It’s the holidays and time for hiking in Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP)! Since my daughter moved to Twentynine Palms in 2014, Christmastime and Easter have become de facto opportunities for me to hike JT. And last month I had the occasion to drive out to 29 to culminate the Thanksgiving weekend.
With my time constraints for this hike, I needed a hike that would be close to 29, so I began looking at hikes along the Park Boulevard area. Shall I do a peak, nature trail, oasis, mine? Part of me wants to keep visiting the marquee tourist sites just to cross them off my list, but part of me wants to adventure off the beaten path and bag peaks. Perusing through my three books, a write-up for Desert Queen Mine and Wash caught my attention (Best Easy Day Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park by Polly and Bill Cunningham). A visit to the largest and longest operating mine in the park seemed good, and if I add the wash it would be a nice 4 miles outs and back. But then as I was looking at the map, I saw Negro Hill (4875’) nearby. Hmmm. So I did some more sleuthing and found a hike description for it in On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush: Cross county, 1.5 miles round trip, 439 feet in elevation gain, 360 degree panorama. I chucked at the route description. This is it in its entirety: “Route: Negro Hill is the obvious hill located a short distance west of the backcountry board. Head west up any likely slope.” That’s my kind of hike! And I can add that to my mine visit and get the best of two worlds: a marquee site and off the beaten path.
My wife and I intended to leave our house in Azusa by 8 a.m. on Saturday, but my hydration reservoir leaked all over my packed pack. Urrg! So with handling that mess and some other delays, we didn’t leave until 9:15. We arrive at my daughter’s house in 29 at 11:22. After unloading our bags and a brief visit, I say bye to my wife and daughter and off I go. I stop by the Oasis Visitor Center on Utah Trail, take some pictures of plants in their garden, and chat with a ranger. He says no one has ever asked him about hiking to Negro Hill. What can I say? I’m not normal.
I leave the visitor center at 12:32 and drive into the park. I’m glad there is no line at the entry station. This may be my last hike with my annual pass which expires this month. I always love the amazing scenery as I drive. I pass the trailheads for Split Rock (hiked on 4-3-15) and Crown Prince Lookout (hiked 12-20-15). Soon my excitement builds as I spot Negro Hill in the distance. I reach the intersection of Geology Tour Road (south) and Desert Queen Mine Road (north). I turn north (right) onto the dirt road and drive 1.4 miles to the Pine City Backcountry Board parking area. I arrive at 12:57. There are 10 cars in the small lot. A party of backpackers is gearing up. The temperature is 43 degrees but the reality of how cold that is doesn’t hit me until I get out of the car. It takes me a while to boot up and repack my pack after letting it dry on the drive. Gosh it’s cold. I decide to skip the fleece as my top layer and go directly to my jacket, something this fair-weather hiker rarely wears while hiking.
1:21 PM – Begin hike to Negro Hill. I head west on the road I came in on and immediately veer right (northwest) into a wash. Negro Hill stands as a rounded lump rising from the desert floor before me. Course sand crunches beneath my feet. In about 3 minutes I veer left from the wash and take a route heading to the hill. A few footprints indicate that others have been here. I’m careful as I know that many of these plants are poised to inflict pain upon me. The cloudless sky is a stark contrast to my hike to Mastodon Peak hike last month when the clouds created a gorgeous sky and picturesque shadows across the desert landscape. A cold wind nips at my face and hands. As I approach the base of the mountain, the grade gets steeper. I weave my way up the slope looking for the best footing and dodging hostile plants. Views slowly open up. The cold wind is coming from the north so I tend to stay on the south side of the broad ridgeline. The cluster of cars at the increasingly distant trailhead diminishes in size.
I’m startled by movement near a yucca tree about 10 feet in front of me. I stop and notice a large rabbit seeming to use the shade of the plant to hide himself. His ears are laid flat back and he crouches close to the ground. I move a little closer to get a better picture and anticipate he’ll bound off. But he holds his ground. I chat with him for a minute then decide to walk a wide circle around him. He doesn’t move and I bid him farewell as I continue up the mountainside.
