Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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". . . A mild trail leads to the dam . . . Early springtime visitors will enjoy the improbably blue     
waters of the lake, the boulders that rise directly from the waters, and a chance to admire
the handiwork of [cattle] ranchers from a century ago. This is a great place to take
photos and to enjoy the contrast of the water with the surrounding desert."
~ from the HikingProject.com website

Of the eleven different trails I hiked this week at Joshua Tree, Barker Dam was the only one with any visible standing water. It seems as out of place in the middle of the Mojave Desert as the palm trees in the park's oases.

It was quite refreshing to see a little pool of water (unfortunately, not the pretty blue lake that some websites* show) and a large green area where water recently stood. It makes you realize how tough of a life it must have been to try to raise cattle here -- and for the wildlife that continues to call this place "home" to survive in such a harsh climate.

There was a little bit of water pooled near the dam this week but not extending back to that
green area in the distance with the grass and trees where a reservoir sometimes builds up.

* I copied this photo from the HikingProject.com web page because it shows the lake when it's full:

Because of the water source, in the winter and spring, at least, this is understandably one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife early in the morning or evening.

Both times I hiked this trail, however, weren't at natural feeding times and there were too many people around for wildlife like bighorn sheep and coyotes to come out of cover for a drink of water. I tried to take most pictures without people in them but sometimes I just didn't want to wait for everyone to get out of sight:

Part of a large group of people near the dam Tuesday afternoon

I hiked the loop CCW both times, by myself in mid-afternoon two days ago and about 9 AM this morning with Jim.

It was more pleasant this morning and there were fewer people on the trail that early. We hustled out of the parking area as soon as we realized folks were gathering for a ranger-led group hike and we were able to stay ahead of them.

I'll show photos of the loop from both days, including some petroglyphs, and explain a little more about the history of the cattle ranch.


This is one of the most popular (read: busy) trails in the park because it is rated as "easy" in difficulty by the Park Service, it is relatively short (about a 1-mile loop), it is readily accessible, it is scenic, it has water part of the year, and it has some interesting history.

Because of all the boulder piles, the Barker Dam Loop is also popular with rock climbers and boulderers. I saw several of them on my first hike.

Here's a section of the park map to show the trail location:

I marked Barker Dam with a red dot; it is in the southern part of the Wonderland of Rocks area. The main park road is highlighted in yellow.

Parking for the Barker Dam Loop is a few hundred yards off Park Boulevard, the main east-west road through Joshua Tree. It shares a trailhead with the Wall Street Mill Trail, as shown in this trail diagram from the Hikespeak.com website:

I added the orange line at the bottom to indicate the connecting trail between Wall Street (red) and Barker Dam (blue). The dark red trail going up the middle of the diagram is Wonderland Wash.

As mentioned, both Wall Street and Barker Dam trails begin from the same parking area. If you plan to hike just one of the trails, be sure to read the signs so you start out on the correct one. They look similar but are clearly marked.

This is the interpretive panel at the Barker Dam trailhead:

When I hiked both trails on Tuesday I did the Wall Street Mill Trail first, then took a short trail tangent (what I marked in orange above) to the Barker Dam Trail. I didn't go back to the parking area until I was finished with the Barker Dam Trail.

Here's a picture from that tangent:

As you'll see in various photos on this page, trail surfaces range from smooth hard-packed sand to bedrock. There are some steps here and there but the trail itself isn't very rocky. It's not wheelchair- or stroller-accessible, however.

The trail undulates with a minimal elevation gain and loss of only about 50 feet. Some places are quite narrow between boulders, others wide open in the desert.

As with most of the trails at Joshua Tree, there isn't much shade and any standing water in the reservoir behind the dam isn't potable. Folks who want to spend time hanging out at the dam or scrambling in the rocks should take adequate water with them. Otherwise, you can blitz through the loop in well under an hour.

Despite the lack of water on most of this loop there are quite a few shrubs, grasses, and trees in places other than the reservoir, including a fair number of Joshua trees in the open desert (photo above) between the dam and the cave with petroglyphs.

Because the trail is at elevations over 4,200 feet, not very many wildflowers, shrubs, or cacti were in bloom yet.


These photos are roughly in order and from two different hikes this week. Most are from my hike on Tuesday when I was by myself, seeing the trail for the first time.

I didn't take as many pictures this morning when I was with Jim, partly because I'd already taken so many but mostly because the sun was lower today and photos from the first half of the loop didn't come out as well. Despite conventional wisdom that "the best photos are taken early in the morning or evening, not in direct sunlight," I don't find that to be true when shade obscures colors and details.



Mojave yucca in bloom on the left, juniper above it, and Turbinella oak on the right

A Parry Nolina, another kind of yucca; this one isn't blooming yet.

Now we're entering one of my favorite parts of this loop, the more narrow trail through boulders.

Despite some clouds, I got much better photos here on Tuesday afternoon when the sun was higher, even though the sky was more clear this morning. The one picture below that I included with Jim to show how narrow the trail can get, also shows how much shade is there when the sun is low.









Cool, huh?  Love those rocks!


Now the trail opens up as we approach the reservoir, which was mostly dry both days this week when I was there. Some hikers were walking off-trail in the sand near the green trees in the next picture:

Those trees are at the edge at what is sometimes a real lake.

The reservoir area is surrounded by tall boulder piles on all sides, an open invitation for folks who want to climb up for better views. The trail curves to the left and goes over bedrock close to the boulders on this side of the reservoir:


The little dam is in the distance, under the red dot.

Another view of the dry reservoir

Two people (above red dots) up on the boulders; the "trail" is in the foreground.

More fun rocks to walk around

Nearing the dam and pool of water (where the people are standing)

This is the best shot of the water that I got. I think the lines on the rocks indicate various water levels over the years:

A sign at this location tells the history of the stone and concrete dam, which is shown in the next picture. I included some people for perspective on the size of the dam:

Here's what's written on the sign at the dam re: the history of it and others built in this area by cattle ranchers in the early 1900s.

It also explains why the lower part of the dam is made from rocks and the upper part from concrete:

Below the dam is the intact cattle trough mentioned on the sign:


Continuing clockwise from the dam to the petroglyph cave, the trail drops down over bedrock and steps to open desert floor for several hundred yards until it reaches an intersection with a short path to a shallow cave with petroglyphs:






I was disappointed to see that the carved petroglyphs had been painted over (vandalized!). I've seen better ones before, and I'll have photos of much more authentic pictographs and petroglyphs to show you later this year from Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and rock walls near Parowan, Utah.

It's about a quarter mile on flat, smooth trail back to the parking area from the petroglyph cave:


The rest of this guy's trail is about as long as the part of him you see above.

This is a scenic and fun trail that people of all ages can enjoy. It's one of my top four favorites at Joshua Tree. I'm just sorry there wasn't more water in the reservoir this week. That photo from the HikingProject page is so picturesque with the lake at "full pond."

I'm not the only one who likes this loop in the spring, so plan to get there early and on a weekday, if possible, to avoid the crowds.

Although I was able to find a parking spot in the early afternoon on Tuesday, there were so many people near the dam and petroglyphs that I wasn't able to get as many pictures as I wanted without strangers in them. There were many fewer people on the trail on Thursday in the early morning and it was cooler.

Next entry:  another very scenic and relatively short trail loop at Joshua Tree -- Hidden Valley

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