Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"Naturalist Peggy Larson calls the desert 'a mosaic of miniature worlds' . . . [that]   
provide habitats for many diverse life forms. Hidden Valley is one such world.
The rocks ringing the valley block the wind and collect moisture, creating a
special microclimate that supports many plant and animal species.
This secluded valley has also appealed to humans, both past and present,
as a source of food, protection, and for its special beauty.
Enter, and experience for yourself the miniature world of Hidden Valley."
~ National Park Service sign near the beginning of this trail

If someone asked me to name my ONE favorite trail of the eleven I hiked in Joshua Tree National Park this week, I'd have to say it's either this one or the Mt. Ryan Trail.

The two trails are very different -- one on a mountain with panoramic views from the top vs. one in an enclosed valley, surrounded by rock walls and boulder piles that feel more protective than claustrophobic. Although Hidden Valley was one of the shortest trails I hiked, I had a lot of "ooh's" and "aah's" on this one-mile loop.

Jim looks down into the lower part of the valley before we descend into it.

I'm kind of glad it was the next-to-last trail I hiked in this park. Otherwise, some of the others might have been a bit of a disappointment.

If you have limited time at the park, even just a day, I'd recommend this trail if you want a hike that is representative of what Joshua Tree has to offer. It is short, rated as "easy," located right off the main park road, and as scenic as it gets in the high Mojave Desert.

It even has some intrigue. The rock-enclosed valley was rumored to have been used by horse and cattle rustlers to hide their stolen critters back in the 1800s:

Interpretive panel at trailhead


This morning's weather was perfect up in the main part of Joshua Tree -- clear and sunny and in the 60s F, much more pleasant than 2,000 feet lower in Twentynine Palms and the Marine base.

Jim hasn't been up here to hike as much as I have and I wanted to show him a couple of my favorite trails. We were both a bit tired from all the hiking and cycling we've done the last few days, so we kept the total mileage this morning to about three miles on three different trails.

Hidden Valley was new to both of us. I planned to hike it earlier this week but had trouble finding the trailhead. I was looking for it in the Hidden Valley Campground but it's across the main park road at the Hidden Valley picnic area.

Here's a section of the park map to show its location on the south side of Park Boulevard:

We went to Barker Dam first, arriving about 9 AM so we could beat the crowds there. That worked out well, as noted in my previous entry.

Hidden Valley was our second hike; we got to that trailhead about 10 AM. I had read that it's very popular, too, and we did encounter more people on this trail than Barker Dam since we started later. However, we were able to get a parking spot OK at Hidden Valley, too.

Our last trail of the morning was Skull Rock. Jim really liked all three trails. Those three are in my Top Five Favorites at Joshua Tree.


This Google map from HikeSpeak.com shows the location and orientation of the trail, which is outlined in red. Note all the rock walls/hills surrounding the valley:

The majority of the 1.1-mile trail is a loop that includes an interesting out-and-back section through rocks that rancher Bill Keys blasted through in the 1930s so he could graze his cattle in the then-verdant valley:

Sign near the trailhead

Outbound, in 1/10th of a mile you can turn either right or left when you come to the T-junction with the loop. Jim and I turned right and went CCW. In either direction, the trail is relatively level through the upper part of the valley before descending to the lower section.

My GPS recorded 270 feet of total gain and loss between 4,180-4,262 feet elevation over 1.1 miles.

Although the trail is rated "easy" by the Park Service, it is not wheelchair- or stroller-accessible. Some parts of the trail are smooth, hard-packed sand but there are also rocky areas with steps, narrow passageways between boulders, and some loose, deeper sand.

Jim climbs up rock steps through some boulders.

There is a lot to like about this loop in addition to its location, length, and ease of walking.

It's very scenic and as pretty as any desert park we've seen in the Sonoran or Mojave deserts. It is also more lush with wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, cacti, and trees than most of the other areas where I've hiked at Joshua Tree, and it offers hikers more shade:

Jim is dressed appropriately for the desert sun with long, lightweight pants,
a white sun shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Wildlife is abundant (lots of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians live here) and it's a photographer's dream landscape.

Kids and adults can have lots of fun with all the rocks. Boulder piles from low to high are an open invitation for scrambling and technical rock climbing.

The next two photos show a climber on a high rock wall near the trailhead. He's just above the red dot in the first picture. When I enlarge the photo I can see a rope below him but not above, so I guess he's blazing his own "trail" up that mountain:


And one more reason to like Hidden Valley:  it's just plain fun to imagine places among the boulders where those 19th Century rustlers might have hidden their stolen cattle!


The remaining photos are in order from the trailhead, then hiking CCW around the loop.

Since I was usually walking behind Jim, stopping to take photos in every direction, he's in some of the pictures. It's good to have people in photos sometimes to show perspective re: the size of the boulders, trees, etc.

Above and below:  The valley still looks like it's impenetrable
from a distance, even after Keys blasted out an opening.


Up a couple series of steps . . .

. . .  through some humongous boulders . . .

. . . and Jim has arrived at the junction with the loop. We turned right and went CCW.

We were soon greeted by large blooming Mojave yuccas.

A perfect path for a little while; this loop is great for trail running, too.

More yuccas in bloom, as well as a little hedgehog cactus at the lower left

What a bright spot in the desert!

Some places look like a giant rock garden, deliberately placed and planted.

None of the beavertail cacti were in bloom yet in Hidden Valley.

Through a cool rock corridor to a great view of the lower valley, where we're heading next.

Jim's looking at the Big Picture ahead of us; I'm momentarily
distracted by the little "window" in the rocks above.

Looks like another impenetrable pile of rocks, eh? The path is easy to follow, though.

It's amazing how little water these trees and other plants need. They grow in such
improbable places. I marked the narrow trail with two little red dots.

On the lower valley floor, a woman (above red dot) takes pictures.


According to a sign, rock climbers call this monolith "The Great Burrito."




This is a terrific little trail, not to be missed if you visit Joshua Tree.

Next entrythe last, and longest, trail I hiked in the park -- the Boy Scout Trail

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