Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"The Boy Scout Trail spans an eight-mile transition zone between the high and low   
Mojave Desert, showcasing an extraordinary range of plants, cacti, trees, and terrain.
The southern portion travels through an archetypal Joshua tree flat, then edges higher
into a pinyon-juniper ecosystem. Further north it drops sharply into a rugged canyon
and emerges in a bajada that supports a variety of plants and succulents from the
low Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Hikers will see how even subtle elevation
changes affect plant composition along each mile of the trail."
~ description from the ProTrails.com website

This is the eleventh different trail I've hiked this week at Joshua Tree. I'd do more but I'm running out of time and energy!

Although the Boy Scout Trail is not in my Top Five Favorites in the park, it is an interesting, varied trail that represents what Joshua Tree has to offer in the way of scenery, terrain, flora, and fauna at a variety of elevations.

Beavertail cacti were in bloom on the trail between 2,800 to 3,500 feet elevation.

Rough going through the lower canyon area (miles 2-3 going southbound)

Rocky trail and views to the Morongo Basin from the highest ridge (~ mile 4 going south)

Mostly level sandy trail through the Joshua trees in the last three miles toward Keys West trailhead

At 8+ miles end to end, it's one of the longer trails in the park and more remote than most when you're in the middle of it.

That appealed to me as a seeker of solitude and an endurance hiker (former ultra-distance trail runner) but its distance and difficulty -- from strenuous to easy, especially going point-to-point in the uphill direction -- makes it a less popular option for many hikers.

My end-to-end hiking route (yellow), starting at the Indian Cove trailhead (red dot)

There are ways to get around both the distance and difficulty of this trail, however, if you have less time or energy than it takes to do the whole trail either south to north (the more popular downhill direction), north to south (uphill), or the whole thing out and back from either end (= 16.6 miles).

You can simply go out as far as time and energy allow from either the north or south trailhead, turn around after half the time and/or distance you allot, and hike back to your vehicle.

Easy-peasy. That also eliminates the necessity of spotting vehicles one or more vehicles. 

Joshua tree "forest" in the southern portion of the Boy Scout Trail

Many people go out and back some particular distance from the south end AKA Keys West, where the trail is more level and hard-packed in the high Mojave Desert for about three miles before beginning its descent through washes and canyons in the Wonderland of Rocks.

If you start at the north (Indian Cove) trailhead, you'll run into rougher trail conditions after only a mile of flatter low Mojave Desert terrain.

Going southbound -- the uphill direction I hiked -- I'd rate this trail as "easy" the first mile from Indian Cove, "moderate" to "difficult" the next four miles through washes and canyons and up and over the ridge, and "easy" the last three miles before reaching the southern trailhead at Keys West.


Jim came up with today's most excellent hiking/cycling idea.

He dropped me off at the northern end of the Boy Scout Trail at Indian Cove (off US 62 west of the town of Twentynine Palms) so I could hike the 8.3-mile trail point-to-point to its southern end on the main park road.

He then drove the car to the southern trailhead (Keys West) via the west park gate at the town of Joshua Tree, parked it in that large parking area so I could drive it home after completing my hike, and rode his bike almost 30 miles back to our campground on the Marine base via the park's northeast gate (Oasis of Mara) above Twentynine Palms.

Here's his route through the park:


We both got in a hard workout. I probably had more fun than Jim, though, because he had to deal with a lot of traffic on the park road. I noticed there were more people in the park this afternoon than yesterday at the same time -- it's almost the weekend now.

But I didn't run into very many people on the Boy Scout Trail. It was fun when I did talk to a few other hikers but I relished the quiet time alone, too.

This little guy didn't have much to say but he didn't run away in fear.

Per my GPS, the Boy Scout Trail ranges in elevation from about 2816 feet at the low north end (Indian Cove) to 4,125 feet at the highest point. It measured 4,007 feet at the southern end (Keys West). Other websites list higher elevations ranging from about 2,900 feet to almost 4,200 feet.

I recorded a net elevation gain of 1,513 feet going southbound -- the "uphill" direction -- and only 323 feet of loss in 8.3 miles. YMMV if you go off-trail for any exploring or rock scrambling.

According to the park literature and websites I've read, most people hike this trail northbound so they have a net elevation loss. My knees do better going up and since there was so much loose rock on the steep parts of the trail, I would have had difficulty staying upright if I'd gone the other direction.

One of a group of three hikers (above) descends the steepest section of trail into the canyon
area, going in the opposite direction I hiked. The worst loose rock was in this area (below).