Up ahead an outcropping of darker colored rocks impedes a direct line. I veer to the left and find a good route that takes me to a flat saddle-like hip behind the rock. I arrive there at 1:43, and according the aerial, I’m about half way to the summit from the trailhead, but the real climbing is ahead. I continue mostly to the south of the broad ridge tending to take a snaking zigzag route. For the most part the footing is decent but requires careful steps. To the southwest, Ryan Mountain comes into view; it was my first peak in JT, which I hiked on 1-3-15. I’m enjoying the amazing “viewshed” (new word for me. I read it in the park’s Fall Guide and I really like it). I’ve not seen a single bloom of anything yet, but I am stopping occasionally to admire small cacti, which seem to get lost in the sea of tan desolation. I’m pleased that I recognize the hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) and the foxtail cactus (Escobaria vivipara) which were two of the plants I photographed at the visitor center. I’m slowly gaining a familiarity with desert flora.
As I curve over to the north flank of the broad ridge, I get a good view of Queen Mountain (5680’). I’ve been eager to become more familiar with it so I can recognize its profile from various locations. I’m hoping to climb it in the spring. Back over toward the south I see the black mass of Malapai Hill (4223’) rising from the floor of Queen Valley. I first became familiar with it with climbing Ryan Mountain. I’m really enjoying the amazing desert scenery.
Up ahead I see what appears to be a summit, but judging from the topo map, I suspect it is just the leading edge of the summit area with the actual summit beyond. I arrive there and find it to be so. Wow, what a panorama! The viewshed (there’s that new word again) west lies before me. The peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, the two highest massifs in southern California, outline the distant horizon. The Wonderland of Rocks forms a craggy jumble along the western edge of Queen Valley. The broad summit area bends north and a gentle-five minute walk takes me to the highpoint.
2:04 – Negro Hill (4875’). Splendid peak! Sprawling desert fills a 360-degree panorama. It’s cold and windy but the warm sun feels good. I review the maps and enjoy identifying various landmarks in the distance. My 250mm telephoto lens helps bring things closer. Queen Mountain dominates the skyline to the immediate north. I’m scoping out the Desert Queen Mine site to the east and pondering my visit as part 2 of today’s outing. I have a bit to eat and soak in the beauty around me.
2:39 – Leave summit. I meander around the west and south sections of the summit area just checking things out. An outcropping on the southern edge provides unobstructed views of the southern panorama. I finally decide to put on my gloves. I retrace my steps down the mountainside. The Desert Queen Mine area dominates my view in front of me. I guard my step as going downhill is dicier than going up.
I arrive at the outcropping hip at 3:06 and decide to veer northeast around it to take a little different route. It’s colder in the shade and I’m eager to remerge into the sun. Six minutes delivers me to the base of the mountain and warm sun. I bear southeast and generally follow a wash. Gangly Joshua trees accent the desolate landscape. When I reach the main wash I started on, I continue past it a couple more minutes to intersect the north-south trail to Pine City. I turn right (south). Off to my right I admire my new friend, Negro Hill, rising from the desert floor. Up ahead the parking lot comes into view.
3:29 – Trailhead (Pine City Backcountry Board parking area). Wow, that was a fun little excursion, good for 1.5 miles round trip with 440 feet in elevation gain. There are nine cars in the lot (including mine). Sunset is at 4:46 today, so I’ll see how much of Desert Queen Mine I can explore before dark.
3:30 – Begin hike to Desert Queen Mine. I head east on the well-beaten path. I didn’t take time to review the trail description but I know that the first part is to follow this trail a quarter mile to the mine overlook and interpretive sign. The trail climbs at a slight grade. I’m beginning to enjoy the warm lighting of the golden hour. Occasionally I look behind me at Negro Hill rising from the desert floor. That was a fun conquest. To my right, views of a rocky canyon open up.
3:36 – Reach a spur path that heads south about 75 yards to a stone building ruins. I decide to check it out. I’m thankful that the Park Service lets these kinds of historic artifacts stand. The crude stone and mortar structure gives a glimpse into the mining days. A doorway on the south wall remains in tack with a timber header. The doorway is only about five feet tall so either the miners were really short or didn’t mind stooping over to enter. From here I have a better view south into the rugged canyon and I can see a trail winding deep into the canyon. A trail continues down into the canyon from the ruins and I wonder how the network of routes tie together. Before leaving the ruins, I climb a little knob abutting the east side of the ruins for a better look at the surrounding topography. To the north, the hills are more gentle and dotted with tailings (the rock debris that is excavated from a mine shaft). Back on the main trail, another two minutes delivers me to my first planned destination.
