2021 March: California desert: Kelso Dunes, Joshua Tree NP, Mecca Wilderness, Indian Canyons

As the pandemic gradually waned, we enjoyed hiking four desert areas in Southern California: Mojave National Preserve; Joshua Tree National Park; Mecca Hills Wilderness; and the Indian Canyons, a great “tour de fronds” at Palm Springs.

Kelso Dunes Trail, Mojave National Preserve

Starting the Kelso Dunes Trail before sunrise allows positioning for better photography and cooler walking as the sun rises (650 feet gain in 3 miles round trip). It’s two steps forward and one step back on the steep sand, making hiking to the top harder than would be a trail on solid ground.

Providence Mountains, seen from Kelso Dunes Trail, in Mojave National Preserve, near the town of Baker, in San Bernardino County, California, USA. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Sunrise over Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve, near the town of Baker, in San Bernardino County.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, near the town of Baker, in San Bernardino County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above and below: Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, near the town of Baker.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, near the town of Baker, in San Bernardino County, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Joshua Tree National Park

On the delightful 49 Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park, a walk through hot desert leads to natural ponds embraced by California fan palms with full skirts soaring above the cool retreat, with a soundtrack of hidden frogs croaking musically (3.1 miles round trip, 450 feet gain). On the return walk, a large rare desert tortoise grazed along the side of the trail! Be sure to start early, as the wonderful natural ambiance is easily interrupted by the noise of fellow visitors. The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera, in the palm family Arecaceae) is native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California. Today’s oasis environment was protected from a drying climate, restricting this cold-tolerant palm to widely separated relict groves.

49 Palms Oasis, palm panorama in Joshua Tree National Park, near the City of Twentynine Palms, California, USA. The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera, in the palm family Arecaceae) is native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California. Today's oasis environment was protected from a drying climate, restricting this cold-tolerant palm to widely separated relict groves. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: 49 Palms Oasis, palm panorama in Joshua Tree National Park, near the City of Twentynine Palms. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama.

Desert tortoise. 49 Palms Oasis Trail. Joshua Tree National Park, near the City of Twentynine Palms, California, USA. The park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler. (© Carol Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: A desert tortoise seen along the 49 Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park. (Image by Carol Dempsey)

Parry's nolina ((Nolina parryi). Joshua Tree National Park, near Twentynine Palms, California, USA. The park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Flowers of Parry’s nolina ((Nolina parryi) bloom on huge stalks in Joshua Tree National Park. The park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler.

Further south, the Park’s Cholla Cactus Garden looked impressively healthy:
Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park, near Twentynine Palms, California. The park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Mecca Hills Wilderness: Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail

The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail (5 miles round trip with 1050 feet gain) lives up to its reputation as “California’s best slot canyon.” Using a good GPS map is recommended to choose amongst the network of trails. The circuit cuts through the Mecca Hills, a deeply-eroded sedimentary badlands north of the Salton Sea, bounded on the west by the San Andreas Fault. Several parallel faults split this geologically fascinating region. The original sediments were primarily lake and Colorado River deposits, later covered with alluvium as the uplifting hills eroded. Mecca Hills Wilderness is managed by BLM’s Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office.

Sunset illuminates eroded land in Mecca Hills Wilderness, seen from a BLM dispersed campsite off Painted Canyon Road, Mecca, California, USA. The Mecca Hills are deeply-eroded sedimentary badlands north of the Salton Sea, bounded on the west by the San Andreas Fault. Several parallel faults split the region. The original sediments were primarily lake and Colorado River deposits, later covered with alluvium as the uplifting hills eroded. Mecca Hills Wilderness is managed by BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Sunset illuminates an eroded landscape in Mecca Hills Wilderness, near Mecca, California. We camped at this BLM Dispersed Campsite along Painted Canyon Road with nice sunset view of badlands, although litter and ORV tracks somewhat scarred the area.

A hummingbird sucks nectar from a red ocotillo blossom. Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, Mecca Hills Wilderness, managed by BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office, near Mecca, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: A hummingbird sucks nectar from a red ocotillo blossom in Mecca Hills Wilderness on a ridge along the Painted Canyon Loop Trail.

Hikers descend into a slot along the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, Mecca Hills Wilderness, managed by BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office, near Mecca, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Hikers explore a slot on the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, in Mecca Hills Wilderness. Below: Carol Dempsey photographed Tom scrambling up Ladder Canyon.

Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, Mecca Hills Wilderness, managed by BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office, near Mecca, California, USA. The Mecca Hills are deeply-eroded sedimentary badlands north of the Salton Sea, bounded on the west by the San Andreas Fault. Several parallel faults split the region. The original sediments were primarily lake and Colorado River deposits, later covered with alluvium as the uplifting hills eroded. (© Carol Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Below, erosion exposes conglomerate rock in a slot along the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail:
Erosion exposes conglomerate rock in a slot along the Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail, in Mecca Hills Wilderness, near Mecca, California, USA.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Palm Springs: Palm Canyon, Indian Canyons, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail takes you through the world’s largest California fan palm oasis, a great “tour de fronds.” We enjoyed hiking the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looped back via Victor Trail (6.8 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain and loss). Be sure to carry extra drinking water. As in the adjacent Joshua Tree National Park, this lush oasis environment was protected from a drying climate, restricting this cold-tolerant palm to widely separated relict groves. This was our first time visiting the Indian Canyons, which are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Arriving 5 minutes before 8:00am opening time at the admission gate put us towards the front of the line of cars to enjoy a cooler start time for hiking.

The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail visits the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis, a great "tour de fronds." We hiked the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looping back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera in the palm family Arecaceae) are native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Hiking the Palm Canyon Trail.

West Fork Falls of West Fork Palm Canyon Creek, at Palm Canyon, in the Indian Canyons, on the Reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Palm Springs, California, USA. The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail takes you through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: West Fork Falls of West Fork Palm Canyon Creek, at Palm Canyon, in the Indian Canyons, on the Reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Palm Springs.

Scenes from hiking the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looping back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail visits the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera in the palm family Arecaceae) are native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California. Today's oasis environment was protected from a drying climate, restricting this cold-tolerant palm to widely separated relict groves. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Hiking the Palm Canyon Trail, on the Reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, immediately south of Palm Springs.

Engelmann's Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) with bright magenta flowers. We hiked the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looped back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail takes you through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) with bright magenta flowers on the Palm Canyon Trail.

Yucca plant with yellow flowers. We hiked the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looped back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail takes you through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: A yucca plant blooms with prodigious yellow flowers on the Palm Canyon Trail.

Stone Pools with palms along Indian Potrero Trail. Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. We hiked the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looped back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, just west of the city of Palm Springs. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera in the palm family Arecaceae) are native to the far southwestern United States and Baja California. Today's oasis environment was protected from a drying climate, restricting this cold-tolerant palm to widely separated relict groves. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: The Stone Pools are a quiet retreat with palms along Indian Potrero Trail. Multiple overlapping photos were stitched to make this panorama.

Barrel cactus with yellow flowers on the Victor Trail. We hiked the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and looped back via Victor Trail, in the Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California, USA. The beautiful Palm Canyon Trail takes you through the world's largest California Fan Palm oasis. The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Barrel cactus with yellow flowers on the Victor Trail above Palm Canyon seen in the background.

San Jacinto Mountains reflect in Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground, La Quinta, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: The San Jacinto Mountains reflect in Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground, in La Quinta, California. This spacious campground was a relaxing escape in the Palm Springs suburban area.

Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus). La Quinta, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: A greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) at a strip mall in La Quinta, California.

Gallery show: all images from “2021 Mar 26-30: CA desert: Joshua Tree, Mecca, Indian Canyons”


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Southern California route map

In Southern California, from March 26-31, we drove the following scenic route shown starting at Bishop then proceeding through Death Valley southwards:

Round Valley near Bishop

Old cottonwood trees line a rural road under the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in early spring 2021, in Round Valley near Bishop, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Old cottonwood trees line a rural road under the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in early spring 2021, in Round Valley.

Cattle graze under snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, early spring 2021. Round Valley, near Bishop, California, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)
Above: Cattle graze under the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in early spring 2021, in Round Valley near Bishop, California.

