Trip Report: Joshua Tree and Mojave National Preserve (January 2023) – Return to the Desert

The first time I saw the Mojave Desert, it looked like an inhospitable wasteland. It was 2006 and I was on I-10, driving across the country with my dad from my college in Orange County, CA back to my hometown, Washington, DC after graduation. The barren, sun-baked hills and mountain ranges seemed like a good place to get a nasty sunburn and possibly die from dehydration. I couldn’t wait to leave that dusty, god-forsaken landscape behind, and aside from a few brief stops to use restrooms, stretch our legs and snap a photo or two, we pressed on eastward.

Passing through the Mojave Desert, 2006. Photo credit Art Silverman

Looking back now, I wish I had explored more of the natural landscape of Southern California outside of the sprawling metropolitan areas, but I was a 22-year-old kid, homesick for the green forests of the east coast and disinterested in exploring this unfamiliar, arid environment. Without the benefit of google maps and a smartphone back in the mid-aughts, I stuck pretty close to campus and didn’t go on many adventures. At that point in my life, I poured all of my free time into working on my film school projects and training for cross country season. The mountains were not calling to me yet.

In the years following college, as my competitive running career wound down, I was looking for a lower stakes way of getting outdoors for exercise and I started getting interested in hiking and camping again, a pursuit I had walked away from at age 13 when I quit the Boy Scouts. I started doing some local trips in the Virginia and West Virginia mountains with my running team friends. I was often ill-prepared and under-equipped and suffered as a result, yet managed to still have a good time.

My first trip to Dolly Sods, November 2009. Photo credit Jon Snow

It wasn’t until I went to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah in 2010 that I truly fell in love with camping, the outdoors, and the desert. The terrain was so fascinating, the colors of the sunrises and sunset so vivid, the silence so all-encompassing. I was in total awe.

Capitol Reef National Park, May 2010

Since that trip, I’ve become a desert lover and have explored all four North American deserts. I appreciate the open spaces and quietness of the desert and love scrambling up sandstone slopes and exploring the unique forms carved by water. In 2020, I went on a two-week trip to Death Valley National Park with DC UL veteran members Andrew and Russ. We had a terrific trip so this year, we planned to do something similar with the addition of a new member, Bess. 

Sunrise from Dante’s View in Death Valley National Park, January 2020.

Our plan was to explore the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Due to the lack of water sources in these areas, we decided during our pre-trip zoom call to stick to day hiking. Although DC UL is primarily a backpacking group, we often engage in non-backpacking activities, such as cross-country skiing, packrafting, bikepacking and happy hours. Hence, no one had any ideological qualms with this being a car-camping/day hiking trip instead of a backpacking one.

Bess likes to cook, while Andrew and I like to eat, so we were enthusiastic about jumping on board with Bess’s meal plans.  Unlike most DC UL trips where we pour boiling water into individual pouches of dehydrated ‘food’ and then sit around in the dark shoveling the contents into our mouths with elongated spoons and call that dinner, there were proper group meals planned for almost every night of this trip.  While we planned to help Bess with the meal prep and cleanup, in practice we found that helping her cook usually involved getting out of her way.

Saturday, January 14

Andrew, Bess, and I set out on an early morning flight to Las Vegas, departing from DCA at 6 am. The flight was uneventful, and our connecting flight in Chicago went smoothly. Upon arrival in Las Vegas, we picked up our rental car from Enterprise. It was a very new Nissan Armada, but as Bess was quick to point out, a single vehicle (or vessel) can’t really be an armada.  We made quick stops at Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and REI to stock up on supplies. The first stop at REI was actually a bit too quick because we forgot to pick up a white gas canister for a Whisperlite stove upon the first visit.

Our final destination was a dispersed campsite near the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, where Russ had arrived earlier in the day from Sedona, Arizona, where he now resides for half the year.

Despite our efforts to race the sunset, we arrived about 30 minutes after dark. We navigated down a bumpy road damaged by recent rain and finally found Russ and his white 4runner.

Dispersed car campsite at the Kelso Dunes. Photo credit Russ Evans

In the 40° temperatures and light rain, we quickly set up our tents. We had a quick dinner of delicious hummus, mustard, and cheese sandwiches on French bread before retiring for the night. We also made friends with a little kangaroo rat that hopped around our feet searching for crumbs.

A friendly Kangaroo Rat. Photo credit Russ Evans.

Sunday, January 15

The group started our day early with a hike up the Kelso Dunes, which were made more compact and easier to walk on by recent rainfall, compared to dunes I had hiked on previously in Death Valley and Great Sand Dunes National Parks. The overcast sky didn’t take away from the breathtaking views of the dunes against the mountain backdrop. We spent about three hours hiking and covered a distance of 5 miles, stopping to take pictures along the sandy ridgeline.

After the hike, we headed to the Kelso Depot, a historic train station that serves as a national park service museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for HVAC repairs, but we made the best of it and had lunch on the Depot’s porch and were treated to a passing freight train.

