Pinkham Canyon Thermal Canyon Roads

There’s a few terrific opportunities for 4×4 adventures inside Joshua Tree National Park, and a day trip drive along Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Road is one of my favorites.

Pinkham Canyon Thermal Canyon Trail JTNPThe photo above shows road conditions you can expect to find along much of Pinkham Canyon road. For the purpose of this post we will begin our journey at the Cottonwood Visitor Center, located directly across from the entrance to Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon 4×4 road. It’s a good idea (especially when traveling alone) to check in at the visitor center and get an update on the condition of the roads and weather conditions. I’ve traveled the road a few times after flash floods hit the area, making navigation and driving significantly more difficult, but admittedly significantly more fun.

Joshua Tree National Park Cottonwood Visitor CenterCottonwood Visitor Center Joshua Tree National Park  (GPS: 33.748497, -115.823992)

While there’s no camping permitted along the Pinkham Canyon Trail there are a few options to camp nearby. You can camp inside the park at Cottonwood Campground ($15 per night) which offers picnic tables, fire pits, and running water. You can disperse camp on BLM land located just beyond the park boundary (pack out what you pack in) near the Cactus City rest area along the 10 freeway (see photos below). There’s a few previously disturbed areas (fire pits) that should be adequate for camping overnight in a Jeep or other 4×4 vehicle. A 3rd option is to take a short or long nap inside your vehicle at the Cactus City Westbound rest area (15 miles East of Indio in Riverside County) which is located along the 10 freeway. There’s times when the rest area is closed for maintenance so consider that before making your journey. Being that I have a custom Rubicon Jeep I can sleep in, I’ve been in all 3 areas for overnight stays, it’s quite convenient.

Pinkham Canyon Joshua Tree National Park4×4 Only – Pinkham Canyon Joshua Tree National Park

Starting near the Cottonwood Visitor Center the Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon 4×4 road is typically quite sandy, and may require 4×4 right from the get-go, although the majority of the road is fairly easy to do in 2 wheel drive. Note that a 4×4 vehicle is required to enter these roads and it’s very expensive if the National Park Service has to come rescue you and/or your vehicle in this remote area.

Pinkham Canyon 4x4 RoadAfter about a mile of driving through deep sand the road will become more firm and you’ll be traveling through Smoke Tree Wash. To the left will be the Cottonwood Mountains and on the right you’ll be able to see Monument Mountain (a hiking destination). Smoke Tree Wash leads into Pinkham Canyon and a potential loop trip through Thermal Canyon. Along the way you may want to stop and explore the Snow Cloud Mine. As you continue along Pinkham Canyon four-wheel drive road you’ll have the Cottonwood Mountains to your left and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to your right.

4 foot tall barrel cactus4′ Barrel Cactus (33.736861, -115.979125)

Some of the largest barrel cactus I’ve seen growing in Joshua Tree National Park can be seen along this part of Pinkham Canyon Trail, you’ll also spot quite a bit of Ocotillo (one of my favorite desert plants) in the same region. There are several washes near here that make for great hiking and potential viewing of big horn sheep and mule deer, a rare sight but rewarding if you get the opportunity. I’ve watched from a distance as big horn sheep fed on the petals of the ocotillo, it’s quite a sight.

ocotillo in marchOcotillo Near Pinkham Canyon (GPS: 33.734802, -115.980048)

If you’re fortunate and they haven’t been vandalized, you’ll see several signs along your trip. At the parks boundary near Cactus City is the Pinkham Canyon Backcountry Road sign stating natural and cultural resources are protected. That means keep your vehicle on the trail, don’t collect plants or wildlife, don’t make campfires, don’t leave trash behind, and don’t shoot guns. We can all do our best to ensure the areas reserved for local wildlife and others to enjoy.

Pinkham Canyon Backcountry RoadPinkham Canyon Backcountry Road Sign

The signs are a reminder that you’re on National Park Property, which is federal land. About 100 yards away are a few dispersed campsites that feature level ground and old campfire rings. This is BLM land, also federal, but a location where camping is permitted. An added bonus is the cell service (I’ve tested both AT&T and Verizon) is good in this area. Expect have no cell service along most or all of the near 20 miles of the 4×4 road.

