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Where to Explore the Wonders of the High Desert Beyond Joshua Tree National Park

The landscape along the Desert Willow Trail at Big Morongo Canyon.
The landscape along the Desert Willow Trail at Big Morongo Canyon. | Sandi Hemmerlein
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Please explore responsibly. While "SoCal Wanderer" continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, public health guidelines and weather conditions are changing constantly. We encourage our readers to check the latest updates for each location. Stay curious and cautious.

There's still time to squeeze in one last High Desert trip before the temperatures heat up too much — but if you're wary of the crowds in Joshua Tree National Park, you're not out of options.

The "High Desert" is an informal designation — and can represent any of the higher-elevation lands from the Cajon Pass all the way to the Mojave Preserve, but if you're interested in exploring the outdoors around Joshua Tree — particularly the Inland Empire area known as the Morongo Basin — sites of interest include desert wetlands, scenic peaks, public art and a historic military camp.

Even better, these lesser-known destinations aren't just free to visit — but also free of throngs of tourists!

So take your time to enjoy and explore, whether you've got less than an hour or all day.

1. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, Sand to Snow National Monument, Morongo Valley

The landscape of the Morongo Valley marshes at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.
1/3 A panoramic view of the Morongo Valley accessible via the Yucca Ridge Trail. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A blued bird perches on a tree along the Marsh Trail.
2/3 A bird perches on a tree along the Marsh Trail, an ADA-accessible boardwalk that intersects the Desert Willow Trail and Mesquite Trail. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a designated Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy and Audubon. | Sandi Hemmerlein
The landscape at Mesquite Trail, a half-mile loop that intersects the Marsh Trail boardwalk at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.
3/3 The landscape at Mesquite Trail, a half-mile loop that intersects the Marsh Trail boardwalk at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Perhaps the most underappreciated hiking destination in all of the high desert area around Joshua Tree is the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Located in a canyon of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, it traverses both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts across more than 30,000 acres — a massive expanse managed by the Bureau of Land Management with the non-profit Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

It was created in 1982 and today, you'll find six different trails to take you through a spring-fed desert preserve of incredible biodiversity — including cottonwood trees and willows, bighorn sheep and nearly 250 bird species, many rare (including the "Least" Bell's Vireo, which is more common along rivers and streams). Both the American Bird Conservancy and Audubon have designated Big Morongo Canyon Preserve an Important Bird Area, especially for breeding and spring migration.

Start your adventure at the kiosk entrance, where all trailheads are located. There, you can kind of "choose your own adventure," starting with the easy and ADA-accessible boardwalk of the Marsh Trail (0.65 mile loop), which intersects with the moderate Desert Willow Trail (0.75 mile loop) and the easy Mesquite Trail (0.51 mile loop) — both of which you can add on for a more extensive hike. To get above the marsh areas and reach a little higher elevation for a panoramic video of the Morongo Valley, you can take on the Yucca Ridge Trail (0.72 miles one way between the Mesquite and Desert Willow Trails). Trail junctures are well-marked, but pick up a paper map at the kiosk on your way in.

Open daily 7:30 a.m. to dusk. Admission and parking are free, but donations are accepted. Check monthly climate averages before heading out.

2. Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, Pioneertown

 The landscape at Pioneertown Mountains Preserve.
The landscape at Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Pioneertown — located about four miles up Pioneertown Road, northwest of Yucca Valley — may be most famous as an Old West movie town or, more recently, a desert pit stop for nationally-touring bands. But it's also the location of the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, a crucial area that links Joshua Tree National Park to the east with the San Bernardino National Forest to the west.

Managed by The Wildlands Conservancy, there's a ranger station at the parking area where you can pick up a trail map and learn about the various ways to explore the nearly 30,000-acre preserve. A good way to start is the 3.5-mile round-trip out-and-back along the Pipes Canyon Trail to the Olsen Ruins, a stone cabin homestead that's surrounded by mining history.

Or, you can try to bag Chaparrosa Peak by taking on a 6.6-mile, round-trip hike to 5,541 feet of elevation. Along the way, witness as pinyon pines, juniper bushes, Joshua trees and more try to recover from the lightning-ignited Sawtooth Complex fire from 2006. From the top, you can see the distant Mt. San Jacinto (which was never visible before the fire due to the amount of vegetation that used to be up there). Kick aside basalt rocks as you dig your heels into the slippery, loose gravel downward pitches. Don't miss the tracks of local deer, mountain lions and even bears.

Open daily dawn to dusk. Admission and parking are free, but donations are accepted (and appreciated). Bring sun protection as there's pretty much zero shade in the preserve.

3. South Park Peak, South Park, Yucca Valley

The landscape and foliage along the High View Nature Trail, a 1.3-mile trail at South Park Peak.
The landscape and foliage along the High View Nature Trail, a 1.3-mile trail at South Park Peak. | Sandi Hemmerlein

If you're interested in exploring the terrain of Joshua Tree National Park without actually committing to the park itself (or its crowds), head to the 40-acre South Park in Yucca Valley, which shares its southern border with JTNP near the Black Rock Nature Center in the Black Rock Campground area. In this undeveloped parcel of open space, you can climb the short but steep and rugged trail to South Park Peak, at an elevation of nearly 4,400 feet.

