We were visiting Jeremiah’s family in Nevada for the holidays, and as I normally do before I travel anywhere, I looked around the area on Google Maps for the green spaces. It looked like Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t that far away, and I knew it also wasn’t that far away from San Diego, where my cousin Sarah lives. Then I realized I hadn’t seen Sarah in almost five years, since she dropped me off at the PCT. I got in touch, and we planned to meet at the park for a quick adventure. It was almost a 4-hour drive into the park, which is a bit long for driving there and back in the same day, but it was worth it. I got to reconnect with Sarah and I got to visit my 16th National Park! (16th out of 62 – I need to step it up.)
We got up early and hit the road. We drove through Mojave National Preserve on the way there, so we were already seeing lots of Joshua trees before we even got to the park. I had seen plenty on the PCT too, but I love those funny-looking plants. As the park’s Instagram just taught me just today, they are members of the agave family:
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Are Joshua trees considered trees? Scientists have recently classified Joshua trees as being in the agave family, due to the plant's DNA structure. Previously they were classified as being in the lily family, and some scientists have said they may be in the asparagus family! If Joshua trees can teach us anything it would be that looks can be deceiving. Photo: NPS / Brad Sutton
Once outside the park, we stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms to pick up a map and get some intel on what trails we might have time to do that weren’t too far of a drive away. We had already planned on hiking Ryan Mountain, which was listed at 3 miles round trip with 1050′ of elevation gain, and we wanted to find something else nearby to do too. After looking at a hiking book at the visitor center, we decided on Crown Point Lookout (3 miles) for the second trail and Skull Rock Nature Trail (1.7 miles) if there was time after that. Sunset is currently happening before 5pm so we didn’t have a ton of daylight to work with.
Sarah and a friend met us at the visitor center and we agreed on the hikes, then both drove down to reconvene at the trailhead since they’d be camping at nearby Jumbo Rocks Campground. We saw a couple of coyotes crossing the road near Sheep Pass on the way.
The trailhead was packed and we got the last possible spot so when Sarah came in, there wasn’t anywhere for her to go. We kept waiting but eventually decided that her friend would skip the hike since he was in a rest period for Ironman training anyway, and he’d take the car back to the campground while the rest of us hiked.
I had seen on Instagram that Joshua Tree National Park had gotten snow in the past week, which is apparently very unusual despite its high-ish elevation, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d still be snow on the trail. It’s the desert! What snow? (I’d also apparently completely forgotten how to pack for desert hiking, but Sarah brought me a hat and Jeremiah found some sunscreen in his daypack. I’d checked the temperature forecast for layers, and brought long sleeves to cover my arms, but forgotten about sun exposure on the rest of me.)
We were coming at Ryan Mountain from the north side so most of the trail was still covered in packed-down icy snow in the shade. Did we have our microspikes handy? Of course not. Normally I’d judge people for going out unprepared for conditions like that, but I can see how it’s hard to turn back from a planned hike when you’ve never been in the area and only have one day there to do anything. We had heard people in the parking lot saying there were only a couple of really slippery parts, and plenty of people were coming down the trail unharmed, so we kept going. (Which is exactly how people normally get hurt. I don’t condone it.) In any case, the trail didn’t feel that slippery for the most part, and some of it could be gotten around on bare rocks too.
There were steps built into the rocks for part of the initial climb, and lots of people going up and coming down the trail, so we frequently had to step aside for one party or the other to pass. Once we reached a saddle, it was more of a gentle climb to the summit of Ryan Mountain at 5457′. We enjoyed the views for at least a half-hour while we ate lunch, but decided we’d better get moving back if we wanted to fit another hike in.
Back at the trailhead, there were still plenty of cars waiting for parking spots, so Jeremiah moved our vehicle while Sarah and I waited in line for the pit toilets. We drove a little ways back to Jumbo Rocks Campground to find her site and start the Crown Prince Lookout hike to remains of an old World War II observation post. Her friend was enjoying sitting around reading so he skipped this hike too.
The trail was supposed to start from a bend in the road right before the campground entrance, and we hadn’t been able to see it on either very slow pass by. As we walked out, we ran into some park volunteers who said they’d never been able to find the unsigned former jeep trail either, but the Crown Prince rocks were easy to see so we should just walk cross country towards them. I really wanted to find the jeep trail so I kept steering us in that direction as we walked, but we never found it.
It was a fairly level walk and we enjoyed seeing all the jackrabbits and cottontails around, but I was kind of disappointed that we never found the trail. I looked for others’ trip reports when I had signal on the way home and the only ones I found that could find the trail were all several years old at least. Maybe it’s more overgrown that it used to be. It turns out we were on the wrong side of the rocks to easily climb up to the lookout too. Oh well.
Sunset was coming so we started making our way back towards the campground. I figured we could hike straight across to Sarah’s campsite instead of going back to the road and walking it in so we headed that direction. We caught sunset right before we popped over the ridge behind her campground loop.
We ended up meandering almost 3 miles on our quest. I feel like I need to go back and do this hike again right.
Unfortunately, we still had a long drive back and it was time to say goodbye to Sarah, but we vowed we wouldn’t let five years fly by before our next adventure.
On the drive out, we made a quick stop to check out Skull Rock, athough we definitely didn’t have time for the nature trail. I would love to come back and spend some real time in the park. There is apparently great climbing here too, but the rock seems awfully rough to me. I’d need to get better at climbing before trying it here anyway.