Pinkham Canyon Thermal Canyon RoadsPinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads sign with map can be seen near both entrances, the sign shown here was photographed at the entrance near Cactus City. In the photo what appears to be a mid-1980s Jeep Cherokee is shown traveling along rough terrain. The sign includes “Know before You Go” information, a general map of the area (take a photograph before you head out), and a paragraph that reads…

The Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon 4-wheel-drive road passes through the remote backcountry of Joshua Tree National Park; drivers should be experienced and prepared. The park is but a fragment of the Great American Desert set aside to preserve outstanding examples of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Help protect it by traveling only on established roads.

For those of you interested in viewing more photos, on Flickr I have a set of geo-located photographs (about 44 at this time) from numerous trips along Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Road.

Black Eagle Mine Road

Black Eagle Mine Road heads east off of Pinto Basin Road in Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP). The left fork in the road is Old Dale Road and it leads to the Dale Mining District, located outside the boundary of JTNP. Black Eagle Road dead ends at a barricade of boulders near the Iron Chief Mine, which is on BLM land. The quest for Gold brought people here in the early 1880s.

Jeep Rubicon Black Eagle Mine Road2010 Jeep Rubicon on Black Eagle Mine Road

For this day trip I drove my recently purchased 2010 Rubicon Unlimited Jeep (didn’t have the custom mattress yet). I’ve seen mention on forum websites of people making attempts to travel roads in this area in 2 wheel drive vehicles (like a common rental car) and I strongly recommend against that. Posted signs clearlystate that 4×4 high clearance vehicles are essential if making a journey along this road. There’s been times I’ve been in the area over 48 hours and not seen a single individual or vehicle on the road. It’s extremely remote and the desert is unforgiving. Do not travel unprepared.

107 Fahrenheit Black Eagle Mine Road107°F on Black Eagle Mine Road

On the day I took this photo trip (August 19) the temperature started out at 107°F and I noticed the thermometer hitting 113° about 7 miles into my trip. Way too hot to hike any significant distance in the daytime, and not the best time of day to be taking photos, but it was the last day on my trip before heading back to coastal Los Angeles (Venice Beach).

Black Eagle Mine TopoBlack Eagle Mine Road Topo Map

I marked a few areas of interest on the above topo map. The shaded green area identifies Joshua Tree National Park and the gray shaded area is BLM land (where most of the mining sites are located). The Storm Jade Mine is on Joshua Tree property and is only accessible by foot. Helpful topo maps for the area are the Buzzard Springs and Conejo Well maps. The USGS Buzzard Springs topo identifies locations for the Mission Sweet Mine, Rainbows End Mine, and Iron Chief Mine.

Level yet Unmaintained RoadLevel yet Unmaintained Dirt Road

The first 7 miles or so is a graded sandy road, which may give the appearance that this route is doable in a 2 wheel drive automobile. Before leaving the park boundary, the road terrain changes significantly, and the chances of getting stranded increases dramatically.

Most of the road is fairly easy to travel by 4×4 vehicle. On several occasions though I’ve seen evidence of punctured oil pans where people didn’t expect to bottom out on rocks. Cell reception is spotty but I have climbed a few peaks in the area and gotten reception on both my AT&T iPhone and Verizon Droid. No guarantee you’ll have any cell service in the area so don’t count on it.

High Clearance 4x4 EssentialNo Longer Sandy Road

Near the Mission Sweet Mine the road gets very rocky, and expect to find boulder barricades if continuing onto the Iron Chief Mine. Plenty of locations to park and travel by foot (but not when it’s 113° out). There are signs identifying Joshua Tree National Park boundaries and once you’ve passed those you will be on BLM land managed by the Palm Springs office. Stay out of abandoned mines and stay alive.

Rusted Shut up OvenRusted Shot Up Oven and Stove

Also near the Mission Sweet Mine (and Cactus Mine) are the remains of a miners camp. There are several concrete slabs in the area along with plenty of historical (and not so historical) left behind trash. Among shotgun shell casings and recent trash are scattered remains from the days of mining in the area. There are parts of old stoves, water heaters, automobiles, and even dishware. I’m not certain on the rules for car camping in this area but there are several pre-existing fire pits.

