Joshua trees are known for their spiky leafed, branches reaching for the heavens are ubiquitous in most of Joshua Tree National Park, but not on this trail. The elevation is too low for the yuccas (Joshua trees don’t have rings so they are not really trees). Instead, you’ll find palm trees in this secluded oasis tucked away in a canyon on the north side of the park. To get there you have to hike 1.5 miles (3-mile out and back round trip hike) through massive boulders, rocky terrain, and past spiky barrel cacti, clusters of brittlebush, and other desert scrubby shrubs.
Since temperatures were over 100 in the afternoon, my friends and I decided to wait until evening to hike to Fortynine Palms Oasis. We got to the trailhead about 6:30pm and it was windy – I mean really windy. Hats almost went flying and at one point on the Pioneer Canyon ridge, it nearly blew Kat and me down. Desolate, rugged, and windy – not sounding so appealing right? There’s a quote by an unknown author – “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” That quote is certainly telltale of this hike. The well-marked trail follows sections of an old Native American pathway. From the trailhead to the top of the ridge is about a 300-foot elevation gain.
From the ridge, it’s down about 300 feet in elevation as you wind your way down to the palm grove. Yes, there’s a 300-foot elevation gain and loss both ways on this out and back hike.
Kat was up ahead of me when she realized I had stopped to snap a few pics and video. She was a good 50 yards or so ahead of me. All of the sudden she yelled “turtle!” I started running to her then thought – “wait a minute, it’s a turtle. It’s not going anywhere fast,” and started laughing. How she spotted it was just pure luck. We watched as the desert tortoise chowed down on the yellow, daisy-like flower of a brittlebush shrub.
The trail ends at towering California fan palms rising high from the canyon floor. I was stunned how huge they are in a desert world where most of the vegetation is scrubby and low to the ground. According to the U.S. National Park Service, there are only 158 desert fan palm oases in North America and 5 of those are in Joshua National Park, including Fortynine Palms Oasis. They require a constant water supply and are often found along fault lines, where underground water is forced to the surface by uplifted layers of hard impermeable rock. In Fortynine Palms Oasis, the fan palms form a canopy over a trickling spring and clear pools. The spring and pools are hard to see but you can hear the water in this vibrant green spot of shade and solace.
Our solace was quickly broken thanks to wildlife. Kat was really hoping to see some desert bighorn sheep. Fortynine Palms Oasis is a favorite watering hole for bighorn sheep, coyotes, orange-and-black hooded orioles, and other wildlife. We didn’t see any of those but we did see a diamondback rattlesnake.
I climbed up on a couple of boulders to do a couple of yoga poses for pictures. Something moving in a crevice quickly caught my eye – rattlesnake! I do not like snakes at all. I started flapping my arms, couldn’t say a word, and quickly jumped off the boulders. Kat knew instantly I’d seen a snake. The guys with us quickly scrambled up to watch the rattler come out of its daytime hiding spot while I moved over to some other boulders for yoga pics.
With the sun quickly going down it was time for us to skedaddle. We booked it back up the 300 feet to the top of the ridge then enjoyed the downhill back to the trailhead with the wind calming down and the sun setting over the desert.