Day hikers can spot a variety of wildflowers as exploring the washes and ridges of Joshua Tree National Park’s northwest corner.
The 4.7-mile West Side Loop is easy to get to and offers a variety of experiences because of its 784-foot change in elevation. It doubles as an equestrian trail, so you’ll definitely feel like you’re in the Old West.
To reach the trailhead, from Calif. Hwy. 62 in Yucca Valley, go south on Joshua Lane. Turn right/west onto San Marino Drive, which upon curving south becomes Black Rock Canyon Road and enters the Black Rock Campground. Park at the Black Rock Nature Center. Walk to the nature center’s southwest corner and follow the blacktop road straight west. The trailhead is east of campsite #30.
In about 175 feet, the trail divides, beginning the loop. Go left/south to do the loop clockwise. The trail in short order joins Campground Road.
After passing a water tank, the trail at 0.2 miles splits from the road. The path quickly gains elevation, offering great views of the San Jacinto mountains to the southwest.
Several wildflowers can be seen along the trail, especially after wet winters, making El Niño years the best for viewing. When flowers bloom – and sometimes they don’t bloom at all – varies annually, but usually they begin mid-February in Pinto Basin and at lower elevations. Most of the rest of the park, including this trail, sees blooms in March and April when temperatures warm. Elevations above 5000 feet can enjoy blooms as let as June.
At 0.3 miles, the loop junctions with Burnt Hill Trail. Continue right/southwest.
The vivid blue Canterbury bells like rocky slopes and washes like on this section of the trail. The fluted blossoms can stretch up to 1.5 inches long.
About a mile in, the trail joins a wash and disappears as you begin the loop’s southern side in Little Long Canyon. Turn right to follow the canyon west, as it continues to gain elevation. Stay right at a confluence; the wash will diminish and become a trail shortly thereafter.
As the trail winds through hills, look west for San Gorgonio Mountain. Southern California’s tallest peak at 11,503 feet, on sunny winter and spring days its snowcap shines brilliantly.
About 1.7 miles in, the trail reaches its highest point at 4,510 feet. Pretty views of Warren Peak to the south and mountains beyond it await.
Continuing downhill, look for more desert wildflowers. Mojave aster often can be seen on the rocky hillsides at this elevation. The light purple flower with bright yellow center, can grow two inches wide.
At 2.3 miles, the trail enters a wash. You’ve reached the loop’s southwest side. While losing the path is easy in a wash, you’re on the right track if you pass a confluence at 2.6 miles.
Washes often are a favorite location for purple mat to grow. Tiny and colored like amethyst, they are close to the ground and close to one another. From a distance, they present the appearance of a single, violet rug.
At 3 miles, the trail leaves the wash, and it’s uphill again (If while walking the wash you’ve come to a dirt road, you’ve gone too far and should backtrack.). The good news is the trail is fairly well-maintained and easy to follow from there.
You’ll be delighted by the Joshua tree grove in the valley round you. Piñon trees thrive as well on the hillside.
The brilliant orange mariposa lily often can be seen in pinon-juniper woodlands. Not only their color but their height makes the flower stand out, as it grows atop stems between four to eight inches high. The blossom consists of three petals stretching a couple of inches apart.
At 3.15 miles, the trail turns east and begins the loop’s northside. The trail then reaches its second peak at 3.6 miles in. While there are some ups and downs over rolling terrain, it’s mainly downhill from there.
On the dry rocky slopes, watch for the magenta flower of the beavertail cactus. The blossom, which can be up to 3 inches wide, sits on the tip of the beavertail’s flat, broad stems. This cactus can grow in clusters up to 6 feet wide, so when flowering they form a striking swath across the desert terrain.
The loop junctions with the Hi-View Nature Trail at 4 miles. A little farther along the Hi-View – which is a side trail – rejoins the path. A popular vista because of its easy access and short length, you may want to consider taking the Hi-View if you have some extra energy to burn. It’ll add 1.3 miles to the hike for a 6-mile route.
Desert globemallow likes the dry, rocky slopes such as those found around Hi-View. The orange, spherical blossom appears on shrubs that grow up to 3 feet high.
When wildflowers are in bloom, you’re certain to see butterflies, a number of songbirds, and bees, of course. Other times of the year, rabbits and even a small deer or two can be spotted off trail.
At 4.7 miles (presuming you didn’t go on the Hi-View), you’ll arrive back at trailhead. Retrace your steps back to the Black Rock Nature Center, which is worth a stop just for the exhibits.
Be forewarned that there is virtually no shade on the trail, so always don sunscreen, sunglasses and sunhat, as well as bring plenty of drinking water. Hiking boots with good traction and a trekking pole will help you on the ascents and crossings of the sandy washes. A good topo map and compass are a must.
And don’t forget the desert wildflower guidebook!
- Desert globemallow: Rob Bignell
- Mojave aster: Rob Bignell
- Beavertail cactus: Rob Bignell
- Purple mat: Rob Bignell
- The West Side Loop: Rob Bignell