After lunch, we continued with our day by hiking the Quail Spring Basin Lollipop Loop, adding 5 and a half miles to our daily mileage total. The hike offered stunning views of various species of cacti and interesting rock formations.

For dinner, we cooked vegetables and sausages, with one small incident involving the priming of a white gas stove. Bess, who was a bit out of practice, caused flames from the priming cup to escape and singe a hole in my tarp. Fortunately, it was just a $8 hardware store tarp and I forgave her.

Dinner at the Kelso Dunes. Photo credit Bess C.

Monday, January 16th

MLK day started off on a rough note; around 4 am the wind became so strong that it pulled all of my tent stakes out of the ground. I woke up to my rain fly pushing in on my tent, and I was trapped inside. In a claustrophobic panic I called for help from Andrew, who assisted me in securing my tent and gear. My friends’ tents held up a bit better, with Andrew’s tent remaining mostly upright thanks to his snow/sand stakes. Russ had to restake his tent a few times, but he was helped by parking his car to block the wind.

Given the rainy, windy and cold weather we were experiencing in the Mojave Preserve, we all agreed it was high time to head south to Joshua Tree National Park, where the weather promised to be warmer and drier. We drove south on the Kelbaker road, over a mountain pass and through thick fog before dropping into lower lying areas south of Interstate 40. After a 3-hour drive, we arrived in the town of Joshua Tree and stopped for a late breakfast at the Crossroads Café. It felt great to be inside, warm and dry for a bit. 

After a feast of french toast, eggs and breakfast burritos we hopped in the cars and drove into Joshua Tree National Park. The timing of our arrival was perfect as we found an amazing first-come-first-serve campsite in the Hidden Valley campground, with two sites right next to each other. Joshua Tree is only a 2 hour drive from LA and the campsites are highly sought after due to the high number of visitors. Our arrival was even more special as we were treated to a full rainbow. Bess greedily nabbed the best tent site, nestled in a rock alcove.  Russ also found a tent site that was protected from the wind on most sides.

We set out on a short day hike up Ryan Mountain, a 3-mile round-trip with fantastic 360° views from the top. The hike was windy and chilly, and we had to put on all of our layers when we paused for a break at the top.

That evening, Bess, Andrew, and I cooked a delicious meal of ravioli, peas, and spinach. The wind had died down and we were grateful not to be getting rained on. Although the sky was still cloudy, we did manage to spot a few stars.


Tuesday, January 17th

On Tuesday, we awoke to the sounds of a hooting owl and yipping coyotes at sunrise. After a leisurely breakfast, we set out on a shuttle hike of the Boy Scout Trail and Willow Cove. We left our campsite around dawn, drove both cars to the Indian Cove trailhead, where we left Russ’s 4runner, and then returned to the Boy Scout trailhead in the rental SUV. Although we aimed to leave the campsite at 6:30 AM, we ended up departing around 7:00 AM due to a longer than expected breakfast preparation. During the hike, Bess spotted a tarantula and we had the trail mostly to ourselves until encountering a large university group about a mile from the end of the trail.

After covering 12.5 miles, we reached Russ’s car and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Twentynine Palms. Bess was eager to try the jelly donuts in the local donut shop, but unfortunately, the shop was closed by the time we were done with lunch. Apparently, Bess has a minor superpower of being able to find bakeries wherever she travels. It’s also coupled with the un-superpower of always spending more money than expected at said bakeries. Following lunch, we returned to the park via the Twentynine Palms entrance to explore the parts of the scenic drive we hadn’t seen yet, including Skull rock. 

That evening, we were treated to a clear and star-filled sky, the best weather of the trip so far, and I took some group photos that I later composited with the starry night sky. Russ taught us about various constellations. By this point in the trip, our days had shifted to an early schedule, waking up around 5:00 AM, finishing our hikes in the early afternoon, having dinner by 5:00 PM when the sun set, and usually asleep by 7:30 PM.

Group photo under the stars at Hidden Valley Campground. Photo credit Peter Silverman

Wednesday, January 18th

On Wednesday, we embarked on a challenging 16-mile point-to-point hike on the California Riding and Hiking Trail, with a side trip up to Quail Mountain, the highest peak in Joshua Tree National Park. To set up the long shuttle, we left Russ’s car at Juniper Flat Trailhead and drove an hour to the Upper Covington Flat Trailhead on rugged dirt roads. The California Riding and Hiking Trail was well-maintained and offered a great single track walking experience.

When it came time to tackle the Quail Mountain off-trail section, we initially overshot the wash we were supposed to take and had to backtrack. Andrew led us up a somewhat overgrown gully, past burned trees, and over loose footing. After a series of false summits, we were rewarded with a stunning and windy view of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains. We finally reached the summit of Quail Mountain, where we took a lunch break and snapped some group photos.

