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.

Blue Cut Fault Pushawalla Loop

One of 51 earthquake fault lines in Southern California, the Blue Cut fault extends for about 50 miles through the Little San Bernardino Mountains, under Pleasant Valley, and into the Pinto Basin. Most of the 50 mile length exists within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), one of my favorite desert hiking environments.

Note: This is not a guide to Hiking the Blue Cut Fault, it’s more an October day photo journey through the region.

In the mid 1800s, there was a wagon mule trail that traversed through the area, providing passageway for miners transporting gold and mining equipment to and from railroads (in the Coachella Valley region) to the Lost Horse Mountains, the Hexie Mountains, and other nearby mining sites.

Pushawalla Blue Cut Fault LoopPushawalla Canyon Blue Cut Fault Loop

I’ve hiked Pushawalla Canyon (see photos) numerous times over the years, but this was my first time along the Blue Cut fault line and wash loop. The location is extremely remote (4×4 high clearance vehicle strongly recommended for access to dirt pullout area) and fairly good navigational skills are required if you’re planning on hiking the region. Other than a sign marked “Wilderness Boundary” near the pushawalla trailhead, there are no signs or markers (other than a few rock cairns) in the region.

ovis canadensis desert bighorn sheep scat(Ovis canadensis) Desert Bighorn Sheep scat

Inside the pushawalla region, it’s a Day Use Only area, created to allow wildlife (such as the endangered Desert Bighorn Sheep) to reach scarce water resources without interruption by humans. I arrived at the trail head just before sunrise, and while inside my Jeep packing peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (and some turkey jerky) into my pack, a group of coyotes approached, and made their presence known (Sorry, no photos. Was still dark and I prefer not to disturb their activities).

water pinyon wellWater at Pinyon Well site

When available, wildlife utilizes the water sources at the Pinyon Well site, a historic mining and milling area first developed in the 1800s. On this visit there was lots of evidence of animal activity in the area, and I could again hear coyotes barking nearby as I explored this former mining site. Nature has long reclaimed nearly all evidence of human use of the area, but there are several interesting milling and mining remnants (several not on maps) to be discovered on the surrounding hillsides.

bighorn sheep carcassBighorn Sheep Remains near Pinyon Well

The remains of a big horn sheep are a reminder that coyotes are not the only predators in the area. While I’ve yet to encounter a mountain lion in Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve come across the remains of at least a half dozen desert big horn sheep while on hikes in the Pushawalla area. I’ve kicked up more bones in this region than any other in JTNP. While different from the nearby Eagle mountains, it’s still an unforgiving environment.

green hummingbird joshua treeGreen Hummingbird in Desert

Near one of the open wells, this green hummingbird paused long enough so that I could take its photograph. Other than birds, coyotes and jackrabbits, I saw very little wildlife during the day I did this hike. Even though the early October weather was perfect for animal activity, it wasn’t my lucky wildlife day. During this trek, I took mostly photographs of things that don’t move too quickly (like rocks).

pushawalla asphalt roadAncient Asphalt Road along Pushawalla Trail

It would be easy to miss it, but the above photograph identifies the remains of an asphalt section of road that was built along the pushawalla trail. Once upon a time there was Jeep access to this area (it’s long been closed to vehicle and bicycle traffic) and before that, mule pulled wagons worked their way to the top of the Pushawalla Plateau and into the canyon that leads to what is now Indio Hills.

pushawalla plateauPushawalla Plateau Vehicle Gate

Near the top of Pushawalla Plateau are a series of iron pipes cemented into the ground and roped off in cable (here is another view), which was likely installed several years ago to prevent vehicle travel through the canyon. There are some amazing views to be seen from this point, and there’s several well hidden and quite historical mine sites close by. To my knowledge, a few abandoned mine shafts remain open and pose potential life-threatening risks, stay out and stay alive.

pushawalla canyon minesPushawalla Canyon Mine seen on Hillside

When you’re eyes are trained for spotting mine tailings (oftentimes areas of grayish color pulverized rock), you begin to see evidence of them on several mountainsides in this region. Veins of white quartz can be spotted along some of these hillsides as well, but they’re not as easy to see from a distance as mine tailing piles. I think old-time miners left behind sardine tins and other trash, just so we could more easily locate their historic sites of gold and silver glory.

white quartz vein joshua treeWhite Quartz Vein Joshua Tree National Park

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I haven’t many times thought about stumbling across a chunk of gold while hiking Southern California deserts, inspired by a story about a miner that one supposedly found a gold nugget the size of his fist, on nearby lost horse mountain. It was on the surface among the rocks. Thanks to the terrain, you can’t just leisurely walk around this area looking for gold nuggets without the risk of being stabbed numerous times in the process (by a cholla).

Silver Cholla (Opuntia echinocarpa)Silver Cholla Cactus (Opuntia echinocarpa)

There are few Joshua trees across the blue cut landscape, but the silver cholla cactus (Opuntia echinocarpa) is abundant, and the spines can be sharp as daggers. Sometimes worse than the live ones (like shown above), are the millions of needle sharp spines from dead cactus, lying on the ground and waiting to puncture the flesh at your ankles. Even the most innocent appearing desert plants can be sharp enough to cut into our clothing and/or skin.

joshua tree nutsSimilar in Appearance to an Acorn

Plant eating wildlife in the region appears to find plenty to provide themselves with nourishment. Although rainfall is infrequent in the region, both plants and animals have learned to adapt to the harsh environment. Temperature before sunrise on the day of my trip dropped to 36°F and it was over 86°F when I was leaving the area later in the day. A 40° swing in temperature is not uncommon for these parts.

blue cut weathered rockBlue Cut Fault Weathered Rusty Circles Rock

Rock formations in Joshua Tree are fascinating and some of the rocks along the blue cut fault are estimated to be over 1 1/2 billion years old. Rocks like the one shown above crumbled just by my stepping onto them. Ascending one of the hillsides to get photos of other mountain ranges, I thought the ground would avalanche underneath my feet, if there were strong seismic activity.

Mountain Ranges Joshua TreeSan Jacinto and Little San Bernardino Mountain Ranges

The San Jacinto mountain range can be seen in the left side of the above photo. There are some spectacular hikes to be had on that mountain as well. Much closer (and still mostly within the borders of JTNP) are hills of the Little San Bernardino range. I intended to stop for a break at the nearby rock pile, but moments after laying down my pack, red fire ants had ascended on my gear. while shaking off all my gear, I again heard nearby coyotes curiously making their way towards my location. Time to move.

Blue Cut Wash Joshua TreeBlue Cut Wash Joshua Tree

Once back into the wash, navigation becomes less difficult, but it’s nearly an all uphill 3 miles to the blue cut wash plateau. After already hiking 9 miles, I’m reminded how much I dislike hiking uphill in the sand. Why was it that I decided to hike 16+ miles along an earthquake fault line? The old man didn’t have any answers.

Old Man Prickly Pear CactusOld Man Prickly Pear Cactus

From my experience, there’s far less old man prickly pear cactus (Opuntia erinacea var. erinacea) growing in the region compared to the silver cholla, which was quite abundant throughout my hike. Due to the time of year, there was near zero desert wildflower blooms, but there was still plenty of rock, and lots of brush to make my way through.

Blue Cut Fault RocksBlue Cut Fault Rocks on Mountainside

The blue cut fault is named for the blue granodiorite that is exposed on the mountainside to the southwest and marks the main branch of the fault. On one side the land was uplifted to form steep and straight mountain edges of the Hexie Mountains, and on the other side the land drops to create Pleasant Valley.

Blue Cut Fault WashBlue Cut Fault Wash

The Hexie Mountains are scarred with scattered abandoned mine sites, and there’s some exploring of historical sites that can be done near the Pleasant Valley backcountry board, a good place to park. In the above photo, Joshua trees can be seen growing in the distance, we are entering back into the Mojave Desert region.

Blue Cut Pass PlateauBlue Cut Pass Plateau

Vegetation gets much thicker and greener as I cross the blue cut pass plateau and into Pleasant Valley. Those mountains (coxcomb mountains) far in the distance are still within the boundaries of JTNP. At nearly 800,000 acres, it’s not uncommon to go hours (and sometimes days) without seeing another human being, especially in the more remote regions.

Malapai Hill Joshua TreeMalapai Hill Joshua Tree

Along Geology Tour Road is Malapai Hill. It’s not that difficult to hike to and the area is quite significant archaeologically. The double humped hill was the result of volcanic activity in the area, with piles of monzogranite and basalt talus occurring on the mountain’s steep slopes. The hill is also my marker that I’m only a couple miles away from my Jeep Rubicon, and lunchtime is near.

Happy Birthday Mylar BalloonHappy Birthday Mylar Balloon

Is it your birthday? It is a good day when I can hike nearly 18 miles in desert wilderness and only come across a single piece of trash (now properly disposed of), aside from the rusted tin cans and other historical artifacts left behind from area mining days. This is never a place I’d recommend someone hike for pleasure, it’s moderately strenuous and the hazards are numerous, but the solitude makes it worth the journey for me.

Blue Cut Pushawalla TopoBlue Cut Pushawalla Topo Map

Pinyon Well, prospects, ruins, and an old guzzler site can be seen on the topo map above. Us USGS Malapai Hill, Calif. map for the region and don’t feed the coyotes.