Joshua Tree Two-Day Grand Loop (May 2013)



A few weeks ago, my friend Chad sent me an email asking if I wanted to do a weekend desert trip. My first thought was, “does a bear shit in the woods?” I replied in the positive and we selected Saturday – Sunday, May 4th and 5th.

Previously Chad and I had done 3 trips together, and he is a great hiking partner. I suggested a loop in Joshua Tree National Park I have been wanting to do. We ended up doing somewhere between 26 – 30 miles. The mileage is hard to calculate because it was mostly cross-country, requiring and lot of re-routing around obstacles and seemingly countless crossing of washes, which is a lot of up and down walking. The reason I wanted to do this loop is because there is reliable water about 1/2 way.

Not going to share the details of exactly where we hiked. I see many, many people posting on the Internet looking for suggestions for a hike in Joshua Tree — water availability being the limiting factor for most multi-day hikes in the park. Also, since we did not have a GPS, I cannot provide any of those way pointy doohickeys (whatever they are — I see people always asking for them so they can go on a hike). Cross country travel in deserts often means there are not a lot of prominent landmarks to help the lost hiker. But most importantly, a large portion of the areas we hiked had no evidence of man; no footprints, no trash, no cairns.

For this trip I took 4 full size USGS Topographical maps to ensure we did not get lost, and our route took us through most of the entire portion of all maps.

Day 1

We met just after 6:30 am at one of the most remote locations in the park. Within an hour we were working our way up a very difficult boulder-strewn canyon. A lot of class 3 climbing and it wasn’t long before the tips of my fingers were sore from all the climbing. What was really frustrating was most of the gaps between the boulders were filled with catclaw, making travel between boulders impossible. This is the type of hiking/climbing that one does not measure progress in miles per hour, but in hours per mile. A couple pictures of this section are shown below.

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It took us a couple hours to get through the top section of the canyon and just about the time I was thinking I was really, really tired of boulders, we topped out.


Once out of the canyon, we would still need to go up and then down several ridge lines working our way to a wash that would lead us to a flat plain. As we picked our way through this gauntlet, Chad decided to do a little exploring of the rock formations (below).


I took a water break while Chad explored. A few minutes later Chad found another formation to explore, and then a third. As he moved towards the third exploration, I was thinking to myself (as I often do in places like this), “are we the first humans who ever walked this exact place?” And then Chad saw one of those mylar party balloons that travel from civilization to wild places. As he went to retrieve this piece of garbage, he found a dwelling on the backside of a large boulder.


It was a miner’s small home. Inside was a cot and a few remnants, most chewed by pack rats over the decades. We did find this Saturday Evening Post magazine dated January 13, 1940 (yes, we left it where we found it).


By now the temperature was probably close to 90, and we needed to move on. We had a long way to go and there would not be a single stitch of shade for the rest of the day. We would have a couple miles of hills to cross over.


Above: working our way out of this hilly area and trying to find an easy path.

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Finally we are out of the hills and canyons.


Above: looking back at the area we had just spent 6 hours traversing.

From a distance and on the map, it looked like fairly easy going — but it was rolling terrain and over the top of every rolling ridge was a wash. Some were over 60 feet deep. Tiring and hot work (below).



Just as with the boulders, when we had enough of the wash crossing, we finally reached a flat valley. And for a coupe miles things were relatively flat (above). But that wouldn’t last for long. Soon we were navigating boulder country again, and each set of outcroppings were separated by a wash, more up and down. We soon moved to an area of flat desert and it would be fairly easy going for the next 3 or so miles — good thing, because we were both out of water. Below Chad is leading the way to water.


We tanked up on water, ate dinner, filled our water bottles and hiked for about an hour, where we stopped for our night camp.

Day 2

The weatherman had foretasted cooler temperatures for Sunday, early morning clouds clearing in the afternoon, and a slight breeze. For once, he was correct on all accounts.

The view from bed:


The first section of our hike would be fairly flat for the first couple of miles. Weather was perfect, and we ambled along stopping frequently to take pictures, generally enjoying the scenery.

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We would then descent a rugged canyon filled with huge boulders and brush. It had been many years since I had been in this canyon and I told Chad it could only be worse than my last trip, as flash floods just fill up these kinds of canyons with more debris.

As we descended, it was rugged going. Chad does a great job picking routes, so I hung back while he scouted and then moved through the boulder fields. Every route he chose was perfect. The pictures below were taken looking back as we descended.

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It was in this boulder field that we saw the only hiker we would see all weekend. A guy who had walked up this canyon, spent the night in the lower section of the boulder field, and who would pass us going down.

Finally we got to a “real” wash. A couple miles of nice hiking and lots of birds to entertain us.



Once out of the wash, we would hike a mile through this cholla garden. Awful stuff — I have the wounds to prove it. One nasty pod probably stuck 20 or more spines in my leg. Four I couldn’t get out and just cut them off, leaving little nubs — once I got home I removed them.


Anyway, this is our little excellent adventure.