There's Something in the Rocks

Wonderland of Rocks

Jun 11, 2001
Outside Magazine

Like plenty of other J-Tree climbers, I cut my teeth—and fingertips—at Indian Cove, on the northern fringe of a vast, dazzling maze called the Wonderland of Rocks. The Wonderland extends from the northern end of the park south all the way to Hidden Valley, a total of about seven miles. At Indian Cove, climbers ritualistically survey the day's first climb over morning coffee, with the distance from breakfast to belay about a picnic-table's length. Nearby is a great training ground called Short Wall, sporting a dozen or so routes rated from Class 4 to 5.11c, all readily top-roped, all with easy walk-offs. Deeper in the Wonderland are some of the most technically difficult climbs in the park—places like the Ivory Tower, whose La Machine (5.13d) remains only twice-climbed.
But by attaching themselves exclusively to the rock face, climbers are missing the most magical part of the Wonderland: Hiking here is in fact spectacular, especially the Rattlesnake Canyon route, which is about as much fun as day hiking gets. Beginning at the Indian Cove picnic area, head east and then south up the obvious wash. Then, using a topo map (there's no marked trail), aim for the slot canyon, a skinny cleft that grows progressively narrower over the course of a mile until you're scrambling, grunting, and bouldering your way up, ascending tiers into the depths of the Wonderland maze. Wander as far as you wish; just heed the abiding rule of desert hiking: turn back when your water's half gone. It's possible to cut all the way through the Wonderland to Quail Springs Road in Hidden Valley (14 miles one way). But it's illegal to camp overnight en route.
For that ineffable experience, you'll need to try the Wonderland's classic route, the eight-mile Boy Scout Trail, which begins just south of the park entrance. Set up a car shuttle with a partner, register at the backcountry sign-in board on Indian Cove Road, and head off through the rocky Wonderland. The route emerges into open desert about five miles later. Camp anywhere and watch the star spectacle overhead. Next day, hike out to Quail Springs Road. Like all desert pilgrimages, this one should leave your soul lightened and refreshed. On the other hand, it'll be damned hard on your corporeal self if you don't carry sufficient water—about four gallons (yup, that's 32 pounds) per person. But the hike is certainly worth the strain, and blessedly, the load gets lighter with each passing hour.