Fire Pit and Amazing ViewsFire Ring and Impressive Views

The view from the mining camp site is quite impressive. Placer Canyon is seen in the distance along with the mountains of the Old Dale Mining District beyond. Check with the field office before making camp fires. Black Eagle Well is located in the Pinto Basin, north of the Cactus Mine and Mystery Mine, and you’ll pass back onto JTNP property if hiking that route.

turquoise copper rusted rockColors of Turquoise, Copper and Rust

There’s some beautiful colors found in the rocks nearby a few of the mining sites. Most of the mines were mined for gold, but silver, copper, and other minerals were mined as well. The former Eagle Mountain iron mine is over the hill beyond the Iron Chief Mine. As far as I know the area is closed to access and is on privately owned property.

The Storm Jade Mine is inside the Joshua Tree National Park boundaries, which is federally protected land meaning no rock collecting of any kind. The Rainbows End, Mission Sweet Mine, and Iron Chief Mine are on BLM land. There are several easy to navigate 4×4 trails in the area near these mines. Watch out for signs that identify washes that are closed to vehicle traffic versus trails open for 4×4 access.

Transformers Like RocksTransformers Rocks

These rocks look like they could turn into Transformers at any time. They are inside the park boundary (33.864725, -115.630045) and located nearby the Jade mine. There’s also lots of barrel cactus and plenty of Sidewinder and Green Mojave Rattlesnakes found in these areas so be snake aware and don’t put your hands or feet where they don’t belong.

The Big Wash Hiking Corridor also crosses Black Eagle Mine Road. There is a rare chance you’ll see hikers, but keep an eye on the road and your surroundings, as road hazards can pop up quickly.

Resources:

JTNP Eagle Mountains Flickr Photos

Palm Springs South Coast Field Office BLM

Joshua Tree Backcountry Roads

Old Dale and Black Eagle Mine Road map (PDF file)

Trailheads, Closed Roads, and Muddy Jeeps

If you’re hiking and/or camping in the San Bernardino National Forest it’s not unlikely you’ll come across 4×4 trails and other dirt roads that have been gated off, like the one shown here at Green Canyon Road.

Green Canyon Road SBNFGreen Canyon Road at Wildhorse Meadows (34.205833, -116.765167)

If you like off-road dirt trail driving (DMV licensed vehicles), camping and hiking, this is a great location to spend some time. As I posted recently, using the proper map, is important in identifying locations and names of dirt roads in the area. While Green Canyon Road is gated at both entry points, there is a trailhead here that can be followed to Sugarloaf Mountain (that’s one option).

Muddy Jeep UnlimitedMy Muddy Rubicon

Yellow post-campsite 54 is not far (2N93D) from where these photos were taken. I didn’t find any part of national forest road 2N93 required four-wheel drive but there were patchy sections of mud so it’s a good thing to have a fairly good clearance vehicle with the option of 4×4 if traveling through the area. There are some forest roads in the area recommended for 4×4 high clearance vehicles only, so do your homework before entering the forest.

Rubicon Jeep Black and TanMud Covered Rubicon Jeep

The mud that got on my Jeep this past trip was incredibly sticky and it took several washings to get the majority of it off. If you want less mud and you still want to hike to Sugarloaf Mountain (or along the Green Canyon Trail) there is a much easier entry point off of California State Highway 38 (aka Rim of the World Scenic Byway). The turn off at Hatchery Road is not the easiest to find but it’s a short 1.3 miles to a small parking area for the trailhead. Be sure to have an Adventure Pass on your parked vehicle.

Green Canyon Sugarloaf TrailheadGreen Canyon Sugarloaf Mountain Trailhead (34.218447, -116.805867)

Another gated area that is closed to vehicular traffic but the parking area is nearby. Check the coordinates above to view them on your map of choice. This trail is along Green Canyon Road and can be taken all the way to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. The topo guide for this area is Moonridge an elevation begins at around 7500 feet. Even in July you can expect some mud on the trail so prepare your hiking gear accordingly.

Shiny Black RubiconMuch Cleaner Version of my Rubicon Jeep

I love hitting the mountains and the desert for hiking, camping, and 4×4 off-road adventures, but I hate washing and detailing my vehicle. I also hate the immense amount of gas is traveling from Venice Beach to any of my preferred locations, which are typically 150+ miles away from home. Fortunately, there is always someone happy to detail my Jeep (for a hefty price) and there’s plenty of refueling gas stations along the way.