The rest of the hike to Juniper Flat was enjoyable, and after arriving at Russ’s car, we rushed to retrieve the shuttle car in the fading light and then headed to the Joshua Tree Saloon for dinner. I ordered the Mineshaft Burger, a massive double patty delight. We arrived back at camp after 8 PM and resolved to sleep in the next morning to recover from the long hike and “late” night.

Thursday, January 19

On Thursday, although we attempted to sleep until 6 AM, coyotes woke us up with their howling at 5 AM. Bess even saw a coyote run through the campsite before we left for the day. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast of eggs and cheese on tortillas.

Our next adventure was the Lost Horse Mine Loop hike, featuring a well-preserved mining site about 1.5 miles in. The park service had wisely fenced off the site due to a 500-foot deep mine shaft that posed a major hazard to public safety. Though we had to contend with persistent wind and temperatures that only reached the high 40s and low 50s, we were thankful to have plenty of sunshine.

About halfway through the hike, we took an off-trail side trip to see what the guidebook described as a “well-preserved Joshua tree cabin,” but were disappointed to find nothing more than a couple of logs in the shape of a rectangle with some tin cans in the middle. Although we weren’t sure if we had found the right spot, it was underwhelming regardless.

We breezed through the rest of the hike and returned to camp for lunch, which we prepared with salad and hot beverages. 

After lunch, Bess was ready for a nap and I was feeling content to sit and enjoy a large mocha coffee, but Andrew and Russ rallied our spirits and we went for a 1-mile hike on the nearby Hidden Valley Loop Trail, a spot where cattle rustlers used to hide their stolen livestock. The trail and surrounding rock features were beautiful, but the harsh wind and low temperatures made it a bit challenging to fully enjoy the experience.

Friday, January 20th

Sunrise time-lampse from Hidden Valley Campground. Video credit Peter Silverman

Friday morning was quite chilly, and we all had to wear multiple layers before leaving our tents for breakfast. Andrew considered eating in his tent, while Bess thought of eating in the car, but togetherness won and we all eventually decided to eat together. Our friend Russ, who was heading back to Sedona, graciously helped us set up a shuttle hike between the Quail Spring Historic Trail to West Entrance hike, before heading home. The weather was cold and windy when we started the hike, but for once we started with the sun and our backs rather than squinting while walking right towards it. The hike took us through a flat, open area surrounded by mountains and juniper bushes, and then up a pass on the Bigfoot Trail. We completed the 8 mile hike quickly and were done by 11 AM. This was the only hike where we did not encounter any other hikers on the trail. Although we were on the Bigfoot Trail, we did not see any evidence of the legendary beast.

After the hike, we celebrated by visiting the visitor center, where we bought postcards, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. We had a delicious take-out lunch from a small café in Joshua Tree called The Dez and donuts from a place called Jelly Doughnut in Twentynine Palms. The rest of the day was filled with short hikes and visiting roadside exhibits. We drove to the southeast end of the park to the Cottonwood Desert Center, where we learned about the transition zone between the Sonoran and Colorado Deserts (the Colorado desert is a subsection of the Sonoran Desert). Bess fell asleep in the car and napped through most of this, so Andrew and I had to bring her up to speed later on what we had learned. Three of the most interesting short hikes we did were at the Cholla Cactus Garden, Arch Rock (where we assisted in a budding romance) and Barker Dam.

That night we cooked another delicious dinner at camp. By this point, Bess had regained her mastery of her Whisperlite stove and was able to prime it without issue and with only a little assistance from Andrew lighting it. No tarps were damaged.

Saturday, January 21st

On Saturday, we said goodbye to our cozy campsite in Hidden Valley and headed to the town of Joshua Tree for another breakfast at the Cross Roads Cafe. We even saw a poodle sitting in the driver’s seat of a vintage convertible.

Afterward, we drove north to the small desert town of Tecopa, CA, where I had previously spent some time in 2020. I wanted to show Andrew and Bess two local attractions that I found particularly appealing.

The first stop was China Ranch Date Farm, an oasis next to the Amargosa River that sells date milkshakes and other products. The ranch also provides trailhead access to the Amargosa River and other points of interest. We hiked 3 miles down to the River, (which, based on its size, was what we would classify as a small creek back on the east coast) and a short slot canyon, and then enjoyed some date milkshakes. Bess even picked up a book from the gift shop titled “Red Light Women of Death Valley,” which she reports is enthralling.

Video credit Peter Silverman

Next, we visited the Tecopa Hot Springs, a natural thermal feature on BLM land. The springs empty into a large muddy pool and tend to attract an eclectic crowd, which during this visit included a long-haired Russian shaman named Sergei who was sharing the secrets of longevity with a group of RV snowbirds. The nearly 100-degree water felt amazing after a week spent outdoors in chilly temperatures. I would have liked to stay longer, but sadly we had to leave due to our 5am flight out of Vegas the next day. Reluctantly, we said farewell to the desert and drove north back to the Vegas strip and civilization.

Tecopa, CA with Nevada in the distance. Video credit Peter Silverman

Many thanks to Andrew and Bess for helping me edit this trip report!

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