Mastodon Peak — The Most Convenient Hike In Joshua Tree National Park

Hike-At-A-Glance


Mastodon Loop Trail

Date Hiked: February 16, 2013
Best Season: Autumn Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Joshua Tree National Park 760-367-5500
Notes: Dogs are not permitted on park trails.
  • Distance: 2.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 406 feet
  • Route Type: Loop
  • Trail Type: Sand, dirt, and rock
  • Difficulty: Moderate

At over 1200 square miles,  Joshua Tree National Park is the 15th largest national park in the US–smaller than Death Valley, Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, but larger than it’s more famous siblings Yosemite, Smoky Mountains, or, well, 38 others.  But even though most of the acreage is located in Riverside County, two of its three access points are in relatively remote portions of San Bernardino County.  The most accessible entrance for the general public is the South Entrance, just off I-10, 25 miles east of Indio and the Coachella Valley.

Joshua Tree Area Map

Map showing the three entrances to the park–two in the north, and one in the south. From the Joshua Tree National Park Website.

Unfortunately, most of the classic hikes (and virtually all the Joshua Trees) are located closer to the aforementioned north and west entrances, and take a little more work to get to.  Now, you can certainly get to those hikes via the southern entrance, but you have to drive through the length of the park to get there, along Pinto Basin Road, which is quite scenic and has numerous interpretive displays along the way.  There’s also a smallish Nature Center/Ranger Station gift shop near the south entrance, just eight miles off the 10 Freeway.

But if you don’t have a lot of time, and are staying in or passing through the Coachella Valley along I-10, and want to get in a quick hike in the park, you really only have three options–Lost Palms Oasis, Mastodon Peak, or a combination of the two.  We did the combo hike, and will write up the Lost Palms leg of the hike later, but we both thought that if you only had time to do one hike near the most accessible part of the park, Mastodon Peak is for you.

It features an oasis at the trailhead, many of the park’s trademark boulders and climbable rocks, a historic mine, great views of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea, and nearly every form of desert plant you would want to see–except the namesake Joshua Trees, which are all in the north end (the higher, Mojave desert section of the park).  But if it won’t kill you to miss an actual Joshua Tree, this hike has everything else the park is famous for in a 2.5 mile loop with only about 500 feet of climbing.  Oh, and there is a crappy online map available for it here.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Parking lot at Cottonwood Spring.

The trailhead is located just a mile southeast of the Cottonwood Visitor Center (9 total miles from the 10) at the Cottonwood Springs Oasis Parking Lot.  The normal way of taking the trail is to start at the Cotton Springs Oasis and head southeast from there, but because we wanted to tie into the Lost Palms Oasis trail without backtracking, we did the Mastodon Peak hike in reverse.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Just a bit back down the road to find the Mastodon Loop Trailhead.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Trailhead sign on the north side of road.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Looking back on the parking area from the trail.

Just west of the parking area, you’ll find a sign for the Mastodon Loop Trail exit on the north side of the road.  In retrospect, it appears we made a wrong turn almost immediately.  If I believe the map loaded on my GPS, instead of heading perpendicular to the road at the very beginning, we followed the trail along the road a short distance before heading up a wash towards the peak.  But we also saw a trail sign that seemingly indicated we should have gone a little further before heading up a different wash.  But all three routes meet not too far down the trail, so in the end, if you headed the right direction, it didn’t really matter how you got there, and based on the footprints in the sand, we were far from the only ones to make this error.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A few of the omni-present yucca trees (NOT Joshua Trees) on the hike.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Looking straight ahead was a narrow path, but it wasn’t clear if that was ours or not (it might have been).

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Looking to the right was the alternative–a wide wash with many footprints. We chose this route, which worked just fine.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Boulder lined wash–note the soft sandy trail.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A boulder strewn piece of the trail–it wasn’t as obstructed as it looks, and we just walked around the boulders.

The path up the wash (and many of the other stretches of the trail) was quite soft and sandy, and required more energy than we expected for such a short trail, but it wasn’t difficult at all.  The wash was lined with giant boulders and a variety of desert plants, as we headed steadily (but not at all steeply) uphill.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Looking back down the trail, we had come up from the left, but apparently we should have been on the path to the right, which is clearly funneled in to the wash here with carefully placed rocks. We followed that “correct” route from this point forward.

We shortly (less than a half mile) came to what was clearly a junction with the trail we apparently should have been on all along, and the path was always clear from there, and frequently marked with smaller rocks or even signs to help you keep on track.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Heading up another narrow stretch of the wash–still very sandy.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Cool picture of a back-lit silver cholla in the foreground and a prickly pear in the background.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Another set of rocks on the trail guiding us out of the sandy wash and up to the right. More cool rocks dead ahead.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Well laid stone stairs as we leave the wash.

There are sections with well designed stone steps, which I’m sure help with erosion control as well as with the footing on the loose rock/sand trail.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Now looking more like a trail than a convenient wash.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

I thought lots of the rocks in the park looked like other things–doesn’t that look like an elephant head with its trunk sticking out front?

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

And back in a sandy wash again, with helpful rocks guiding the way. The soft sand really is harder to walk in than a hard path–it’s coarser than the beach, but similar in difficulty to walk on.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

More of the varied trail terrain–watch out for the yuccas!

