|View of Little San Bernardino Mountains from Mastodon Peak|
Difficulty: Easy-moderate (Easy if skipping the summit scramble)
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park entrance fee required
Deserts, ironically, are defined by water. Nowhere does the presence of liquid life matter more than in the very landscapes that lack it. From the creosote bush to the farmers of the Imperial Valley, every organism fights for their cut of water. Although a short and otherwise unassuming hike, the hike to and from Mastodon Peak in California's Joshua Tree National Park is a walk through a landscape where every drop of water has shaped the view that you see.
The southeastern corner of Joshua Tree National Park is often overlooked for the more immediately spectacular landscape of jumbled boulders and forests of the park's namesake yucca in the northwestern corner, but Mastodon Peak shows that this part of the park has its charms, too. The hike to Mastodon Peak is easy, short, and scenic, offering a chance not only to climb a small desert peak but also an opportunity to see many plants of the lower Colorado Desert and an up-close look at a desert oasis. Hikers who skip the rock scramble to the summit of Mastodon will miss some of the desert views but can still enjoy the trail for its desert botany, geology, and history.
I hiked this trail on an early November morning, driving in from Palm Springs by taking I-10 east and then taking exit 168 and heading north on Cottonwood Springs Road. At the Cottonwood Visitor Center, I turned right onto the road heading towards Cottonwood Campground and the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. I parked at the end of the road, just above the patch of palm trees and cottonwoods at the aptly named Cottonwood Spring Oasis.
Here, a number of fan palms stood by a large cottonwood and a number of smaller ones displaying golden fall foliage. The trees filled the bottom of the wash at the oasis, one of the few water sources in this otherwise bone-dry desert. The spring proved useful first to the Native Cahuilla as a water source and later to gold miners who saw the spring more as a source of water for gold milling.
|Cottonwood Spring Oasis|
Along the next half mile, the trail hugged the southern slopes of a hill, with good views of the boulders and plants immediately surrounding the area. At three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot, I came to a junction with a trail heading towards Mastodon Peak on the left; the trail heading straight continued towards Lost Palms Oasis. I took the left fork and followed this well-built trail up a set of rock stairs ascending through a rocky gully.
|Trail climbing towards Mastodon Peak|
The Mastodon Peak summit block resembled the odd rock formations found in the northwestern corner of the park at Jumbo Rocks or the Wonderland of Rocks. It is the result of a similar geologic history: the exposed monzogranite was initially formed as an intrusive igneous rock, meaning that the rock formed from cooling magma deep within the crust. Over time, uplifting and erosion have brought the monzogranite to the surface; physical processes that brought the rock to the surface also resulted in a system of rectangular joints. Erosion along these joints create the distinct jumbled-rocks look of these monzogranite outcroppings.
|Mastodon Peak summit block|
The summit of Mastodon Peak offered a 360-degree of the surrounding desert, a panorama of the southernmost part of the park. The viewshed was actually fairly limited to the north and east, mainly encompassing the nearby Eagle Mountains and Little San Bernardino Mountains. The view to the south was quite impressive though: from the summit of Mastodon Peak, at just over 3400 feet above sea level, I looked past the mountains bounding Cottonwood Canyon down to the low, flat Coachella Valley, which connects to the even lower Imperial Valley. The valley reached its lowest point at the shimmering blue waters of the Salton Sea, an accidental endorheic lake (a lake with no outlet) that sat some 230 feet below sea level. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains rose to the west of Coachella Valley, reaching their high point at the soaring summit of San Jacinto Peak, over 10,000 feet above sea level and the sixth most prominent peak in the 48 states. To the right of San Jacinto Peak, I noticed the very top of San Gorgonio Peak, the tallest mountain in Southern California, peeking out over the Little San Bernardino Mountains. At the southern end of the view, it appeared that I could see all the way down to the Peninsular Ranges near the Mexican border.
|Salton Sea and San Jacinto Mountains from Mastodon Peak|
The irrigration scheme was eventually successful- today, the All-American Canal, the world's largest irrigation canal, diverts critical water from the Colorado River to the below-sea level valley. As a result, the Colorado River, sculptor of the Grand Canyon, principal recipient of the Rocky Mountain's annual snowpack, and surely one of the great rivers of the planet, is reduced to a trickle or nothing at all when it enters Mexico, just miles away from its mouth at the Gulf of California. The farmers of Imperial Valley were among the first to tap the Colorado River, laying early claim to precious water rights in a region where water is becoming ever more scarce. The precedence of their water rights have given these farmers priority to the dwindling supply of water in a drought-stricken state, keeping the alfalfa fields surrounding El Centro green through the Valley's blistering heat and ensuring the supply of lettuce and spinach for those Earthbound Farm salad greens clamshells found in American supermarkets throughout the winter.
The Salton Sea remains, kept just barely alive by the fertilizer-laden runoff from the farms, dying as its lakeshore recedes due to increased irrigation efficiency. To many, the Imperial Valley is life: the Salton Sea is wintering grounds for cormorants, pelicans, and many other birds and the lush, irrigated fields provide salads across the continent and a robust agricultural economy in one of the driest and hottest spots in the country. Yet there are more than passing reminders of death and decay here, too. Winds scouring newly-exposed portions of the Salton's former lakebed lift clouds of pesticides and other toxins into the Valley's air. Across the border, south of Mexicali, the once thriving and biodiverse wetlands and riparian forests at the Colorado River Delta are now shrinking in size with no flow in the Colorado.
After admiring the view from the summit of Mastodon and contemplating the role of water in this landscape, I scrambled from the summit back down to the trail. I continued forward on the loop and very quickly arrived at the ruins of the Mastodon Mine. This gold mine was operational during much of the mid-twentieth century and operated until 1971; the remaining structures include a small shack and a mining shaft dug into Mastodon Peak that is now sealed off by a grated gate. Quartz veins in the monzogranite here hold gold, the catalyst for gold prospects at many of the abandoned mines that litter the park.
Past the mine, the trail continued briefly on the ridgeline of Mastodon Peak before crossing to the north of the ridge and dropping into a wash. The plant life here was incredibly varied. One of the more fascinating plants found here was creosote, a very unassuming bush that carries the Spanish nickname "gobernadora," or governess. The first notable aspect of the creosote bush is its smell: lean in and breath on its leaves and you'll smell a distinctive and not unpleasant aroma. This smell is released in the presence of moisture; come to a creosote-laden desert after a rainstorm and the pungent wafts fill the air. The more impressive aspect of the creosote is its ability to compete with other desert plants for water: its nickname comes from its ability to monopolize land and water. Creosote's shallow and extensive root system allows it to draw up water from a wide area while also releasing chemicals that prevent other plants from growing. Humans, it seemed, were far from the only organisms engaged in underhand tactics for securing water in the desert.
|Cholla, yucca, creosote|
|Joshua Tree's interesting rocks|
|Small oasis near Winona Mill site|