There's Something in the Rocks

Jumbo Rocks

   

The name would seem to be a synonym for most of Joshua Tree, but this campground about eight miles east of Hidden Valley is in fact home to several hundred-foot-high pates of monzonite granite that are perfect for scrambling and for a little geological pedagogy. Take Skull Rock, for instance; you'll recognize it by the eye sockets. Most of the shaping of the monzonite here was done underground. Only when the upper layer of Pinto gneiss weathered away did the monzonite see the light of day. Surprise and impress your friends by remarking that Skull Rock's declivities, which appear to be wind-carved, are actually the result of water erosion. Then coolly walk away.
In fact, walking is the best way to see Jumbo Rocks and the surrounding countryside, but don't expect much in the way of signage. Even a fairly obvious trail, such as the one that leads three miles south from camp to an aerie known as Crown Prince, peters out near the base of the formation; from there, you'll have to devise your own scrambling route to the summit. But you'll be suitably rewarded: Your view sweeps 360 degrees out over much of the park, including westward to the often-snowcapped Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, the tallest peaks in southern California.

North of Jumbo Rocks, if you're up to some cross-desert bushwhacking, you can forge a loop that includes a unique dwelling above Eagle Cliff Mine, a clever, makeshift stone hut built by turn-of-the-century prospectors. A faint path leads northwest from the Split Rock picnic area steeply up the side of unnamed slopes and then descends abruptly toward the mine. Scan carefully on the way down or you'll miss the aforementioned highlight: Look for the live oak tree that marks the entrance to what is, in reality, a lean-to made of 30-foot-high boulders. Impecunious miners simply filled the cracks between the slabs with crude stone walls and put in a four-pane window—still intact, as is an ancient cast-iron oven. There's something so haunting about the place that it's been left undisturbed by the few hikers who've stumbled across it.
Complete the loop by forging a route south to Desert Queen Mine, once the source of much of Bill Keys's income. The mine shafts have been screened over to avoid Baby Jessica-style tragedies, but you can peer into the darkness and imagine what it must have been like to emerge blinking from the tunnel into the bright, searing daylight. Shake yourself from this reverie and loop back east to the trailhead at Split Rock. The distance is only three miles total. But as with all of Joshua Tree's best hikes, measurements are indistinct. Rarely will you feel so remote in time and space, especially at that moment when you peer through the miners' dingy window into the home they wrested from the stone.

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