Bing Maps Beats Google Maps Off Road

When it comes to mapping of US state forest roads (which are typically open to the public), there is a clear distinction as to which service is doing it best.

According to my latest testing along trails in the San Bernardino National Forest it’s not even close. Bing Maps beats Google Maps when it comes to Off Road mapping.

Take a look at the photos below and I’ll tell you my story.

Jeep Rubicon Wildhorse Meadow 2n93Jeep Rubicon on Wildhorse Meadow 2n93 (my location)

Google Wildhorse Meadows RdGoogle Maps Wildhorse Meadows Rd (Green arrow represents my location)

Bing Maps Wildhorse MeadowBing Maps Wildhorse Meadow NF-2N93 (Orange pin represents my location)

Last weekend at 4 AM I hopped in my Rubicon Unlimited custom Jeep to make the drive from Venice Beach to Big Bear Mountains. The route via Highway is about 140 miles but why not take the near 30 mile scenic shortcut through the San Bernardino forest? That’s what Jeeps are for.

It would be my first off-road trip through the area so I mapped a primary and secondary off-road route using Google Maps, and printed those maps, just in case I lost signal and could not view mapping via my phones (my Verizon Droid X and AT&T iPhone both lost carrier signal in the forest).

I wear a GPS that is synced to my camera (yes I am a geek) so that geographic location of photos I take provide accurate coordinate data. Take a look again at the photo of my jeep and related map screenshots above, the coordinates (34.2059, -116.764306) are displayed differently using Google Maps versus Bing Maps.

Admittedly, I took the photo of my Jeep while taking photos of several roads in the area, I was lost!

I counted on Google maps and thought the route would be simple (see the Google map screenshot above) by remaining right of the fork in the road. Problem was, there was more than the expected route to choose from. Had I used the map provided by Bing, I believe I would’ve had a much better understanding of what my options were.

Isolated Incident?

Jeep Rubicon Sand Canyon RoadMy Jeep Rubicon on Sand Canyon Road (Coordinates: 34.221463, -116.835867)

Google Sand Canyon RoadGreen arrow on Google map marks my location

Bing Sand Canyon RoadOrange pin on Bing map marks my location

Given a choice which map would you use? I was not lost at this point and I did make it to my destination successfully, but I discovered that there were a lot more roads in those mountains than what was being displayed via Google maps.

Numerous Examples

Juniper Springs Group Camp RoadBlue Skies and Meadows on Juniper Springs Group Camp Road

Google Maps Juniper SpringsWhat Google map says about this location

Bing Maps Juniper SpringsBing map is clearly the better choice

I have numerous examples from the weekend journey but the 3 examples shown above should make my point clear. Bing is doing a far better job over Google when it comes to mapping off-road location data.

Perhaps you’re thinking it’s no big deal, because these roads are not major thoroughfares, and therefore not traveled by many people. I would argue against that point and suggest that accurate mapping in areas like these is critically important.

The last set of images shown above relates to Juniper Springs Group Camp, which is located off of Highway 38, in the San Bernardino National Forest. While access is via four-wheel drive and the site is admittedly remote, unfortunately the map provided via Google does not list the route to this pinyon-juniper woodland and meadow. However, the map provided via Bing includes identification of State Forest Road 2N01, as well as identification of the Juniper Springs Camp Road, and surrounding roads.

Finding a route to a remote campground may not be considered critical, but imagine there was an emergency that required directing others to your location, which mapping system would you use?

Jeep Rubicon Unlimited Custom Mattress Project

It’s been nearly one year since I purchased a 2010 Jeep Rubicon Unlimited 4×4 off a Jeep dealers lot in Huntington Beach California. While I wish the engine had better horsepower, it’s been the most fun vehicle I’ve owned yet (even more fun than my 1969 Chevrolet Malibu).

Within days of purchasing my jeep I began the gutting project. What fun is it if everything remains stock? The rear seats came out, along with the seatbelts and carpeting, and the project began to build a custom 2 passenger 4×4 Jeep Rubicon with room for camping equipment storage and a place to sleep. Now we are sleeping in comfort.

custom jeep mattress snug fit4 inches of pure custom natural latex mattress comfort

After all the custom welding was done and the storage system was complete I spent months seeking out the best solution for sleeping in the Jeep. I got the custom latex mattress I’m showing here from Rocky Mountain Mattress company and it turned out to be a perfect fit (thanks to their assistance). Before I decided on this mattress material I had conducted a number of in the field trials.

