Lost Palms Oasis
Date Hiked: February 16, 2013
Best Season: Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Joshua Tree National Park 760-367-5500
Notes: Dogs are not permitted on park trails.
- Distance: 7.1 miles
- Elevation Gain: 477 feet, but 1,100 ft of total climbing
- Route Type: Out and back
- Trail Type: Dirt and sand
- Difficulty: Moderate
Before our recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I did my usual amount of geeking out over all the various write-ups of the Park and looking for good/great hikes and sights we needed to catch on our first visit to the 15th largest national park (out of 55) in the country. Given that it covers over 1,200 square miles I was very surprised at how few hikes there were that went for more than 2-4 miles. The Park’s “Day Hike” page and “Joshua Tree National Park Hiking Guide” showed only one day hike longer than four miles, and even HikesPeak.com’s excellent Joshua Tree resource page only showed two–one of which was not accessible from the main roads inside the park.
That one consensus longer hike was the Lost Palms Oasis hike, listed at between 7 and 8 miles, depending on who you ask. And since we generally look for hikes in the 6-10 mile range, it allegedly went to one of the best oases in the park, and could be combined with the shorter Mastodon Peak Loop as a reverse “lollipop hike” to get us up into the 8+ mile range, we chose that for our first hike of the trip. You can see the crappy park map of the two hikes here. Since the total elevation was only listed as about 400 feet for Lost Palms, we figured it would be pretty easy, but in the end, it was a bit more work than anticipated–at least partially because of the soft, sandy portions of the trail that make it like walking on a beach at times.
I previously wrote up the Mastodon Loop (“Most Convenient Hike in Joshua Tree”) as a separate hike, so for the purposes of this write-up, I’m mostly going to reference the Lost Palms Oasis hike as a stand-alone out-and-back hike, though I’ll mention where the junctions for the combo hike are.
The trailhead is located just a mile southeast of the Cottonwood Visitor Center (9 total miles from the I-10 Freeway) at the Cottonwood Springs Oasis Parking Lot, making it quite accessible to the Coachella Valley or anyone else heading down the nation’s southern-most trans-continental highway. Make sure to stop at the Visitor’s Center to get your day pass and check out the shop, before turning down Cottonwood Springs Road to the trailhead. As per usual, we arrived too late to park in the actual parking lot, but there was plenty of parking near the end of the road, and we didn’t have to walk very far to the trailhead.
At the trailhead was an informational kiosk describing the history of the Cottonwood Spring, as well as some general information about the park. Immediately below the parking lot (and accessible on a very well maintained trail that even a stroller or wheelchair could make) is Cottonwood Spring, a palm and cottonwood oasis that apparently was a major source of water for Native Americans and miners that lived in the area in the past, but there was not any visible water on this February day.
The trail quickly narrows and begins to look like a normal hiking trail, as it heads fairly steadily (though not at all steeply) uphill for then next two or so miles through the desert terrain. One of the downsides of this trail is that even though it has a great variety of desert plants, including silver, teddy bear, and pencil chollas, yuccas, prickly pears (nopales), barrel cactus, ocotillos, mesquite, creosote, juniper and other classic desert flora, there are no Joshua Trees on this hike (or anywhere on this end of the park, actually). So if you want to see a Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park, you need to head for the higher Mojave Desert portion of the park up near Split Rock, Skull Rock, Ryan Ranch, or any of a number of other hikes and drives in the northwest part of the park.
It does, however, feature lots of the park’s iconic natural rock sculptures and interesting geology, as well as the wide variety of plants and cactii mentioned above, so as an introduction to desert landscapes, this hike works very well.
Just over a half mile from the trailhead, you’ll come to a junction with the Mastodon Loop Trail. If you chose to do the combo hike, this is where you would meet up with the Lost Palms Oasis trail, and head east-southeast (left) to continue to the oasis. We will stay straight.
The trail is virtually impossible to lose, as any of the places you might possibly get confused (especially where it crosses washes) are marked with rocks or sticks to keep you on track.
After climbing the aforementioned two miles, you’ll descend down into a pretty cool, narrow, slot canyon, that would probably be a bit harrowing in a sudden desert storm, before climbing again up a pretty steep hillside. From there, it is another descent until just before you hit the area over the oasis.
From here, you can see the palms down below in the canyon, as well as a cluster of them straight across the canyon on the hillside, in an area that looked worthy of exploring if we’d had a bit more energy or daylight, but we had neither. According to the Google Map satellite view below, there was a trail down to the palms, but we didn’t see it. We looked for a way down from the top of the canyon, but did not find a way that didn’t involve scrambling and a whole lot more work than either of us was willing to put in at this point–especially since we could see no evidence of water at the bottom among the trees.
At this point, we turned around, feeling a little cheated, as we’d expected an oasis more like the amazing one we found at Palm Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park, but based on the pictures we’ve since seen from others that hiked down to the bottom, it doesn’t appear that it is ever nearly as nice as that one.
We headed back in the late afternoon sun, adding some nice colors to the rocks around us.
In the end, we did feel like this hike was significantly over-rated. It wasn’t a bad hike, we just didn’t feel like the oasis was worth the effort, unless you just craved a long desert hike in Joshua Tree. Frankly, the oasis at the parking lot was as impressive–or more so. We enjoyed the Mastodon Peak portion of the hike much more than we did the Lost Palms Oasis, and if you only have time for one short hike, I’d choose it. But if you are looking for a single hike of more than 4 miles in Joshua Tree, combining these two hikes makes a good introduction to the southern Colorado/Sonora Desert end of the park.
View Lost Palms Oasis Hike in a larger map