Trek Date: April 7th, 2014
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is an easy, one-mile loop that circles the interior of a small valley surrounded by tall boulders on every side. It's a great hike to get a feeling for what Joshua Tree National Park is all about. The trail winds through boulders and teases with many side canyons to explore, crosses open areas of the desert valley floor and shows off a great little ecosystem. Joshua Trees, Pinyon Pines, Junipers and Oaks are the taller denizens of the valley, but there's plenty of room for the mesquite, nolina, yucca, cacti, catsclaw, creosote and other species to stake their claim. The unique combination of water, shade, rocks and plants truly makes this an idyllic little valley. However, things weren't always so peaceful in the valley....
Our good friend, Legend, has it that the Button brothers, Charlie and Willie, discovered the valley back in the late 1800s. At the time, there was only one narrow passage that led into the grassy, sheltered valley. Charlie had recently been released from prison, after serving 16 years for a double murder. Somewhere along the line he had become acquainted with local cattle thief, Bill McHaney. When the Buttons told McHaney about the valley, they came up with a plan to steal cattle in Arizona, bring them to Hidden Valley to be held and rebranded, and then sold to unsuspecting ranchers in California. Now, Legend doesn't always make sense, but he does tell some good stories. Odd are good that the valley was used at some point for unlawful activity.
The trail to Hidden Valley starts at the westside parking area of the Hidden Valley Picnic Area, you can't miss it. In fact, the entire trail is extremely well-signed and easy to follow, complete with rock stairs in some locations. Along the way are plenty of opportunities to explore secret canyons, rock-scramble and search for signs of Native American habitation. If you haven't taken this hike yet, take it. You'll be glad you did. And if you've got family or friends visiting (as I did this trip), this is one of the best hikes in the park to hook them on J Tree.
You might be wondering how it is so easy to get into Hidden Valley today. According to Keys family history, Bill Keys blasted an opening through the rocks in 1936, so he could graze his cattle on the plentiful bunch grass hidden inside the valley. It's unlikely that he would have been allowed to do that after August 10th of 1936, as that is when Joshua Tree National Monument was established.
Once we climbed through the gap in the rocks and entered the valley, I guided my group (my Uncle Phil and Aunt Margaret, who were roadtripping) along the loop trail, clockwise as the sign instructed. We had a great day for hiking in the park, the weather was perfect and the wind had died down from the previous day. There are interpretive signs along the trail, explaining or pointing out geologic features, facts about the plant life, local animals and other interesting facts about the valley.
It was wildflower season in J Tree, and Hidden Valley had its share to show off. Some of the cacti were getting ready to really go crazy.
If I took the time to explore every shady spot like this, which could lead back to a Native American habitation site, or a miner's rock shelter or who knows what, I could spend days in this valley. I did check this spot out, it was a great place for a rest, much cooler and with plenty of rocks to sit on.
Massive boulder piles surround the valley, it's no wonder the place was used as a natural corral. Nothing could get out!
The Pinyon Pine is one of my favorite trees in J Tree. I run across them all over the park, in the most out-of-the way and rocky spots, where you would think nothing could grow. Boom! There's a 30-foot tall Pinyon Pine. They provide great shady spots and I generally take advantage of that.
Rock climbers love J Tree and they especially love the rocks at Hidden Valley Campground and here in Hidden Valley. During certain times of the year, or when the weather is just perfect, it seems like no matter what rock you look at, there's someone either sitting on top, or climbing up its side. Can you spot the two climbers on "The Sentinel" above?
This guy seemed to be enjoying himself. And then I had to go and poke my camera in his face. Note the evil eye he's giving me in the picture on the right. After that, I had to leave him alone.
Another arch to add to my collection. I sometimes purposely try to add some lens flare into a few of my pictures, I think this one turned out pretty cool.
This pair of ravens was keeping eye on the dozens of folks who were wandering about in their valley. They certainly had a great view atop this granite outcrop.
A number of places along the trail have steps added to make the going a bit easier. That's one of the reasons this is such a great trail for hikers of all ages, and those of us who were a bit tired from hiking earlier in the day.
There are dead trees throughout the park. Having succumbed to either drought, or fire or pest, they always seem to catch my eye. I can't count the number of photos I've taken of them, but it must be in the hundreds. The stark branches against a clear sky create some interesting patterns. I call this one, "Tree against sky." Black and white seemed to be appropriate.
It was really pretty cool to see so many flowers in bloom along the trail. A few weeks before or after this trip and it would have seemed totally different. As summer approaches, the plants will dry up, some will turn brown, some will hibernate and some will die. Spring is a great time to visit. Some of the cactus plants had dozens of buds getting ready to bloom and many of the yucca were in full flower mode.
Rock climbers hanging around everywhere. This is "Sports Challenge Rock." The climbers name everything out here.
The formation on the left reminds me of either: the sorting hat from Harry Potter, a smurf, or a sand castle spire. And the rock at the far left looks like a monkey laughing its head off. And that tree? Looks like a Pinyon pine.
Here's one of the most famous rocks in J Tree. It's at the end of the loop trail, if you've gone clockwise. If you go counterclockwise, well, you'll see it right away. It's a big rock and you can't miss it. If you're an alumni of USC, you might think it looks like a Trojan soldier. If you're a fan of the New England Patriots, you might think it looks like their logo. But no matter what you see when you look at Trojan Rock, you'll remember it. An you'll definitely remember hiking the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. Check it out, and see what you can find.
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