The only terrain challenge for me going southbound was about three miles total of sand/grit in various washes I walked through. Soft, deep sand really slows me down and works my legs harder.

In addition, the middle miles through the canyon and up and over the highest ridge are very rough, with loose gravel, rocks to climb over, and crude rock steps.

Above and below:  Yup, those are both parts of the "trail."

In addition, some sections of the trail have eroded into a "V" shape that also makes walking or running more difficult.

I was tired at the end of the hike and very glad to see the car but, ironically, my legs and knees were fine -- my right arm caused me the most grief the last few miles. It's still sore from a nasty bike wreck several weeks ago at the Imperial Dam LTVA.

I used one trekking pole and kept it in my left hand most of the time. The roughest sections warranted two poles for this aging hiker but I wanted a spare hand for my camera.


These photos start from the northern trailhead, which has very limited parking along the road that goes to Indian Cove Campground.

Here's a topo map from the information boards at either end of the Boy Scout Trail:

Both the green and white areas on that map are in the park; the white indicates wilderness. The trail is marked in yellow. The blue highlight lower left is the main park road. Note the little pink elevation profile; I went from R. to L. on that (uphill direction).

It's easy to spot the Indian Keys trailhead with its kiosk and split-rail fencing:

Jim's dressed for cycling, reading the information
at the northern trailhead while I get ready to hike.

I started hiking about 7:30 AM. Going southbound, the first mile, approximately, was very gradual uphill on smooth sandy trail through open desert as I headed toward the rock piles and mountains in the Wonderland of Rocks:

Beavertail cactus (L) and Mojave yucca (upper R.) in bloom

Water stash, probably for a trail runner doing
16+ miles out and back from the south end

As I gained a bit of elevation I had good views down into the large Morongo Valley until I dropped into a shallow basin with some soft sand:

Looking back down the trail toward Indian Cove; the town of
Twentynine Palms and the Marine base are in the distance, farther below.

In the basin, just follow the footprints and some rocks here and there that mark the path.

Now the real fun begins!

After walking through the basin, the climb to a higher wash through canyons starts up through some rocks at this left arrow:


In this first section of trail and in the canyons I especially loved all the flowering beavertail cacti with their bright pink flowers. Today they were blooming only under 3,500 feet elevation.

Lots of yellow Creosote and Brittlebrush flowers were also blooming in the lower desert.

This section had numerous wildflowers in bloom, as did most of the rest of this trail. I saw several new kinds of flowers today, including these in the shallow basin:

Bladder Sage AKA Paper Bag Bush looks delicate but
must be pretty tough to withstand Mojave Desert conditions.

Above and below:  Mormon Tea (Ephedra) grows in large clumps.

After we're done touring the Mojave Desert I'll do an entry focusing on flowers that grow there, similar to the one I did on Sonoran Desert flowers.


The second mile and into the third were uphill through a wash in a canyon and it was very slow going through the deep sand/grit and over rocks:

A nice staircase up to the high wash



By then I was appreciating the shade provided by some of the high walls:

Temps at our campsite down at 1800 feet were 56-78 F. today and although it was cooler at the higher elevations where I was hiking, the sun was merciless.

And spring has just barely begun! What must this place be like in the middle of the summer??

There were more rocks to negotiate after that slot canyon, and some merciful smoother areas of trail before making the final push up the ridge in the third and fourth miles:


This section had several red Barrel Cacti that weren't quite ready to bloom . . .

. . . and a lot of different plants already blooming, including purple-pink Beavertail Cactus, white Mojave Yucca, white Mojave Aster, white Dune Evening Primrose, white Monkeyflower, white Wooly Daisy, yellow Wallace's Wooly Daisy, yellow Desert Marigold, yellow Goldenbush, yellow Creosote Bush, yellow Golden Evening Primrose, white and yellow Desert Dandelion, blue Phacelia, blue Desert Canterbury Bell, blue Notch-Leaf Scorpion Weed, and several others I haven't been able to identify.

These are some of the flowers that were new to me:

A type of Monkey Flower; I also saw one the was growing out of the
top of a high rock, apparently in a little crevice with sand.

Desert Canterbury Bell

Above and below:  Notch-Leaf Scorpion Weed, a very unusual plant indeed!

And I don't even know if the next photo shows a type of flower or if the little "lanterns" are seed pods. The closest I've been able to ID it is the Physalis family that includes Chinese Lantern. It's one of the more interesting plants I found today, growing in a clump about two feet wide in the gravelly wash.

This is a close-up of the white and tan balloon-shaped "lanterns" that are about 3/4 inch wide:

Continued on the next page . . . up to the ridge, high washes, and the upper desert plateau

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