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Nice job of building up the trail here.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Walking on a granite slope here. That’s Mastodon Peak’s pointy top in the middle.

At about the one mile mark, you’ll come out of the various washes and be able to see Mastodon Peak up ahead.  It’s not a particularly imposing peak from this angle, but it is pretty obvious what you’re headed towards.  You’ll also pass what is almost certainly an abandoned mine structure off the trail to the right a ways, but since we knew there was a bigger mine directly on the trail up ahead, we didn’t venture off to explore it.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Presumed abandoned mine just off the trail.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Mastodon Peak, with a climber in the top middle.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Final approach to the mine and the base of the peak.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

First view of the Salton Sea in the distance.

As we got closer to the peak, we could see people up on top of the peak, and as we traveled along the final ridge of the trail towards the peak, the significant remnants of the Mastodon Mine at the base of the peak also came into view.  Though much of the structure is missing, and the mine shaft itself was covered with a large metal grate, this was one of the better mine sites I’ve seen while hiking, and unlike many that are completely sealed off, you could still see clearly down into the shaft.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Approaching the mine site.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Part of the old mine structure.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

About the mine…

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

The mine shaft is covered by a steel grate.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

But you can see into it pretty clearly. Note–this looks like a horizontal shot, but it is nearly a totally vertical shaft.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A view of the mine remnants from above.

From the mine, we weren’t clear how people had gotten up to the top of the peak above it, so we explored the rocks a little bit on our own, finding a very nice, peaceful view of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea, but not an easy way to the top.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Colleen, enjoying the view of the park and the Salton Sea from just above the mine.

But when we started back on the trail, we almost immediately came to a signed trail junction that pointed the way up the “not maintained” trail to the top.  It really isn’t much further to the top from here, and only required a bit of boulder scrambling to get to the top, where a small group sat enjoying 360 degree views of the park, surrounding mountains (both Big Bear and Mount San Jacinto are visible), and the Coachella Valley.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Sign denoting the “trailhead” to the top of the rock.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

“Trail Not Maintained” is an understatement, but it is a relatively easy boulder scramble to the top. Most of the rocks in this park are well textured, making it easy to climb and clamber over them with even moderately decent footwear.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A narrow little slot near the top.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Zoomed in photo of the Salton Sea from the top.

After resting a bit and chatting with our fellow hikers, we started heading back down the hill.

This stretch is significantly steeper heading downhill than it was on the way up, but not dramatically so–just watch your step, as the trail is still a bit loose on top.  It does head through some great boulders, and a third of a mile later you will hit the junction with the main Lost Palms Oasis Trail.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Trail back down goes through a nice, boulder strewn alley.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Close-up of a cool split rock (not THE split rock, though…)

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A look back up the trail towards the peak–it looks much more impressive from the front side, rather than climbing up the back as we did.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A close-up of the people gathering on top of the peak.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Trail junction for the return trip to the parking lot.

We turned left, and headed on to the Lost Palms Oasis (which may or may not have been worth it–write-up to come {spoiler alert–we didn’t think it was}), but for the purpose of this post, you will want to turn right and head on downhill towards the parking lot at Cottonwood Springs, about 2/3 a mile away.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

You can see the trail winding through the desert ahead here.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

There are a few cool sections of trail here in the final stretch.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

The kind of area you’d expect an ambush in a western movie…

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Final stretch of trail. You can see the oasis/spring and parking lot in the background.

Right before the parking lot, there’s a spring and oasis with large palm trees and some cottonwood trees.  At one time this spring supplied water for all the ranchers and miners in the area and was even piped directly over long distances, and maybe there is still open or running water in some years or some seasons, but we didn’t see any on this day.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Out of order, but this is the interpretive sign in the parking lot explaining the history of the spring.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Approaching the spring/oasis.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

In the middle of the oasis area–“Hazardous Materials”?

There’s a path with a rail from here up to the parking lot, where there’s a few interpretive signs and a nice view of the oasis below.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

The very well-maintained short path from the parking lot to the spring. You could push a wheelchair or stroller down to the spring and back fairly easily, I’d think.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

View of the spring and trail from the parking lot.

This is the trailhead where most people start the Mastodon Loop Trail and/or the Lost Palms Oasis.  When Colleen and I later talked about which way was best if we were only doing the Mastodon Loop, we were split.  I liked the way we took, with the gradual climb up to the peak, and the moderately steeper hike down.  Colleen preferred the more dramatic approach to the top of the normal route, despite the steeper climb up front.

Sooooo… if you want to just do the loop, rather than the reverse lollipop combo hike we did, you can do it either way, and if you choose to do it the way most of the world does, just flip back through my post here in reverse!

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

A look back at the parking lot at the end of the day–if you do the reverse route, look at this picture first! ;-D

We thought the loop made for a nice introductory hike to the park.  Its proximity to the 10 and Coachella Valley make it the easiest way to experience Joshua Tree National Park, and it has a lot of what is best about the park—but if you want to see an actual Joshua Tree, you’re going to need to try one of the other trails or drives in the park, like Split Rock, Skull Rock, Ryan Ranch, Geology Tour Road, or Pinto Basin Road.

Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Elevation profile of the Mastodon Loop. You can see how much steeper the front side is than the back side we started with more clearly if you click through.


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