The Phantom Stampede

Coyote howls and other high-desert chills in Joshua Tree National Park

Jan 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

MOJAVE > IN BRIEF The smallest desert in North America, the Mojave is a transition zone between the Sonoran and Great Basin covering 25,000 square miles, where distinctive Joshua trees and creosote bushes dominate the landscape.

They always wait to tear through camp until after you've stargazed yourself into bleary slumber. Then the frenzied desperation of blood-lusting coyotes sends you leaping from your epidermis and burrowing deeper into your down cocoon. It lasts as long as a buffalo stampede, although you never hear footfall, only sixteenth-note yips and whole-note howls, followed by the unearthly frequencies of rabbits in the grip of death.

The aural horror of this nighttime pageant is my dark lure to the Joshua Tree wilderness. It's a chill you don't get in the car campgrounds, where you hear the coyotes, but mingled with the climbers' campfire stories and the truck radios of Marines patrolling for Twentynine Palms girls.

Before I discovered a wilder, lonelier alternative, I spent many nights in just such a car camp—Indian Cove, in the northern part of the park. I'd hole up there with groups of friends to try out the guidebook climbs in a vast jumble of boulders called the Wonderland of Rocks. But I'd always noticed, off the Indian Cove approach road, a strange, semidistinct track that headed west across flat sand before it disappeared—where? I resolved to find out. I loaded my pack with a couple of collapsible gallon jugs of water and set off alone toward the horizon, only slightly put off by the name, Boy Scout Trail. To my delight, it loped southwest into a wash that cleaved a northern extension of the Wonderland, and soon I was in a solitary defile surrounded by rock hills and boulders. I hiked half of the eight-mile trail before setting up my tent in the stone cloisters, where I could boulder for hours amid a maze of sandpaper-grippy rocks, rest in the shade, watch lizards rustle by, and feel the heat of day yield to high-desert chill. It's where I return for a convenient dose of solitude, and the sounds of wildness that still haunt my favorite patch of Mojave Desert sand. —Robert Earle Howells

Details: Joshua Tree National Park [760-367-5500;] Entry fee, $10 per vehicle; backcountry camping is free.

More Mojave Adventures

Mountain Biking Death Valley
You could take the easy way out and bike Death Valley National Park's cool high country. But that's not why you're here. Get the real low-down desert experience on the dirt road from Ubehebe Crater to Racetrack Playa. You'll pedal out of volcanic rubble, through Joshua-tree forest, and finish in a mirage-inducing dry lake bed. Season: Anytime but summer. Distance: 28 miles one way. Do-It-Yourself: The road is out-and-back, so set up a shuttle or do the 56-mile round-trip. The campground ($10 per night) at Mesquite Springs is a good staging area. Elsewhere, you must camp two miles from the road. Information: 760-786-2331;

Backpacking the Inyo Mountains Wilderness
In this precipitous 11,000-foot range overlooking the Saline Valley and the California-Nevada border, the rough 40-mile Lonesome Miner Trail starts at 1,800 feet among Mojave Desert sagebrush and climbs into bristlecone and pi-on pine at 8,600 feet, with a total of 17,000 feet of elevation gain on the way. The reward: immense views and three refurbished miners' cabins for shelter. Season: Spring and fall. Do-It-Yourself: The southern trailhead in Hunter Canyon is reachable from Saline Road in Death Valley. The north trailhead is at Reward in the Owens Valley. Information: Call the Ridgecrest BLM office (760-384-5400) or visit

Climbing Red Rock Canyon
Half an hour west of Las Vegas, the 200,000-acre Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area boasts more than 800 climbing routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.13+. A classic Red Rock ascent is the two-day, 13-pitch original route up Rainbow Wall, three hours from the Pine Creek trailhead. Then it's a 5.9, A2 mix of finger cracks and laybacks with a bivy eight pitches up. Season: Year-round. Do-It-Yourself: The park is day-use only except with permits for multiday routes (702-647-5050; entry fee, $5 per car). Guided Trips: Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (702-254-0885; runs tours of the best climbs ($80-$125). —Jonathan Hanson