Day Trip #2: Cottonwood Spring Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park

View of Cottonwood Spring Oasis from above.

Cottonwood Spring is one of the most scenic spots in Joshua Tree National Park and the site of a desert fan palm oasis. I learned about this location from one of the Park Rangers whose eyes lit up when talking about it. She said it was one of the most beautiful places and one of her favorite spots in the Park. Her response to the area intrigued me, so I took a short drive to see what Cottonwood Spring had to offer.

Palm Oasis in Cottonwood Spring.
Palm Oasis in Cottonwood Spring.

Cottonwood Spring is approximately 7 miles from the Southern entrance to the Park near the Cottonwood Springs Visitor’s Center. When I first drove into the parking area at Cottonwood Spring my eyes were drawn to the brilliant gold tones and shimmering green of the cottonwood trees. It was a sight to see . . . brilliant fall colors in the desert. It was such an odd contrast, yet so beautiful and breathtaking.

From the parking area I took several photos to show the fall colors. I strolled down the manicured path to the bottom of the wash. I didn’t have enough time to take one of the longer hikes that started at Cottonwood Spring so I opted for a short walk down the tree-lined wash. There were plenty of shady areas to sit and take in the scenery under the desert fan palms. I’m not sure how many palms were in this particular oasis as there were too many to count. Cottonwood trees are mixed in among the stands of fan palms that spot the wash.

The weather was perfect for mid-October and I saw several families hiking in the wash with young children. The wash was an inviting relief from the sun-beaten trails along the ridges. I saw several hikers head out on the trail to Mastodon Peak, which is a 3-mile roundtrip loop. This trail offers spectacular views from Mastodon Peak and along the way will encounter interesting geology, pass the site of the Mastodon Mine and the Winona Mill.

Cottonwood Spring Wash.
Cottonwood Spring Wash.

Cottonwood Spring serves as the trailhead to several other hiking trails. The easiest trail is a walk down the wash to a second oasis and dry falls. Bighorn sheep often come up the wash in the early morning hours for water. You can hike past the second oasis to the remains of Moorten’s Mill. You will see palo verde and desert willows along this hike.

A much longer trail is the Lost Palms Oasis that will take you along 8 mile roundtrip route to the largest stand of fan palms in the Park. Make sure you pack plenty of water and food for this hike.

Lost Palms Trailhead.
Lost Palms Trailhead.

You don’t have to hike to enjoy the Cottonwood Spring area of the Park. Just below the parking area you can descend into the wash and enjoy the wildlife while sitting under one of the Fan Palms or Cottonwood trees. Cottonwood Springs is a popular bird-watching location. The trees and shade provide a unique habitat for many birds including the western yellow bat, Gambel’s Quail, hooded oriole, crows and other birds. My head was turned skyward to the squawking crows that were circling the tops of the fan palms. Many birds nest in the palm fronds and find shade in the abundant vegetation that grows along the wash.

As I meandered down the wash I wondered how incredible it was to find water in the middle of such a desolate and dry landscape. The oasis exists because of an underground spring which surfaces in parts of the wash. The spring is the result of earthquake activity that continues to affect the spring’s water output. There have been times when the Spring produced 1000 gallons a day. Today the spring produces about 500 gallons per day. A few decades ago, the spring was barely producing any water at all.

Historically miners and travelers have stopped at Cottonwood Spring for a reprieve from the desert heat and to restock their water supplies. The Cahuilla Indians lived in the area many years ago and camped near the spring. Today, the Bighorn Sheep, coyote, birds and other wildlife use the spring as a water source. It’s hard to imagine traveling the desert on foot, following primitive maps and hoping you don’t get lost on your way to the next water source. Finding the oasis was a life or death prospect for every desert traveler. There is a grave site not far from the Spring that marks the spot where a traveler died on his way to find water. He was only 200 yards from the Spring when he died of thirst.

Cottonwood Spring is worth a visit, several in fact, to see it all. I’ll definitely be back to hike the trails and to enjoy the oasis, a colorful paradise tucked in between the dry desert landscape and sun burnt ridges of Joshua Tree National Park.

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