Hiking Juniper Flats
Joshua Tree National Park
Text and Photos By Clyde D. Elliott
Joshua Tree National Park can be a very busy place -- especially if you are trying to find tranquillity in this heavily used desert environment. Yet within this overcrowded desert park you can find places of solitude. One of these peaceful places is Juniper Flats.
An extended day-hike or easy overnight backpack to Juniper Flats will reward you with that needed solitude. You will also enjoy the beauty of the high desert, outstanding vistas and an opportunity to reach Quail Mountain, the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park.
You will find the trailhead for Juniper Flats located along Keys View Road at the Juniper Flats Backcountry Board and parking area. From this point, there are two possible routes. One choice is the southern 4.75-mile old Juniper Flats dirt road, now closed to vehicles.
The other, and preferred route, is an easy, 4.5-mile hiking trail. This well-marked trail follows a portion of an irregular statewide trail system known as the California Riding and Hiking Trail. The California Riding and Hiking Trail extends 35 miles throughout the length of the park, from Twentynine Palms Visitor Center to Black Rock Campground.
Carry all the water you will need for your hike and stay. There is no water nor are there facilities anywhere along the trail or at Juniper Flats.
After registering at the backcountry board, follow the short connector trail northwest for a few hundred yards to the junction of the California Riding and Hiking Trail, where you turn left. You will move quickly for the next 3/4 mile, traveling through the western portion of Lost Horse Valley.
As you come out of the open desert, the trail crosses a wash and starts a mild ascent for a few hundred yards. With very little effort on your part, you will reach the top of this short climb and will have completed the steepest part of this trail. The trail now gradually climbs, almost unnoticeably, over the next 2 miles until you reach a broad ridge and the highest point of the trail. From this high point, look toward the northeast for outstanding views of Hidden Valley and Wonderland of Rocks.
The rest of the way to camp is relatively flat, but do not let a hurried hiking pace take you over, or you may miss other scenic rewards. For the next 2 miles, look over the ridgelines to the south and west for glimpses of the Southern California mountain monarchs, Mts. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio.
As the terrain starts to open up, start looking to the north where you will find Quail Mountain dominating the northern skyline. If climbing the peak is on your agenda, take the time now to study Quail Mountain from this vantage point. Mentally, keep notes of the main canyon and the surrounding ridges to the southeast of the peak. These are the routes you will take to the summit.
Before long you will cross a dirt road (the southern route) and arrive at your destination of Juniper Flats.
This is a wilderness area with no established camping sites. Because Joshua Tree National Park does not allow campfires in the backcountry, you will likely not find evidence of previously used camps. Simply find a pleasant spot at least 100 yards from the trail and set up camp. Remember that it is your responsibility to know and use Minimum Impact Hiking and Camping techniques during your stay in the Joshua Tree backcountry.
As the name implies, junipers are one of the more abundant plants in Juniper Flats. However, these are not the only plants in the area. Intermixed among the junipers are large Joshua trees and healthy stands of Pinyon pine that blanket this densely vegetated area. The vegetation is thick enough that you can set up camp only a few hundred yards from another party and not even know they are there.
With all this vegetation, it is not surprising that the area also abounds with desert wildlife. In the early morning hours, keep a sharp eye out for mule deer that frequent this area. Some observant hikers have also sighted bighorn sheep among the rocky ridges that surround Juniper Flats.
If you are up to it, you can take the moderate-to-strenuous hike to Quail Mountain. This side trip to the 5,813-foot summit and back takes 2 to 3 hours.
From Juniper Flats, hike north along the dirt road about a half-mile until it ends. From this point, there is no established trail to the top, only informal routes that randomly fade away on the rocky ground. Traverse across the desert floor toward the main canyon that extends off the southeast end of the mountain. From this point, either go straight up the canyon or choose one of the surrounding ridges as your path to the top.
It is a tough climb, but once you reach the top, a remarkable 360-degree view is your reward. From your summit's vantage point you can see the Salton Sea to the south and the San Jacinto Mountains to the southwest. To the west you can observe the San Bernardino Mountains with snow capped Mt. San Gorgonio. The vast Mojave Desert disappears in the north, and nearby Pinto Mountain and Pinto Basin are directly to the east. Before returning to camp, sign your name in the summit register found in a can nestled among the rocks at the summit.
After you have rested and taken in the solitude that Juniper Flats has to offer, return to your car by retracing your footsteps back to the trailhead. If you wish to add some scenic variety to your hike back, you can use the dirt road as your return route.
Be sure to pack out all your garbage and anything else others before you left behind.
Joshua Tree National Park
Hiking trails and information
The Joshua Tree
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