At the highest point of the 0.6-mile loop, after climbing 230 feet pretty much straight up into the sky, you'll be rewarded with views of the town of Yucca Valley below, as well as a nice lunch spot (with a bench) and a register you can sign.

To get to the trailhead, follow directions for the High View Nature Trail — which is actually inside the boundary of JTNP. The way to South Park Peak is at the opposite end of the dirt parking area. If you're feeling ambitious, you can also tackle the 1.3-mile High View Nature Trail (sometimes spelled Hi-View) in the same visit. Though it's considered "easy," there's no shade — so it can get really got and dry. Pick up an interpretive guide at Black Rock Nature Center before you set off.

Free admission to South Park. Dogs allowed at South Park Peak but not on JTNP trails. Nearest vault toilet located at Black Rock Campground.

4. "Rhythm of Life" and "Atlatl" Geoglyphs, Yucca Valley

Rhythm of Life.jpeg
1/2 A view of the landscape at Yucca Valley from behind Australian artist Andrew Rodgers' "Rhythms of Life" earthwork sculptures. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A view of one of Rodgers' "Rhythms of Life" earthwork sculptures at Yucca Valley. The sculpture utilizes light-colored stone as building material on volcanic, dark-colored Black Mesa.
2/2 A view of one of Rodgers' "Rhythms of Life" and "Atlatl" earthwork sculptures at Yucca Valley. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Although you can see the "Rhythms of Life" and "Atlatl" earthwork sculptures by Australian artist Andrew Rogers from Old Woman Springs Road (at Aberdeen Road) — between Yucca Valley to the south and Flamingo Heights to the north — you won't really experience it till you climb up Black Mesa to look at it close-up (and somewhat from above, at its highest point on the slope).

Installed in 2008, they were the first North American installations as part of Rogers's "Global Land Art Project," with similar ones occurring on all seven continents. Rogers used light-colored stone as his building material on volcanic, dark-colored Black Mesa — 460 tons of it just for "Rhythm of Life" alone. Both pay tribute to the native ancestors of the local area — but "Atlatl" in particular reproduces a pictograph of a spear-thrower left on a boulder by local native tribes nearby.

If you don't have your own plane to fly over these land sculptures, you can get there on foot by pulling off of the west side of Old Woman Springs Road at either a dirt spur of Aberdeen Drive or the unpaved Old Aberdeen Road. Park in the wide, dirt pullout and stop by the large interpretive sign describing the project. Then, you can climb 240 feet up the hill to examine the stone construction up close — staying off the sculpture itself and following all "Leave No Trace" principles, of course.

5. Camp Iron Mountain, Mojave Trails National Monument, Twentynine Palms

 The landscape at Camp Iron Mountain at Mojave Trails National Monument.
1/3 The landscape at Camp Iron Mountain at Mojave Trails National Monument. | Sandi Hemmerlein
 The remains of a Catholic stone chapel stands at Camp Iron Mountain in the Mojave Trails National Monument.
2/3 The remains of a Catholic stone chapel stands at Camp Iron Mountain in the Mojave Trails National Monument. | Sandi Hemmerlein
 A Protestant altar at Camp Iron Mountain in the Mojave Trails National Monument.
3/3 A Protestant altar at Camp Iron Mountain in the Mojave Trails National Monument. | Sandi Hemmerlein

One of the best-preserved sites of General George S. Patton's training efforts in the high desert during World War II is located about 50 miles west of the Arizona border, north of the juncture of Highways 62 and 177. It's the Camp Iron Mountain area of Patton's Desert Training Center — a.k.a. the California–Arizona Maneuver Area — 32 miles north of the town of Desert Center, accessible off the east side of the unpaved Power Line Road just past Granite Pass.

Now part of the 1.6-million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, it's just a small sliver of the massive desert warfare training ground — the largest in military training history — commanded by General Patton to prepare U.S. military troops for deployment starting in 1942. The camp closed in 1944 — but nearly 80 years later, there's still much to see that was left behind by General Patton's Armored Divisions.

Designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1980, and California Historic Landmark No. 985, the Iron Mountain Camp area should only be explored on foot. When passing through the pedestrian turnstile, you can walk the rock-lined pathways which once served as dirt roads, peek through the fence at a large topographic (or "contour") map that represented a scale model of the entire training ground, and pay your respects at a Protestant stone altar and Catholic stone chapel, built by the soldiers themselves. Imagine the tent cities that were erected here, with no electricity to keep the troops cool in the unforgiving summer heat. Be careful of desert critters and unexploded ordnances. While it is unlikely to come across explosives of concern,be careful not to pick up anything that looks like it might be a military shell when walking the trails. Camp Iron Mountain is run by the Bureau of Land Management and considered safe for the public to explore. For more information on how the bureau manages unexploded ordnances, see this guide.

High Clearance 4x4s strongly recommended on unpaved roads. Plan ahead for a remote area with no services or ranger station. Leave what you find — including rocks and other artifacts.

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