Monday, February 21, 2011

Rock and Awe; Best day hike in Joshua Tree NP

My first visit to Joshua Tree National Park was when it was still designated as a National Monument, nearly 45 years ago. Then and even now, I considered it a truly alien landscape as my eyes and imagination tried to take it all in; the massive boulders, expansive cliffs and the tentacled trees for which the park is named seemed to be from another place, far removed from the mere two-hour drive from home. But it is a very real place, deserving of its National Park status as unique and worthy of preserving for many more generations.

Hiking opportunities are numerous and include wide groves of Joshua trees, mysterious hidden canyons, desert washes, grottos and high ridges. Rock climbing is very popular here due to the impressive boulders and inselberg rock formations, most of which are comprised of quartz monzonite, a very rough, large crystalline form of granite.  Camping is primative, that is to say, no flush toilets, electricity or waste hook ups.  That does not discourage the many who visit and stay. It is not uncommon to find all sites filled to capacity during spring bloom weekends.  But I come for the hiking now. My climbing days are 35 years and 35 pounds ago. Because the trails here are so rewarding, I rarely miss scaling the rocks here.

After reading a few reviews of what was described as “The Best Day Hike” in the park, it was decided that this trail would be perfect for the next trip to the park. The reviews of this loop hike are right on target, even if the mileage estimates vary from 6.2 – 7 miles, as this has become my new favorite hike in the high desert.  When inquiring about this hike, it's best just to call it "North View-Maze-Window Rock" after the three trail segments that make up this particular loop.

The hike has been known of for quite some time, but until recently it required some orienteering skills to complete. The entire hike with it’s various loops and trail junctions are now well marked and signed. Anyone with moderate hiking experience will be able to finish the hike according to the prescribed route. However at times, the trail becomes “subtle” as it crosses over barren rocks and through washes susceptible to the smoothing out of boot tracks and cairn scattering. If you pay attention, carry a trail guide with a simple map you’ll be fine. If you wander off trail to take advantage of a photo op or to water the plants, be mindful of where the trail is at behind you. In some sections, the trail is virtually invisible unless you were directly on it.

Finding the trailhead is a little tricky as it is not well marked. The 3-4 car maximum parking area (called by some the “borrow pit” lot because of a nearby old gravel pit) is located immediately north of roadway marker 24 near the park’s west entrance.

This loop hike takes advantage of three trails, North View trail, Maze loop and Window Rock loop. Each trail section provides it own character which makes this hike compelling and anything but boring. The North View trail offers spectacular views of the village of Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Copper Mountain. The views are framed with stacked boulder fins and naturally formed cairns.

The Maze loop leads you through low slot canyons, again built from stacked boulders, accented with cactus and juniper. The Window Rock loop presents a visual oddity in the form of a high rock window that at times will appear to be a large winged bird or just a square-like opening near a ridge line depending on your angle of view. Bighorn Sheep are readily spotted on this trail which also takes you through spreading groves of Joshua trees.

In short, it’s all here. Just about all of the visual, wildlife and floral attractions of the park can be found within this moderate difficultly loop hike. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This is the kind of hike that defines why I love to walk under open skies on paths unpaved.

A few guidebooks, “Afoot and Afield in the Inland Empire” by David and Jennifer Harris and “On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park” by Patty Furbush, describe the hike in more detail. Because the hike is still not high on everyone’s trail radar list, online resources are not abundant, but I did find these two nice references;

"Afoot and Afield" Book Excerpt

Trimble Outdoors Trail Guide

Thursday, February 3, 2011

White Tank Mountains

As often as I can, and with a clear conscience that my business trips do not appear to resemble boondoggles of any sort, I try to work in a hike or two after the end of a business travel day. In my luggage is packed a collapsible hiking stick, hiking boots, socks, appropriate day hike gear (a single bottle lumbar pack, flashlight, trail bar, compass, etc.) wicking shirt, jacket and a hat. Generally, I will check online a day or two before I leave for trails near where I am staying or working. But on this trip to Arizona, a co-worker recommended a visit to White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Maricopa County. Thank you, Stephanie for pointing the way to this interesting place.

The Regional Park is comprised of 30,000 acres of sharp rocky ridges, alluvial fans, saguaro cactus, flood-carved canyons and hundreds of petroglyphs. The north-south aligned White Tank mountains rise to 4,000 feet with most of the park facilities on the northeast section of the range. A small but diverse handful of shared use trails have been established, affording hikers of all levels to enjoy the area. Semi-developed (no electrical or water hookups) campgrounds are available for groups and individuals. Backpacking is permitted to a number of backcountry camping spots.

The park’s entrance is equipped with a modern and welcoming nature center staffed with fulltime and volunteer rangers who can direct you to trailheads and point out many of the park’s features which include flush toilets, guided tours and talks, playgrounds, ramadas complete with picnic tables and barbeques. The nature center also offers gifts, water and snacks for visitors. It shares a roof with classrooms and a public library. The building is adorned with public art, educational outdoor displays, a labyrinth and vista viewing benches. The park has something for anyone who enjoys being outdoors.

Since time was short and shadows were becoming longer, I elected to primarily hike Waterfall Canyon with a few side jaunts added to check other trailheads and vistas. It’s a short 2 mile walk into a canyon worn from centuries of flashfloods to one of the many “tanks” found in the area. These shallow granitic depressions are carved out at the base of steep water draws, creating natural pools or tanks that are no doubt frequented by wildlife all year.

In addition to viewing one of these ponds, the trail is lined with hundreds of ancient petroglyphs. Pamphlets and ranger talks help to enlighten visitors of their meaning and historical significance. Fortunately, these marks of ancient peoples have been treated with respect as little vandalism is apparent anywhere.

The park is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the Phoenix area. Though there is only about 25 total miles of trails throughout, the elevated views of the valley floor make for an impressive sight and a nice payoff for your hiking efforts. The saguaro, cholla and other cactus are very impressive with their abundance and softening texture to an otherwise barren landscape. The facilities are clean and well appointed throughout. Maricopa country should be proud of the good work they’ve done to make the park a destination for visitors and residents alike.