Gnarled fingers of a Joshua tree scrape at the sky, casting twisted shadow-stripes across the sand. Its fat branches provide the only smidges of shade within view so a group of hikers, including me, is gathered under its canopy, sipping water.
We’re part way down Boy Scout Trail in Joshua Tree National Park on an 8 mile or 13 kilometer trek across the desert. The ancient Joshua trees speckle the horizon and provide an otherworldly backdrop for our outing today.
While I’ve explored the Palm Springs area plenty, and even driven ‘J-Tree,’ as it’s also known, this trip is different; I’m on foot for a longer-than-normal distance, and there’s a guide showing us the way.
Palm Springs is a destination rich with culture, arts and amazing outdoor experiences. But this one is a new one for me. I’ve contracted the services of Stout Adventure to guide us through the desert, since I’ve never hiked in this kind of extreme environment and am unfamiliar with the route, terrain, and what to expect, and I don’t want to end up like Aron Ralston.
Advantages of hiking with a guide
I’ve never considered a hiking guide before but there are numerous advantages; you get someone who knows where they’re going, meaning no wasted time from wrong turns. You get a buddy if you might be inclined to go it alone (safety in numbers). You also get local knowledge about flora, fauna and history, which makes the journey that much more interesting.
On this November morning, we meet Matt from Stout Adventure at the Palm Springs Visitor Centre and caravan the 70 minutes to Joshua Tree National Park. We begin our walk at the Boy Scout trailhead and are out in the desert in a matter of steps.
Matt has been guiding hikers for a long time, but he’s also trained in first aid and search and rescue and has attended numerous calls to help stranded or injured hikers, so I feel pretty safe venturing onto unfamiliar territory.
Matt’s warned us to bring lots of water and dress appropriately for the daytime heat. We’ll be camping the night in the Indian Cove campground, and we’ve been able to park a car with that gear and leave it at the site, near where we’ll end our trek.
As we strike out into the desert, the November heat is strong but manageable. The trail is quite hard-packed, but in places it’s swept with softer sand and can be challenging to slosh through. The trail Matt’s chosen for us is relatively flat and easy for most of its eight mile duration.
Starting at Keys West means we’re heading north with the sun at our backs, but it also means a major elevation change we’ll find closer to Indian Cove has us going downhill rather than climbing.
Learning the desert landscape
The desert landscape is awe-inspiring. Joshua trees are everywhere, but there are also Mojave Yucca which are similar looking but with longer, flatter knife-like leaves. Also here are many different types of cacti that I’ve never seen in person before. Matt knows about all the flora here and tells us the names of the plants and what they’re used for.
A few interesting ones we saw were the creosote bush and Cheesebush, both of which have strong odours (yes, Cheesebush makes your hands smell like strong cheese if you touch it).
We also spot lizards and rodents and Matt identifies numerous burrow holes belonging to other creatures in the desert floor. It’s a fascinating walk, and it makes the time fly by.
Spotting ancient civilizations
Near the halfway point of Boy Scout Trail, we come to what looks like large terraces. Nearby, an old concrete trough is crumbling. Matt tells us this was likely an old homestead or cowboy outpost to water livestock, where water was collected as it flowed through the canyon during sudden storms. The history of this area is fascinating; from explorers to miners, cowboys and native Indians, many cultures and people have been through this part of the Coachella Valley. Indeed Matt tells us one can often find pottery shards or arrowheads or other artifacts abandoned along the desert sand. While it’s forbidden to remove them from the park, they make fascinating props for a hiking adventure.
Photo ops galore in the desert
The hike has numerous photo opportunities too, from bulbous rock piles, to gnarled dead trees frozen in place, their leaves long turned to dust.
Not long after passing the old trough, we begin to descend, and as we come out from a wide canyon, we reach an outcropping that gives us a spectacular view of the park and shows us exactly how high up we are here at the top of the trail. The descent is relatively easy but loose rocks and a sandy base mean care must be taken to keep our footing. After about 45 minutes of descent, we’re again on a flat, sandy trail, leaving the mountain behind us.
Camping at Indian Cove in Joshua Tree
By the time we reach our campsite at Indian Cove, we’re ready for some rest. Matt’s recommended a perfect campsite in among the giant boulders and it feels very Dr Seussian, or like we’re in an old episode of the Flintstones.
While we are experienced campers, others who are looking to try camping for the first time might find Matt’s services helpful too. He teaches camping, hiking and outdoor basics to neophytes and can even help get visitors geared up temporarily.
While Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to explore and learn, Matt can recommend other hikes much closer to his home base of Palm Springs, like Indian Canyons.
As the sun begins to set on Joshua Tree Park, we enjoy the warm desert air sitting beside a campfire, watching the fire cast colours onto the rocks, and begin planning our next trek into the amazing desert landscape that surrounds Palm Springs.
You can find out more about how you can have a desert adventure like we did by contacting Stout Adventure .