A view of the Lost Palms Trail.
This is one of my favorite day hikes anywhere in the States. One may hike here year round, however, the best time of year to hike here is most definitely in spring. I find springtime to be the best simply because it's when the desert "comes alive." The ocotillo bushes begin to bud and many other desert plants flower and bloom. It stays a perfectly cool 60-70°F in early spring and it's always sunny in Joshua Tree National Park.
If you want to get away from the smog and polution of LA and San Bernardino or the hustle and bustle of the Palm Springs/Palm Desert/Indio area head to the southern end of Joshua Tree National Park. Even in the summer when the temps sore up to 100° F there always seems to be a cooling breeze that sweeps through JTNP. This extremely remote section of the park is always a quiet, peacful place to spend a day.
The Lost Palms Oasis trail is a great 7.4 mile round trip adventure for anyone who doesn't mind steep rock steps, cliffs, sandy water washes and small canyons. It'll take the better part of a day, especially if you make the trek up to Mastadon Peak and the steep descent into the oasis at the end of the trail. Getting into the oasis can be a bit tricky and I wouldn't recomend it for those with children - it can be mildly dangerous near the edges.
The trail sits directly at the point where the Cottonwood Mountains meet the Eagle Mountains inside the park. The views are always spectacular - On a clear day expect to be able to see the Saltan Sea and the Jacumba Mountain Range over 70 miles away in Mexico. This truly is a great place to spend a day in the desert wilderness away from the crowds.
A view of the Jacumba Mountain Range in Mexico.
The easiest way to get to this trail is by "The 10" (California Interstate 10). About 30 miles east of Palm Springs you'll begin to see signs for Joshua Tree National Park and Box Canyon Road. The Box Canyon rd/Cottonwood Rd Exit (exit is unmarked) is a right exit on both sides of the Interstate.
If you're coming from the West, get on the off-ramp and take a left at the end. If you're coming from the East, it'll be a right at the end of the exit ramp. Follow Cottonwood Spring Rd, gaining 1000 ft in elevation, for seven miles until you get to the Cottonwood Ranger Station which sits along the right side of the road.
Head inside, pay the park entrance fee ($15 for a pass that grants access to the park for one week) and then get back in the car and follow the signs for "Cottonwood Springs." You can't miss it, especially if you get a map from the station. The trailhead is at the very end of the road (about half a mile from the station).
If you are coming from any point in the north, CA rt. 58 runs from Bakersfield to Barstow, I-15 and I-40 juntion in Barstow as well. From here take CA rt. 247 and then get on CA rt. 62E (Twentynine Palms Highway) until you come to the entrance to the park on Park Blvd. on the right. CA rt. 395 south also junctions with CA rt. 58.
From the north, continue following Park Blvd until it meets up with Pinto Basin Rd. Make a right and make the long drive to the Cottonwood Spring Ranger Station.
The trail is 3.7 miles from the trailhead to the oasis, making for a total of 7.4 miles round trip (8.4 miles w/ Mastadon Peak hike).
Once you pick up the trail on the east side of the parking lot (head down the hill and look just beyond the group of African Palms to get to the trailhead. First, however, you'll come to a large open area that holds the remains of an old springwell which was once used by the Cahuilla Indian's many years ago.
The group of African Palms near the trailhead
There are a few signs with some history on them - pretty interesting, take the time to read them. Be sure to pick up the trail again heading east and not south. This area can be a bit confusing as there apears to be more than one trailhead - if you follow the path leading south you'll quickly deadend at a rock wall and have to turn around.
For the first quarter mile there is a steady incline up sand and crushed stone. The trail here is easy on the feet, however, once you get to the top of the incline it becomes a bit more rocky. At the top the trail continues on eastward. After reaching the top of the incline continue for another 5 to 10 minutes until you see the sign pointing northward for Mastadon Peak. Take the time to climb up, its only a short side adventure up another .5 mile trail to the peak. (CLICK HERE
for my route description to Mastadon Peak from Lost Palms Oasis Trail). You'll agree, it's well worth it, especially on a clear day. The hike up is moderate and climbs along steep desert hillsides, rock cliffs and huge granite rock formations. Once at the top, looking east, you can see the extreme NW edge of the Eagle Mountains (5,350 feet) and looking south you can see the Sultan Sea roughly 18 miles away.
