Backpacking 500 Miles in the Mojave Desert (part 8)

In November and December of 2000 I backpacked from my house in Palm Springs to Lake Mead and back.

Part 7 can be viewed here.

Mojave 500 mile map

DAY 30

I was up and walking before sunrise. It would be a 5 mile walk to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park and I was ready for the walk to be over, however I was committed to completing the walk. I had 4 days left. I stopped by the Visitor’s Center, which was closed, to grab a map of the Park from a kiosk. The map is really a brochure with a large scale map. The Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms is about 5 miles from the Park entrance.

By now I was in incredible shape, having spent a month walking in the Mohave Desert. Instead of walking the main asphalt road to the entrance, my course was through sparsely populated neighborhoods, some of which were dirt roads. As I plodded forward, steadily gaining altitude, I mentally plotted my course home.

For most of the walk I had used road maps I picked up along the way. Most of the route I was familiar with and did not need detailed maps. This had worked out well, except for a section along Lake Mojave, where I ended up scrambling through some difficult terrain and a real topographical map would have put my mind at ease and made it easier to plot a course.

My strategy was  to hike on the west side of the Park road to avoid walking the same real estate twice, which would be the California Riding and Hiking trail that I had traveled nearly a month earlier. Three or four miles along this road would allow me to walk around the mountains that formed a visual background to the road. From here the road junctions at Pinto Wye, the point I would start walking cross country towards the sandy Geology Tour Road that I would take south to the rough 4WD road that winds through Berdoo Canyon and exits the Park on its western edge through the Little San Bernardino Mountains. At this point I would be in the Indio Hills areas, southeast of Palm Springs. I had never hiked this route.

A motorcycle trip years ago

The reason for this route was I had traveled it by motorcycle 20 years ago. I don’t remember why, but I had the day off from work. So I decided to ride around the desert on my full-dressed Honda 750K. I rode down to the north shore of the Salton Sea and then headed north. In Coachella, I decided to drive along Dillion Road, which ran between Indio Hills and the Little San Bernardino Mountains, all the way to the little town of Desert Hot Springs. As I cruised along this mostly empty two lane road, I saw a side road that headed towards the Little San Bernardino Mountains. As I am apt to do, I took the road which soon turned from asphalt to dirt. Although my bike is a heavy street machine, it did well on the road. If figured if the going became difficult, I could turn around. I had no idea where the road went. Soon I passed a sign marking the National Park Boundary, which at that time wasn’t a National Park, but a National Monument. I continued on, the road getting narrower, rougher, sandier, and going up, up, and up. Finally the road passed through the mountains and I was in a valley. The road quality started to improve and eventually led to one of the paved roads in the Park, which I followed out of the Park into the hamlet of Joshua Tree and Highway 62. From here I rode west to the city of Yucca Valley and back to Palm Springs. This is why I planned to walk out Berdoo Canyon.

Entering Joshua Tree National Park

I got to the entrance gate before it opened. Ahead of me the road wound through a mountain pass. Suddenly, I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. Joshua Tree does that to me, it is my favorite place to hike. Now I didn’t want to get from point A to B, but I wanted to walk in the Park. Breaking my rule of not walking the same real estate twice, I decided to hike along the California Riding and Hiking Trail, my mind shifted gears from going home to enjoying the scenery.

After an hour or so, I took a break to snack and drink some water. Looking at the map, I saw a faint canyon that looked like a feasible route out of the park, and it would shave a day off my trip, but more importantly it would mostly avoid dirt roads I had planed to walk, and offer some real wilderness hiking. But was it prudent? Really, one should have a topographical map to do this. I was pretty sure this canyon was Pushawalla Canyon that cut through the Pushawalla Plateau, an area I had visited a couple times. But I wasn’t sure – the area wasn’t marked on the map. If I went this way, I would have an extra day’s worth of water. It wouldn’t be a prudent decision; if I became injured or lost no one would find me until long after I died. IF it was Pushawalla Canyon, it should be fairly easy to walk – I seemed to remember that wagons used to travel in Pushawalla Canyon to bring supplies to miners and take the gold back to Indio. If it rained, I might be facing a flash flashflood. What if, what if… Well, there was only one way to find out…

New Plan

My new plan was to hike the California Riding and Hiking Trail past Belle Campground, then walk cross country to a rocky area named Squaw Tank that would be a perfect place to camp in case the wind started to blow. It shouldn’t be too hard to find it without a map, as the Geology Tour Road passes Squaw Tank. I would avoid this road, but it would be my reference point to confirm I was indeed at Squaw Tank. From here I would hike to and through Pushawalla Canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park "brochure" map with notes. This is the map I used.
Joshua Tree National Park “brochure” map with notes. This is the map I used.

If I walked steady, I should get there by dark.

So off I went and just before dark I was eating dinner at Squaw Tank.

DAY 31

I was hiking as the sun rose. I decided to walk south along the Geology Tour Road, which seemed to head to the Little San Bernardino Mountains. An hour later I was at the mouth of a canyon at a trail head. It must be Pushawalla. Soon I came upon a dry well and some ancient remains of mining activity: Pinyon Well. This confirmed I was at Pushawalla Canyon. This is some of the best hiking in Joshua Tree, should you want to visit.

As I traveled up the canyon, the wind started and it got cold. Very cold. I was around 5,000 feet and it was the coldest I had been the entire trip. So I picked up my pace to generate heat to keep me warm. A few hours later, I walked out of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, crossed Dillon Road, and traveled on several dirt roads in the sparsely settled area of Indio Hills. As it got dark, I reached the top of the lower section of Pushawalla Canyon, which I knew would lead me to the lush Pushawalla Palm Oasis. However, the Oasis is in the Coachella Preserve and it is illegal to camp. So I stopped and made my night camp in an area I am fairly certain is just outside the Preserve boundary. One more day till I got home.

DAY 32

I decided not to walk down Pushawalla through the Oasis. I have been there many times and it would take much longer that simply walking along the ridge above the canyon that would be an easy hike to 1000 Palms Canyon near the Coachella Preservice Visitor’s Center. Less than two hours later I dropped down to the road that passes by the Center, turned left, and walked a couple miles to Ramon Road. This section of Ramon Road leads directly to Palm Springs. But this section is like walking along a country road. Before I knew it, I was approaching the bridge that crosses I-10. The intersection is truck stop haven with gas stations and fast food joints. And there, just a few hundred feet away, was McDonald’s! Lunch time.

Ten Miles to go

I could simply walk most of the way home along Ramon Road, which becomes traffic heavier each step of the way. And I wasn’t really ready for that. I decided to walk directly across the desert in a beeline home. Except for one housing tract, it was possible to stay in the desert. In about 3 hours I hit Whitewater Wash and traveled along it to the point where my house is a couple blocks away.

Whenever I finish a hike, be it a short two-day trip, or a long one like I was just completing, my mind always starts to worry. Will my vehicle start, will it still be there, will it be vandalized, or in this case will everything at the house be okay?

The house was there waiting for me. No break-ins. No problems. Relief. Opening the door, I dropped my pack, peeled off my clothes, and took a long hot shower. It had been a great trip. And I was home a few days before Christmas.

Some final thoughts.

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