There's Something in the Rocks

Hidden Valley

   

There's no Going-to-the-Sun Road in Joshua Tree—which is to say, there's no true hub to the place. But Hidden Valley comes closest, given its accessibility and the access it in turn provides to some of the park's most inviting terrain, including many of its best climbs. Try to arrive by way of the north entrance to the park—near the little town of Twentynine Palms—where there's a visitor center with a bookstore, a nature exhibit, and a continuous-loop video that includes music from U2's The Joshua Tree.
Less a true valley than a series of passageways amid huge boulder formations, Hidden Valley has always been climbing nirvana, especially in the Turtle Rock formation to the south and on the nicely named Sports Challenge Rock, the centerpiece of what climbers call Real Hidden Valley. (Plain old Hidden Valley is the campground across the road, by the way.) A mile-long nature trail skirts the base of Sports Challenge for those who just like to watch. Or you can accept the gauntlet and follow a short offshoot trail that leads east across a wooden bridge to free standing Hidden Tower. Like many of J-Tree's routes, this one isn't as difficult as it looks—the holds are there where you need them —but its sheer verticality makes the 5.9 ascent a heart-thumping rush.

Or consider doing what I do these days: leave the harness at home. The history of Hidden Valley is in a ghostly, insinuating way every bit as memorable as its handholds. Just 1.5 miles north of the campground is the Desert Queen Ranch, built by that Edison of desert survival, Bill Keys. This indomitable tinkerer (1879-1968) managed to wrest enough water from the desert to run a cattle ranch, power stamping mills at his gold mines, and irrigate an orchard. Today his ranch, empty for decades, is under the stewardship of the national park. Visit on a quiet, hot afternoon—the homestead is open to the public by prearrangement with park headquarters—and you may see bighorn sheep perched on a rock ledge above the schoolhouse while sunlight sparks off the slowly rusting carts and machinery. It takes guts and implacability to create such a pocket of civilization in the empty Mojave.
Of course, it also takes water, which Keys provided in part by building the nearby Barker Dam. If any rain at all has fallen recently, the dam's mortared-stone barrier will catch and hold it—accounting for the improbable sight of a No Swimming sign in this bone-dry park. (To reach the dam, take the dirt road east from the campground to Barker Dam Nature Trail.) More likely, however, no illicit pool will tempt you, so you can instead continue along the trail to find the most vivid "pictographs" in the entire Mojave Desert—presumably painted onto the red rock by a 1950s Disney film crew to add a touch of "realism" to the 1961 movie Chico the Misunderstood Coyote.

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