Mastodon Peak Hike at Joshua Tree National Park

By Lynn Bremner

Located at the southern part of Joshua Tree National Park, Mastodon Peak provides sweeping views of the surrounding desert. On a clear day you can see the glimmering Salton Sea from the top. The hike is 3 miles roundtrip and may take you anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours depending on your pace. There are two trailheads for this hike. One is at Cottonwood Spring and the other is at Cottonwood Campground. The trail is a loop trail so you don’t have to backtrack on the return route.

The trail ascends on the route towards Mastodon Peak.

Mastodon Peak Hiking Trail

It was a crisp and clear afternoon the day I hiked to Mastodon Peak. My journey started at Cottonwood Spring. There were a lot of hikers out that day and the small parking area was nearly full. The ranger at Cottonwood Visitor’s Center said that we would see some wildflowers along this trail and to keep an eye out for the Canterbury bluebells in the wash near the trailhead. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a handful of other wildflowers starting to bloom along the route including ghost flowers, apricot globe mallow, a few brittlebush, monkey flowers, and one lone yellow poppy.

Ghost flowers along the Mastodon Peak Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.

Cottonwood Spring at Joshua Tree National Park

Cottonwood Spring Oasis is a natural spring that served as an important water source for the Cahuilla Indians, prospectors and travelers who have passed through the area. Several gold mills were developed near Cottonwood Spring as the water source was needed for gold prospecting. It is also one of the Parks fan-palm oases that serves as home to many birds and other wildlife. It is a great location to bird watch or picnic.

Cottonwood Spring is the staging area for several hikes, so be sure and read the signs and to check the map to find the Mastodon Peak Trailhead.You have to walk across the sandy wash of Cottonwood Spring to find the Mastodon Peak trailhead. At the start of the trail there is a point of interest marked with a sign showing a bedrock mortar created many years ago by the Cahuilla Indians. There are several other points of interest throughout the hike including the remains of the Mastodon Mine that you will encounter on your decent.

Hikers above us on Mastodon Peak.

The trail is scenic with interesting rock formations rising up from all directions and native plants populating the sandy areas in between. We encountered patches of plant life and scattered wildflowers. It is still early in the season for a full wildflower bloom, but some color is starting to pop up in this section of Joshua Tree National Park.

The view at the top is well worth the hike up. Once you reach the upper part of the trail, there is a flat viewing area where you can look to the south and see the sparkling waters of the Salton Sea. To the west you can see the Cottonwood Mountains and the Eagle Mountains to east. If you are feeling ambitious you can climb up the large rock outcropping above the viewing area to get an even better view. A few hikers climbed all the way to the top of the Peak for the spectacular view. I was able to get a photo of them waving at us from their high perch overhead.

A series of steps and stairs have been built into parts of the path to help hikers reach the peak with ease. It is a well-maintained hiking trail. As you descend down the backside of Mastodon Peak you will follow the trail into a sandy wash that takes you towards Cottonwood Campground and back to the road that leads to the original parking area of Cottonwood Spring.

The hike took me about 1.5 hours from start to finish. I stopped a few times to take photos, video and to enjoy the views. If you picnic along the way or rest often, this hike can easily take you 2 to 3 hours, so plan your hike accordingly. Pack plenty of water, snacks or a picnic lunch and be sure to wear a hat and sunglasses. It was cool and breezy in the parking lot but it got hot on the trail, which is protected from the wind in areas.

Watch DesertUSA’s short video summary of Mastodon Peak Hike to view more scenes along the trail.  

How To Get There

Take the I-10 to the Joshua Tree National Park/ 29 Palms Exit. Head north on Box Canyon Rd. for about 7 miles until you reach the Cottonwood Spring Visitor’s Center. For information on park fees, visit Joshua Tree NP website.

Mastodon Peak Hike Description

  • 3.0 Miles Round Trip (loop route)
  • Moderate to strenuous
  • Time required: 1.5 to 3 hours
  • Trailhead: Cottonwood Spring
  • Park: Joshua Tree National Park

This hike is uphill one way and downhill on the return route of the loop. Parts of the trail pass through sandy washes that make the hike more strenuous. There are also rock stairs built into the steeper segments of the trail.

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