Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"A secluded palm tree oasis is tucked away at the north end of Joshua Tree National Park . . .   
The trail leads to a collection of palm trees wrapped around a rare spring, an
out-of-place desert destination that's a perfect target for hikers."
~ Hikespeak.com web page for the 49 Palms Oasis Trail

Fortynine Palms is one of six oases with California fan palms in Joshua Tree National Park and reportedly the nicest according to this hiker (not me) who has seen all of them.

Fortynine Palms has more trees in one spot than any of the others and is a much easier hike than the longer, more primitive "trails" to Lost Palms, Victory Palms, and Munsen Canyon. While the other two oases, Mara and Cottonwood Springs, are super easy to access they are also more heavily visited and less interesting than Fortynine Palms.

Sneak peek at some of the palms in 49 Palms Oasis; a creosote bush is blooming on the left.

This was my third and final hike on Wednesday and it was at a substantially lower elevation (2,720-3,075 feet on my GPS) than up on the plateau in the park where I'd just done the Skull Rock and Split Rock-Face Rock loops at over 4,200 feet elevation.

Fortunately, it was a relatively mild 68 F. when I got down to the Fortynine Palms trailhead about 2 PM but the sun was bright and nearly everyone on the trail was in shorts and short sleeves.

There is a large thermometer at the trailhead that warns people about heat exhaustion or worse on this exposed trail:

Everyone is cautioned to carry plenty of fluids, wear a hat, and don't over-extend themselves. On a day that's predicted to be over 70 F. it'd be a good idea to do this trail in the morning, not the afternoon.

Note that you can't hike here in the evenings; the parking area is gated and locked to allow wildlife access to shade and water in the oasis at night. It is a critical source of water for the bighorn sheep, coyotes, birds, and other animals that live in this harsh environment.


Unlike most of the other park trails that are accessed off of Park Boulevard up on the high plateau, the trailhead for Fortynine Palms is located just west of the town of Twentynine Palms, off US 62 along the north boundary of the park.

Take narrow-but-paved Canyon Road south to the relatively large parking area. This map is from the park website:


Canyon Rd. turns into Palm Canyon Rd.

Several creosote bushes were blooming at the trailhead and back at the oasis.

The parking lot was about half full on this Wednesday afternoon. I saw more people on this out-and-back trail than any of the other places I hiked at Joshua Tree this week. I imagine it's very busy on weekends.

There are two big advantages for visitors who either 1) don't have a park pass or 2) are in a hurry and don't have time to drive up the mountain and along Park Boulevard -- access is easy off a major highway and there is no entrance station on this road so a park pass isn't needed to hike this trail. 


The Fortynine Palms Trail is listed in the park guide as three miles roundtrip in distance and "moderate" in difficulty. The footing was rougher over rocks and rock steps than the two other "moderate" trails I hiked in this park, Wall Street Mill and Split Rock.

My GPS recorded 3.37 miles because I wandered around the oasis a bit, trying to get different camera angles of the palms and canyon from some of the boulders.

My total elevation gain and loss was 1,510 feet. The first half of the trail climbs gradually with an approximate 350-foot gain, then drops down to the canyon another 350 feet in elevation.

This trail map from Hikespeak.com shows the contours of the mountains and canyons:

Since the trail is at a lower elevation than most of the park trails, it's easier for folks who aren't acclimated to higher altitudes.

Just remember that when you're ready to leave the oasis, you have to climb back out of the canyon and up to the ridge again. The "course" (runner talk!) is out-and-back. The maintained trail ends at the oasis.


Most of the remaining photos are in order outbound to the oasis, then back.

I'll start with the first half of the trail as it ascends to a ridge, with increasingly better views into the huge Morango Basin to the north. You can even see the Marine base in the distance.

Before you get that high, however, the trail winds through a bunch of boulder piles. The rocks in this area are darker and more colorful than most of the ones up on the plateau, where the trails are located that I've reviewed so far in this series.

