4 desert trails (and odd attractions) to explore right now

LOS ANGELES — How much would you spend to protect California’s deserts? State legislators will face that choice when they decide how much money in the 2022 budget to earmark for the California Desert Conservation Program, which was signed into law in September. Funding is key to the program aimed at restoring desert habitat, protecting ancestral lands and offsetting climate change in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

Late fall and winter are good times to visit the deserts that cover about a quarter of California. (You won’t be alone: Joshua Tree National Park notched 2.3 million visitors in 2020, almost double the number of tourists from a decade ago.) Need tips on where to go? Outdoors writer Matt Pawlik suggests these easy hikes that allow you to linger in the landscape, take photos and rock scramble a bit.

Mesquite Flats in Death Valley National Park

This dune-it-yourself journey goes through some of the most accessible and beautiful sand dunes in California. It’s easy to get otherworldly vibes, which is probably what inspired director George Lucas to use the setting for Tatooine in the “Star Wars” movies. The dunes are most comfortably explored from the ridges, the tallest of which rises more than 100 feet and offers a strenuous ascent up the sand (and a dramatic sand-boarding descent for thrill seekers). The desert vistas here are gorgeous at sunrise and sunset and provide a magical star-gazing opportunity. (3 miles round-trip)

Hidden Valley/Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park

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If you have time to do only one hike in Joshua Tree National Park, do two. The Hidden Valley and Barker Dam trails are across the main road (Park Boulevard) from each other and provide the perfect highlight reel of the park’s geological, botanical and historical gems. Start at Hidden Valley, a loop enclosed by massive rock formations that were blasted by desert legend William Keys to gain easy access for cattle. Climb the rocks for incredible views of the circle of boulders and the area’s diverse plant life, including juniper, pinyon, yucca and, of course, Joshua trees. Continue your greatest hits tour at Barker Dam Nature Trail, where you can look for desert kit fox at sunset. The serene path also offers ancient petroglyph rock art and one of the most picturesque fields of Joshua trees in the park. (1.5 miles round-trip)

The Slot in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

No list of desert classics is complete without a trip through a slot canyon. Simply named the Slot, the narrow silt-stone canyon in Anza-Borrego is the place to squeeze, duck and maneuver through the geological ravine, which houses creosote bush and cholla cactus. Negotiating around the 40-foot rock walls is half the fun (or claustrophobic for some) and is especially awesome when the trench-traversing trail winds under a natural bridge formed by a sedimentary slab. The tapered slot itself is less than a mile, but you can steeply ascend to get views of the epic chasm, nearby West Butte Mountain and, farther out, the Laguna Mountains framing the desert backdrop. (2.25-mile loop)

49 Palms Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park

Are you tree lover, log lover, grove groupie? The copse of fan varieties at the 49 Palm Oasis in the northeast corner of Joshua Tree National Park is the place to go. On this roller coaster out-and-back, a steep, shadeless climb nets you rugged desert views to the north and vistas of the oasis. Coyotes, bighorn sheep and resident birds, such as Gambel’s quail and orange-and-black hooded orioles, rely on the space for water and a cooldown under the thicket of fan palms. You might even spot the rare desert tortoise on the trail; watch out on your drive in so you don’t hit one on the paved road. Enjoy bouldering or a peaceful picnic as you try to count all 49 floral specimens. (3 miles round-trip)

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This story was originally published November 29, 2021 2:00 AM.

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