Rock Formations along the way to Mastadon Peak
The peak is above 3000 ft and there is always a breeze up top - a good place to cool off. If you do make the side trip take the time to have some fun and scramble around or climb a few of the huge boulders.
A view off Mastadon Peak looking towards the Eagle Mountains.
After you've taken in the views from the peak and have had your fun head back down (south) in direction you originally came from - this will take you back to the Lost Palms Oasis trail. Do not continue along the westward trail from the peak as you'll end up a mile away at the Cottonwood Springs camping area.
If you decide not to take the hike up to the peak simply continue heading eastward along the main trail. There are posts marking every mile along the trail, however, it is very easy to find yourself off-track and in the middle of scrub-brush and cacti with no sign of the true trail. The second mile heads through flat desert with minimal elevation gain.
The flatlands along the way
Here there are unending views to the south and the plantlife is beautiful with Ocotillo, Junipers, Yucca, Cholla and Red Cacti growing in abundance. As far as wildlife, expect to see a lizard or two, a Kangaroo Rat, Ravens and even Tarantuala holes. At roughly 1.5 miles the trail becomes even less well marked. Many flash flood washes cross through the area and it becomes easier to walk off the trail. Keep your eyes on the footprints in these areas to keep on the trail and don't cross over the edging stones, stay in between them. Trust me, its not easy to pick up a trail in a place where everything looks the same. I learned that on my first desert adventure. Often times the park rangers place edging stones where the trail meets a flood wash but not on all of them and I'm sure flash floods wash the edging rocks away all the time.
Roughly 2.7 miles in from the trailhead the hike gets a bit more rough. You begin trekking through small canyons, deeply carved water washes and then suddenly around the next corner you'll be making your way up an incredibly steep set of rocks soon to be along a ridge with steep drops to both sides. This occurs more than once. Watch your footing and dont expect the trail to get much easier.
Shallow Canyons line the trail to Lost Palms Oasis.
The last mile to the Oasis is filled with many ups and downs and there is a noticable change in plantlife as you are now at a higher elevation (roughly 700 ft higher than the trailhead). Prepare to scramble a little bit over/up some large rocks and bolders on one narrow part of the trail. Nearing the end, steep rock steps line the left side of a large rockwall. Climb up these steps then descend down a minor hill on the other side and before you know it, you will find yourself standing on a huge granite shelf flanked on both the North and South sides by towering Peaks of rock roughly 200 feet above your head (you are now at the extreme southern edge of the Eagle Mountains). Look down into the canyon, this is where the oasis hides. Above the canyon, on the north peak, roughly half way up from the bottom, stand 17 California Palm Trees, (they are incredibly random and seem out of place on the side of this rocky peak)the "largest group of palms in the park," according to a little green sign.
A view of the fan palms from the shelf.
Looking east off the shelf you can see for mile upon mile, the rolling Eagle mountains which occupy the extreme south-eastern edge of the wilderness zone in the park.
Find a spot and take a seat to snarf down a quick lunch and then find the trail (it looks like another staircase of rocks) on the north-west edge of the shelf to begin heading down to the Oasis. The trail down is extremely narrow and extremely steep in spots. It's short but take it slow.
At the bottom you'll find its a good 20 degrees cooler (especially in the summer months when its more noticable) and much more humid. It's a great place to explore and do a little more scrambling before you make the strenuous climb back up to the shelf and begin the hike back to the trailhead. There is an unkept/unmarked trail that continues on eastward from the canyon floor, however, it is cluttered with debris and suprisingly overgrown. It is obvious that many hikers to not continue along this path - if you feel the desire to continue, be mindful.
A view from the shelf looking into the Oasis.
A good pair of hiking boots or shoes (not regular sneakers) and a daypack. Ankle gainters will keep sand and pebbles from getting inside your boots. Sunglasses. Sunblock. Hiking poles if desired. Bring LOTS of water (even in the spring time as the air is dry) and pack a lunch. It's easy to roll your ankle or get scraped up in this area (but that is the case on any hike) so bring a small medical kit if you feel the need. I always like to bring a pair of binoculars as well.
is the link to the National Park Service page for Joshua Tree National Park.
More Images from the Lost Palms Trail Area
A view near the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park
Another view of the Flatlands
Another view of the trail from Mastadon Peak
Anotehr view alongside the Trail