my legs, and up and away I went.

While the boulders start on a gentle slope upward, the hopping quickly turns to sharp upward scrambling. Aside from loose rocks, though, there isn’t much to worry about. There are no steep drops and you can’t get lost as you’re only going up … although, once I did stop to check the neighboring wash to make sure I was going up the right one.

Oh, and you should watch out for the handful of especially hardy cacti that make this area their home.

A Cactus in the Desert
All it took was one small scrape on my forearm to get me on Constant Alert.

Going up the rocky wash, the sides of the canyon got tighter and steeper. At an especially large, path-blocking boulder, I noticed a small use trail going up on the west side of the wash. At closer inspection, I also noticed that this use-trail was lined with a few cairns, and continued up alongside the wash instead of scrambling inside it.

If you’re confident you’ll be able to spot these cairns and skip the wash altogether, think again. Cairns are pretty easy to spot in a forest, but when you’re in a landscape where the rocks naturally appear stacked on top of each other, it’s a bit more difficult.

Spot the Cairns
That said, once you start actively looking for these things, it is a bit easier to spot them. And again, if all else fails, just go up.

The use trail wound its way up the canyon, which eventually opened up to a wide saddle between Queen Mountain and the slightly lower peak to its east. A few small trees here offer the only available shade on the entire hike. Luckily, I was giving this a go on a cool, partly-cloudy day, so the temperature wasn’t that bad.

The Saddle
But of course, no strenuous summit would be complete without one final stretch of scrambling. It’s just another few small climbs up some rock shelves to the summit. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can just crawl right up the side to the top. Or you can explore around the backside for a few smaller scrambles. Either way, when you get to the top, you’re rewarded with 360 degree views of the Park and the high desert to the north.

Last Plateau
Looking west, you can get a great view of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio.

Mountain Frame
Looking south at the rest of the park, it’s surprising how barren the desert can seem. This is probably what most people have in mind when they think of the desert – endless stretches of nothing. It’s the same reason I think I like the desert so much – color and life are there, you just have to keep your eyes peeled for it.

Looking South
A Bit of Green

Occasionally, you’ll spot something really interesting – like this gummy bear someone left perched on a dead yucca.

Gummy Bear Cairn
I’m still shocked nothing had eaten that thing yet. It certainly looked like it’d been sitting out there for a while.

On the way down, I noticed the use trail continued along the side of the wash before I’d climbed out of the wash to join it. In the interests of record-keeping, I skipped the wash and followed the cairned trail. This move was also in the express interests of my knees, which were quite sore from all the ups and downs on the boulders.

Even though the use trail was sporadically marked by cairns, it was definitely not easy to follow. Eventually, the cairns stopped altogether, and I was back to wandering the desert by my lonesome. I just decided to make a bee-line to the southwest. After a short walk, I rejoined the sandy wash I’d come up on.

Joshua Tree and Sky
Instead of retracing my exact route via GPS, I decided to follow the footprints in the wash to see if there was any sort of use-trail that led directly to the parking area. And lo and behold, there was indeed a faint one. If you decide to check out this hike, know that this is not the trailhead:

This is Not the Trailhead
… but if you go due northeast from this sign, you’ll find that wash pretty quickly.

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Modern Hiker
Since founding Modern Hiker in 2006, Casey's work on the site has appeared in regional and national publications, including the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, CNN, New York Magazine, High Country News, and others. He has broken several national news stories about outdoor vandalism and policies and his first book "Day Hiking Los Angeles" is available for pre-order.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on February 20, 2007

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