Our complete trip itinerary 2021 Mar 21-April 22

In brief: Seattle > Chico family visit > Lake Tahoe > snowy Mono Lake > Bishop > Mojave NSP > Joshua Tree NP > Mecca Wilderness > Palm Springs > Hualapai Mountain Park > Grand Canyon rafting for 16 days > Valley of Fire SP > Cathedral Gorge SP > Seattle

In more detail:

  • Mar 21 Sun: depart Seattle.
  • Mar 22 Mon: visit family in Chico.
  • Mar 23 Tues: On Highway 32, we tour the Big Chico Creek Environmental Reserve (BCCER) to adopt acres for the Dempsey Family Endowment in Memory of David P. Dempsey. Our group includes family members, CSUC president Gayle Hutchinson, and BCCER staff.
  • Mar 24 Wed: Finally, my first visit to Dad & Mom’s senior living apartment since 15 months ago, isolated by the pandemic!
  • Mar 25 Thurs: drive from California’s Central Valley via Tahoe and snowy Mono Lake to a friend’s house at Round Valley, near Bishop.

[You are currently reading the article that covers “2021 March: California desert: Kelso Dunes, Joshua Tree NP, Mecca Wilderness, Indian Canyons.”]

  • Mar 26 Fri: spectacular snowy Sierra peaks and warm Death Valley on drive to Kelso Dunes Trailhead Campground in Mojave National Preserve, to meet with nephew Griff & friend Marianna.
  • Mar 27 Sat: Kelso Dunes was a fun hike in Mojave National Preserve. Drive to Joshua Tree NP. Check in spontaneously at Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground (which had many available sites despite the big weekend traffic), a refreshing oasis with delightful duck pond. We drove the Park Boulevard loop counterclockwise, which was crowded on this spring weekend. We weren’t expecting the long lines of cars backing up the Park’s entrance and every available parking lot, until we remembered that this was the weekend of Palm Sunday and accessible as a day trip from the populous Los Angeles area. We admired a huge Parry’s nolina, Mojave mound cacti with red buds, and other natural botanical wonders. We walked to the dry Barker Dam on a warm afternoon (2.6 mi round trip lollipop-shaped loop, 110 ft gain.
  • Mar 28 Sun: 49 Palms Canyon Trail. The dense Cholla Garden is vibrant yellow. Drive south to camp overnight in BLM Dispersed Campsite along Painted Canyon Road with nice sunset view of badlands, albeit somewhat scarred by ORVs and litter.
  • Mar 29 Mon: Mecca Wilderness Area: Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Loop Trail. Drive to Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground for night 1 of 2.
  • Mar 30 Tues: Hike the Palm Canyon Trail to Indian Potrero Trail to Stone Pools, and loop back via Victor Trail. We do laundry in La Quinta. Stay at Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park Campground for night 2 of 2.
  • Mar 31: drive 4 hrs to the nice Hualapai Mountain Park Campground, on a paved road 14 miles south of Kingman. The 42 degrees F low overnight was warmer than expected at this 6300-foot altitude.
  • April 1: In Hualapai Mountain Park, we hiked East Potato Patch Loop Trail for 2.6 miles with 700 feet gain to pleasant views of surrounding desert, but ice on a cliff ledge turned us back. In Flagstaff, we stayed at Woody Mountain Campground for 2 nights.

[Read Tom’s article covering “2021 April: rafting Grand Canyon 226 gorgeous miles, Arizona.”]

  • April 2: Due to April temperatures expected to be in the 20s degrees F overnight, we winterize our RV. We attend Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) meeting at 7pm in preparation for our 16-day boating trip.
  • April 3-18: With Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA), we boated for 16 days covering 226 miles by raft and dory down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park!

[Read Tom’s article covering “2021 April: Nevada: Valley of Fire & Cathedral Gorge State Parks.”]

  • April 19: Drive to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, where we claim the last campsite in Arch Rock Campground around 4:00pm (first come, first served).
  • April 20: Starting just after sunrise at Valley of Fire State Park Turnout #3, we walked a great 3.5-mile spectacle-shaped loop (with 450 feet of gain and loss): first to the Fire Wave, then along the Seven Wonders Trail through Kaolin Wash, then around the complete White Domes Trail Loop back to the movie set remains, then repeat a quarter mile of Kaolin Wash, then turn north on Seven Wonders Trail past Thunderstorm Arch, and then return to the parking lot at Park Turnout #3. Drive to Cathedral Gorge State Park Campground. Sunset walk 2.5 mi to Moon Caves, etc.
  • April 21: Cathedral Gorge State Park: 2.75 mile loop walk in morning, mauve formations. Stay at Farewell Bend SP Campground, Oregon.
  • April 22: Drive to Seattle.

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