Day hikers can head to a secluded oasis on the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.
The 2.8-mile round trip trail offers a number of panoramic views and the chance to see desert plants and wildlife. It sports a 350-foot elevation gain.
To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley, take Calif. Hwy. 62 north. In Twentynone Palms, turn right/south onto Canyon Road. As the street curves east, it becomes Fortynine Palms Canyon Road. This is an access road into the north end of the national park with no ranger station. (Theoretically, you don’t have to pay park admission to hike this trail…but your vehicle can be cited for not having a park pass should a ranger
come by.) The road ends at a parking lot with the trailhead leaving from the southeast corner.
A single track of sand and gravel heads uphill through the often barren and rocky landscape. Stone stairs along the way help your ascend and descend the ridgelines. Sections of the trail are an old Native American path that led from the desert to the oasis spring.
Red Barrel cacti be seen alongside the trail. The most common of the cylindrical cacti, their color ranges from deep red to white and yellow with all shades in-between. Older red barrel cacti tend to lean toward the southwest.
Brittlebrush clusters also thrive trailside. They can grow to almost five feet high. Their leaves are quite fragrant, and early Spanish missions in this part of the world used to burn their sap as incense.
During spring, you can enjoy a lot of cacti and wildflower blossoms, especially after a rainfall. Both the red barrel cactus and the brittlebush bloom in a brilliant yellow.
There are no Joshua trees, the park’s namesake, on this trail, though. The elevation in this part of the park is a bit too high for them.
You’ll also spot a number of small, harmless lizards scurrying about and sunbathing near the trail. The Western side-blotched lizard likes open ground exposed to the sun, especially where there’s rocks and loose soil. The Great Basin collared lizard usually sticks to rocky slopes.
Quails also can be seen, though they are rarer. The plump Gambel’s quail is about the size of a soccer ball and well-camouflaged. Males, however, have a cream-colored belly with black patch. Their calls are a common sound in Southwestern deserts. In spring, males make a kaa sound to signal they’re seeking a mate. When quails notice you, they’ll probably chirp chip-chip-chip, which tells the rest of their covey that something suspicious is nearby.
Desert tortoises are rarer still. If you spot a hole next to a creosote bush, the national park’s lone species of tortoise might be nearby. Only able to move a mere 0.2 miles per hour – or about as fast as traffic on Hwy. 111 during peak tourism season – tortoises construct up to 30 feet of dens underground. They are a threatened species, so should you see one, stay clear; if frightened, they will void their bladder, which diminishes their chances of retaining enough water to survive the desert’s dryness.
At 0.75 miles, the trail descends toward the oasis. Along the way, you’ll be treated to scenic views looking across Fortynine Palms Canyon.
About 0.8 miles in marks the trail’s highest point. Keep walking, and like a desert mirage, the oasis seemingly pops out on the horizon.
California fan palms rise between boulders that shade a trickling spring and its pool (which sometimes goes dry). Songbirds flock here, especially orange and black orioles who feed on the ripe berry-like fruit of the palm tree.
Three different orioles are common in the national park – the hooded oriole, Bullock’s oriole, and Scott’s oriole. The skull cap and breast of the male hooded oriole is a bright orange while the Bullock’s oriole is a mix of black and orange. The Scott’s oriole has a black head and yellow breast. All are migrants through the park.
Bring a picnic lunch as well to enjoy under the palm canopy.
The oasis (and trail) is closed at night so local wildlife can access the spring. Both sheep and coyotes come here, and the following day you may see their tracks on the sand around the palms.
A spring exists at Fortynine Palms because fault lines force underground water to the surface. Miners planted the palms to mark the spring’s location.
The trail is best avoided during summer heat, so limit its use to October through June. There’s no shade except at the oasis. Regardless the time of the year, bring plenty of water.
Notes: The trail can be slick after a rain. Dogs are not allowed on the trail.
- 04 The oasis’ palms offer lush a canopy from the desert sun.: The Desert Sun