Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lost Palms Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Distance: 7.4 miles round trip (11.9 km)
Elevation: 3005 - 3150 feet (915 - 960 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: late October - early May

Every been to a California Fan Palm Oasis? Although commonly planted in Southern California cities, the native range of this species  includes only158 oases scattered across the Mojave Desert at the base of mountains and canyons that have seeps to provide a year round supply of water. I wrote about a couple of the oases that are easy to visit, including Mountain Palm Oasis here and HERE in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County. I personally have visited about 12 of these oases, including the only one in Arizona. But, if you want to visit a fan palm oasis that you have to hike to miles away from the nearest road, then Lost Palms Oasis is the one for you.

The trail to the Lost Palms Oasis starts at the Cottonwood Springs Campground in the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park. Cottonwood Springs itself is a small palm oasis, that has one large cottonwood in the middle of it. But, it is nothing compared to what you will see at Lost Palms Oasis. The easiest access is to take the exit off of Interstate 10 east of Indio to the South Entrance to the park.

From Cottonwood Springs, the trail heads across a landscape of jumbled granite boulders and beautiful vistas. Along the trail you can easily see the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains and Mount San Jacinto rising above the Coachella Valley. At one point, the entire Salton Sea, located 226 feet below sea level, comes into view.

The Salton Sea is visible from along the trail

The trail then comes over a rise and a dry wash flush with California junipers and evergreen desert scrub oak who enjoy the shade and extra moisture that accumulates in the washes. As you look over the dry landscape dominated by common Mojave Desert vegetation of yucca, rabbit brush, and cholla, it is still hard to image that there will be palm trees out here.

Then, as you come over another rise, suddenly you see a canyon with these clumps of 60 foot high palm trees rising in a terraced wash. There is no water flowing on the surface, but you can see how it works its way down the wash based on the contours of the granite rocks and where the palms are located.

The first glimpse of the fan palms

Once you get down into the palm grove itself, you will see that many of the palms have burn scars on their trunks and several that are dead. Fire is actually an important function that maintains these ecosystems. Palms can resprout their fronds following fire and fires will clear out other vegetation trying to compete for the available water. 

In the wash amongst the palms

Palms who have not burned in recent years will have dead fronds that skirt the trunk, sometimes all the way to the ground. These provide habitat for birds nesting and insulate the trunk from occasional winter cold snaps. California fan palm fruits were an important food source for native peoples historically, in addition to the obvious water source in the area. Today, the fruits remain important to the many Mojave Desert birds who visit these oases.

One of the surface springs in the lower portion of the wash

If you visit the lower portions of the oasis, there will possibly be small pools of open water. These springs and seeps are critical habitat for amphibians and insect species in an otherwise completely dry landscape. Canyon tree frogs are common in these oases. The Desert slender salamander is no longer found in Joshua Tree NP, but does live in two fan palm oases in the Santa Rosa mountains, the last place on Earth for this species. Desert pupfish are also found at a few oases. Obviously, these surface springs also provide critical water supplies for animals such as desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, mule deer, mountain lions, coyotes, and many others.

Looking down the canyon from the end of the oasis

Continuing down the wash, the palms thin out and then the wash steepens into a narrow canyon that feeds all the way out of the mountains. This is probably a good place to turn around. Joshua Tree National Park has a number of other hidden fan palm oases in the surrounding canyons, but it would require a lot of off-trail exploration over rugged terrain to find them.

Walking back amongst yucca and granite

Hidden Valley Loop, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Distance: 1.0 mile (1.6 km)
Elevation: 4,160-4,250 feet (1268 - 1295 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: late October - early May

Hidden Valley is one of the most popular stops for visitors to Joshua Tree National Park. And for good reason. The hike is short and easy and the vegetation is stunning. Generally I have a policy to try and avoid the most popular stops and crowds. But, this hike is so beautiful that it is definitely worth it. If you can simply get here early to avoid the late arriving crowds from the campgrounds, then you can still have this place all to yourself, as we did.

Hidden Valley is a completely enclosed bowl surrounded by a wall of granite. The enclosed nature of the place allows it to have denser and richer vegetation than the surrounding area due to its funneling scant rainfall into the bowl, the protection of the bowl from strong winds, and the shade it provides keeping it cooler inside. It was not even barely known about to white pioneers until a rancher blew a hole into the rocks to allow his cattle to graze on the rich grasses contained within it. Many of the lush grasses are now gone, but you will still find clumps of native bunchgrasses in densities higher than the surrounding area. 

Getting to this hike is easy. Take the main park road at the West Entrance from the town of Joshua Tree on CA-62 up toward the center of the park. The turnoff to Hidden Valley trail is obvious. You can also access it on the main park road from the South Entrance off of Interstate-10. 

The trail starts by climbing up a slope and through the narrow notch blasted out of the rock by ranchers back in the day. The trail then meets the intersection of the loop. You can choose to go left or right. The trail will follow along the edges of the rock walls revealing incredible granite boulders. In the shadier spots, pinyon pines and evergreen turbinella oaks cling to the rocks. In the middle of the valley, lush growth of bunch-grasses, small shrubs, dwarf California junipers, Mojave yucca, and Joshua trees grow.

Toward the back of the valley, you climb up a little onto some rocky platforms, then curve back toward the beginning. There are a couple of rocky places again toward the entrance, but the kids will love climbing on the rock. In March, if there have been good winter rains, the wildflowers will be in full bloom.

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