JK custom storage jeep rubicon4×4 Rubicon Custom Storage

The photograph above shows my custom storage project (three locking compartments) before the mattress went in. I did several camping and 4×4 trips (like Orocopia Mountains) before getting the mattress so I’ve been able to make some good comparisons. The first camping trip out I slept directly on the steel with just a sleeping bag and a folded over Queen size comforter. That was a mistake. There’s a reason we sleep on mattresses and my bones were beginning to ache in the absence of one. The other thing that occurred was temperatures fell below 40°F and that steel got really cold. I knew I had to put something in there.

4 inch thick custom memory foamRuler Showing Latex Mattress Thickness

After testing an air mattress, a memory foam mattress I got from Costco, sleeping directly on the steel with a sleeping bag, I found myself doing more research online for custom size memory foam and latex mattresses. My 4×4 Jeep Rubicon is a one-of-a-kind, and as far as I know, nobody’s yet duplicated the process. While there are mattresses made for truck beds, buying a premade mattress to fit my Jeep dimensions was out of the question. The folks at Rocky Mountain Mattress assisted me through the process of making sure I got the proper custom mattress size.

custom mattress radius cutscustom natural latex mattress radius cuts and edges

I could have gone with a straight rectangle, but that would be too easy, especially after all the other customizing that had been done. The storage compartments directly behind the drivers and passenger seats flare outwards and are flush with the doors. I wanted the mattress to extend all the way to the edges but the rear tire wheel wells posed a potential challenge. The guys at the mattress company helped educate me as to how to get exact measurements on the radius around the wells which resulted in a perfectly snug fit.

custom foam mattress behind front seatscustom latex mattress behind front seats

The view above shows how the mattress fits snugly behind the Jeep front seats and center console. I removed the stock cupholders before the storage containers were installed. The next step in the process is getting a custom weather resistant cover made for the mattress. I haven’t picked the material yet but I’ll probably go with something similar to what’s used for outdoor garden furniture. Definitely not going with something black in color. The entire Jeep is black and you can feel the heat in the summer sun.

Jeep custom subwooferJeep subwoofer relocation

One more project on the agenda is relocating the stock subwoofer. In the JK Unlimited, the subwoofer sits along the back right side (nearby where it is in this photograph) and I’ll be moving this to an alternate location. It is going to require some rewiring and maybe even a new casing. I enjoy listening to loud rock ‘n roll music too much to drive around without a subwoofer. Also in the photo you can see I have an industrial cargo mat on top of the mattress for now. It’s actually been working out great.

Since the mattress has been in I’ve discovered a few things. Getting to the compartments isn’t the easiest task. I’m looking at that as an advantage. I almost never have the top on my Jeep and there is no soft top so it’s pretty much fully exposed. With the mattress on top of the storage compartments they are basically undetectable (although I’m only keeping camping gear stored versus valuables like laptops and camera equipment).

The mattress does come out easily and I discovered it fits perfectly in either of my two camping tents. Wasn’t my first intention, but now when I’ve gone camping I’ve been able to have the option of taking the mattress out of the jeep and putting it in the tent, providing easy access to all my gear while offroading, and replacing it for the trip home.

I’ve found the mattress has helped decrease engine and road noise considerably. Remember, I had removed the carpeting and the back seats, and had been driving around with bare steel (camping gear muffles sounds as well). Besides less noise there is also less slippage of gear placed on top of the mattress. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out, but everything seems to stay in place real well. I bungee down my beverage cooler and other exposed items just in case. Don’t need those flying onto the freeway when I’m heading home from a weekend in the dirt.

Bradshaw Trail Road wash outBradshaw Trail Post Heavy Rains

In case you’re wondering, I’m 5 foot 10 and weighing about 180 pounds. There is plenty of room for me to spread out when on road trips. I’ve even taken daytime naps in the back of the Jeep (another bonus I had not anticipated). My spouse and I can both fit comfortably sleeping in the back, but we set up the tent if there’s good flat campground and not too many rattlesnakes hanging out nearby. I’ll take some pics on my next outing and will likely post them here.