Day hikers can enjoy a lake created more than a century ago at Joshua Tree National Park.
The 1.5-miles round trip Barker Dam Nature Trail is like a sampler plate of all the national park offers – monolithic rock mounds, historic sites, desert with iconic Joshua trees, and Native American petroglyphs. In addition, the reopening of national parks with the end of the government shutdown comes at the perfect time; the weather in the high desert is warm in the 60s to low 70s, making for a no-sweat walk.
To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley take Calif. Hwy. 62 north. Upon reaching Joshua Tree, turn right/south onto Park Boulevard/Quail Springs Road. Near the Hidden Valley Campground area, go left/northeast onto Barker Dam Road. In just under two miles, turn left/north into the Barker Dam Nature Trail parking lot.
The stem to the lollipop trail heads northwest from the lot into the desert. A sand trail, it crosses a couple of dry washes and approaches two large mounds of boulders. The loop begins at their base; go right/counterclockwise on the loop. This heads between the mounds and requires some walking over the rocks.
The outcroppings are called inselbergs. Made of monzonite, groundwater shaped the one-time rectangular rocks by eroding their corners. Wind, the rare rainfall, and freezing and thawing further rounded, shaped and cracked the huge mounds.
Upon passing through the boulders, the trail reaches a small blue lake. In an effort to collect and preserve the scarce water, ranchers long ago built rainwater catchments called “tanks.” Today, this tank serves as a small oasis with willow trees. Birds, frogs and mosquitoes are common at the lake in March. Throughout the day, the water reflects the rock mounds while sunset casts them in a beautiful array of colors.
After taking in the lake, continue walking west along the shoreline. The trail quickly arrives at Barker Dam (sometimes referred to as Big Horn Dam), which holds the lake water in place.
Miner and cattleman C. O. Barker built the original nine-foot-high Barker Dam in 1900. Nearly a half-century later in 1949, rancher William “Bill” Keys raised the dam by six feet. Other catchments or their remnants, including White Tank, can be found in the area.
The trail next curves southeast through open desert. Joshua trees – the park’s namesake – dot the plain.
Otherworldly in appearance, Joshua trees can grow up to 15 feet high and often clump together as sprouting from a parent rootstalk. They can be found in just four Southwestern states, growing only between the elevations of 1,300 and 5,900 feet.
Along the way is a short stem trail to ancient Cahuilla petroglyphs and pictographs. Unfortunately, in 1961, a Walt Disney crew, while filming “Chico, the Misunderstood Coyote,” painted over some of them so they would appear brighter; because of that, today some of them appear garish and unnatural and they sometimes are referred to as the “Disney petroglyphs.” Most of the petroglyphs are of geometric shapes and stick figures.
At the next intersection, turn left/east. This follows the side of a rock mound and then cuts between two of them.
Along the way, watch for the Mojave mound cactus, whose flowers sprout a brilliant red each spring. A type of hedgehog cactus, it thrives in the rocky terrain around Joshua trees.
Once at the stem trail, go right/southeast and retrace your steps to the parking lot.