The yellow flowering clusters are brittlebush.


Looking back down the trail I just hiked; a man and young boy are descending.


Looking back again; when you get up most of the ridge, you can see back
down to the parking area (under red dot). This view is looking west.

The slope of the trail is more gradual approaching the top of the ridge.

Along that more gradual stretch of trail you're high enough to look north and see the town of Twentynine Palms below you and the Marine base in the distance:


Just a little farther up the trail curves to the right and reaches its highest point. From there you can see in every direction, even down to Fortynine Palms Canyon and the tops of the tallest palms.


Red clumps = barrel cacti

First glimpse of the tops of several palms under the red dot


From the ridge hikers can see parts of the trail as it winds down the southeast side of the mountain through more boulder piles to the palm oasis:

There are a lot of barrel cacti on this trail, especially on the south and east sides of the ridge.

The cacti are beginning to bloom now. Even when the yellow flowers aren't in bloom, barrel cacti add some pretty red color to the otherwise mostly-drab landscape:




Looking back up the trail to the ridge, I count 21 hikers in the next picture going back out from the canyon. I was happy to see so many leaving, because it meant fewer people down in the oasis when I got there!

Hikers first see the tops of the palm trees from the ridge.

Farther down the trail, the whole collection in the oasis is visible, as well as a few trees scattered down the canyon:


As you get closer to the oasis, the trees that are closest begin to block the view of the ones behind:

They are hard to see in the small picture above but about a dozen people are shown on the trail and in the boulders.


The palm oasis at the end of the trail is very interesting and definitely worth the relatively short hike to reach it. I've seen photos of the oasis so I wasn't surprised as I approached it, just fascinated with all the huge palms in the canyon.

They just seem so out of place in this rocky, arid desert!



Looking up the canyon -- no more palms up there

I could hear water but didn't climb over all the boulders to get to it. I think the spring is located where the people are standing in the photo above.

I did scramble on and around some lower boulders to get different views of the trees.

The National Park Service website has some interesting information about these fan palm trees if you want to learn more about them. As you can see from the pictures with people in them, like the one below, the trees are quite tall -- up to 75 feet high. The largest weigh about three tons.


The leaves are shaped like fans and folded like accordions. Accumulations of dead brown leaves look like "petticoats" on the lower portion of the trunks.

Fan palms can live 80-90 years. Mature trees are fairly resistant to fire; several fires have blackened the trunks of some of these trees but didn't kill them.

You can see down the canyon from the boulders at the oasis. I zoomed in quite a bit with the camera on the second shot below to show the town of Twentynine Palms and the Marine base in the background:

There are several smaller fan palms a little farther down the canyon.

After about 15 minutes of exploring the oasis I started back to the parking area. It's easy to spend more time here.


Things usually look different going the other way. Even though I often stop to look behind me when I'm hiking, it's easier to spot good photo ops in the direction you're walking or running.

So here is a different perspective as I went back to the trailhead:






There weren't near as many wildflowers, shrubs, and trees on this trail as on the Skull and Split Rock trails. It's completely exposed until you get down to the oasis.

However, since this trail is at lower elevations (2,720-3,075 feet) than all the other hikes I've done so far up in the main part of the park, there were different flowers and cacti blooming here -- creosote bushes, barrel cacti, hedgehogs, and beavertail/prickly pears:


Above and below:  hedgehog (AKA Mojave mound) cactus blooms


Above and below:  This beavertail cactus is LOADED with bright blooms and buds.

This is an interesting trail and a contrast to others up on the plateau in Joshua Tree National Park.

With the right weather and one or two hours of time, just about anyone who can walk three miles comfortably on moderately rough terrain can do this hike. There are two much easier palm oases to visit if it's too hot, there isn't enough time, or someone in the group (very young, not in condition for the terrain, etc.) would have difficulty with this trail.

Next entry:  photos from two hikes to Barker Dam, one of my favorite trails at Joshua Tree

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil