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.
The 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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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 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.