3:44 – Desert Queen Mine Overlook. Perched on the rounded eastern rim of this canyon, I am treated to a good view into the chasm and can see several tunnel openings and tailing mounds across the canyon. An interpretive sign narrates an overview of the mine’s colorful past. Gold was discovered here in 1894 and the mine operated until 1961 as one of the most productive mines in the area. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. A large metal cylinder stands a few feet away from the sign. A use path leaves the site heading south into the canyon. I remember the trail guide says to retrace my steps back to a junction for a trail that circles around descending into the canyon. But I’m losing daylight so I decide to see where this use path takes me. It’s well traveled so it should get me to the bottom ok, right?
I head south into the canyon. The path is a little steep and dicey in places but not bad. Down I go. I get increasing better views of the tunnels and tailings across the canyon, but deep shadows created by the setting sun make poor lighting for pictures. At the bottom of the canyon, the trail drops steeply, but I negotiate it without incident. I’m at the foot of a giant mound of granite tailings from a shaft on the west facing canyon wall. I climb the steep path next to the tailings to reach the mouth of my first tunnel. It was hewn out at about a 45 degree angle into the ground. A steal grate has been installed over the tunnel to keep people out…which is a good thing…falling into it would definitely be bad. I toss a rock through and opening at the edge of the grate and listen to it carom off the walls as it disappears into the deep abyss.
I climb the steep path to the left of the shaft to an abandoned mine road about 50 feet above. Some old mining equipment begs to be photographed. Far below, a group of seven hikers walk the canyon bottom on their way back. I turn left (northeast) on the narrow road and step into welcome sun. I pass another grated tunnel below me. Giant rock formations to my right bask in the warm light of the golden hour. Up head is another huge tailing mound. As I arrive at its origin, a horizontal tunnel greets me. It’s not blocked so I eagerly step inside. About 15 feet in, steel bars block further access. Small gauge train rails still run along the floor, absent of their wooden ties. It’s amazing to think about the rugged miners who bore these shafts through sheer rock and spent their careers laboring deep in bowels of these desolate rocky masses.
I continue along the old mine road 100 yards to check out several more grated tunnels along the canyon rim. I’m enjoying the sense of exploration. The lateness of the day is persistently on my mind as I would dread to get stranded out here in freezing nighttime temperatures. I decide to scramble up to the plateaued area above the shafts to poke around the huge outcropping glowing in the soon-setting sun. I find another grated tunnel, this one vertical. I’m gambling on there being another route down from here. I circle around a giant boulder and discover a draw that heads back to the mine road. It’s a fun climb down some large rocks and a minute later I’m back on the beaten path near the mining equipment were I came up.
I decide to take the established trail back so I follow the narrow dirt roadbed south to the canyon bottom. The route crosses the sandy wash and begins to climb westward out of the canyon. I’m in full shade now but generating enough body heat to be comfortable. I’m really enjoying the rugged scenery. Across the canyon I get a final view of where I was exploring. Soon a path cuts right (north) and I suspect it is the use trail coming down from the structure ruins. I take that route and in about 3 minutes I arrive at the structure ruins. It’s is satisfying to see how a network of trails comes together.
4:42 – I turn left (west) on main trail. The sun has set behind distant mountains. There is beauty and serenity as dusk falls over the desert landscape. Mount San Jacinto stands silhouetted on the distant western horizon against a cloudless sky. A couple hundred yards to the north, a group of five-seems to be having fun throwing rocks. My pace is causal as I savor the last minutes of a splendid outing. About 3 minutes shy of the trailhead, I pass a junction of a well-traveled path heading south. I had not noticed it earlier, but I assume it is the main path that the trail guides note as the route circling around to the mine site. I feel a sense of satisfaction as I approach the trailhead.
4:48 – End hike. My mine excursion was good for 1.5 miles round trip with 320 feet in elevation gain. The whole outing was good for 3 total miles with 760 total elevation gain. There are 5 cars (including mine) and it’s 36 degrees. The total step count on my Fitbit for the two parts of my hike is 10,374 (5,494 for Negro Hill and 4,880 for Desert Queen Mine). Now I head back to the house to get ready for a 7:00 concert in Joshua Tree.
Epilog – Another thoroughly rewarding outing in JTNP! I love this amazing place. And what a fitting hike to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service! It’s nice to check off another tourist site as well as conquer another peak. As in some of my JTNP adventures, I had almost total solitude. Even with nine hikes in JT under my belt now, I still feel like a novice and outsider in this surreal desert wonderland.