Joshua Tree, Day 1: Hidden Valley

Distance: 2 + miles
Elevation Gained: Not Much
Difficulty: Not Hard
Critters: Not many, aside from a flock of quail

Get there like this.


All over California you will find remnant populations of trees. These relics are leftover from a cooler, damper time. During that time, various species of trees, such as Torrey Pines, Redwoods, and Giant Sequoias, occupied much larger areas than they currently do. A gradual drying of the climate has reduced them to their present states, where they linger on in a handful of favorable climates.

Hidden Valley provides an opportunity to see another remnant population, at least in the High Desert. The pinyon-juniper woodland exists in moderate elevations with a somewhat dry, but not parched, climate. This woodland community features pines, oaks, and junipers – all of which are related to larger, more extravagant species. It also exists in places where enough moisture can be gleaned from the surrounding desert in order to enjoy a modest existence.

At one point during the past 200 years or so, this climate changed. The rain has decreased, the land was grazed and overgrazed by cattle, and its native people were evicted or destroyed. What remains is a stark landscape, that, while still beautiful, reveals that it is diminishing.

What survives is a relic population of pinyon pines that cling to crevices in the famous boulder piles of Joshua Tree. Where these boulder piles stand, one will also find a sparse pine woodland. In the flat valleys and basins, the less-thirsty Joshua Tree dominates. However, Hidden Valley, which is a flat space secluded by canyon walls of eroding granite, hides on of the best examples of this woodland.

While it is true that Joshua Tree has become dryer and warmer like the rest of California, it remains in its stark, haunting way one of the most beautiful places in Southern California. Relatively unspoiled, Joshua Tree is a desert landscape that encompasses two deserts, features a number of geological and biological oddities, and offers space, silence, and time for contemplation.

The trail is short and easy to follow. This is not a hike to be taken quickly and in passing. This is a hike to putter along, read the interpretive panels, and, hopefully, climb around on a few rocks. This climbing of rocks is one of the major charms of Joshua Tree. Every where you go there are nooks and crannies to explore, boulders to climb, and ever-changing shapes that come in all shapes, sizes, and characters.

Interspersed in this rock wilderness are numerous plant species that appear twisted and torn. Yet, these trees still cling tenaciously even though they spend a long, hot summer with minimal precipitation. What precipitation they receive has to be hoarded and stored, and thus one sees adaptions that pinyon pines make.
These trees occupy the cracks in boulders because these cracks create channels for water to flow. Where water pools and collects, pinyon pines will grow. They don’t grow tall or particularly straight like most pines. Instead, they grow in the same twisted shapes of oaks and sycamores, often with multiple trunks. These trees provide food for animals, which are surprisingly abundant here, just as humans once were before settlers came to mine the hills.

All trees are a product of their environment, and pinyon pines are tenacious and creative survivors. The desert is a harsh master, yet the product is often an austere and illuminating beauty.

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