Reflecting on Barker Dam - Joshua Tree National Park

Trek Dates: January 28 & 30, 2017

I was looking for water, in the desert. To be more precise, I was looking for large bodies of open water, in the desert. In Joshua Tree National Park. Where the average rainfall during January is less than 1 inch. However, during January of 2017, the park received between 5 - 7 inches of rain thanks to an "atmospheric river" that unleashed powerful storms throughout the entire state.

Taking the day off from work, I set out early and the first spot I went dowsing was Grand Tank, near White Tank campground. And I wasn't disappointed. Having visited that spot several times over the years, it was always bone dry. On this trip, the area behind the old dam was completely full, the water level to the top of the dam. The nearby White Tank was unfortunately empty, due to a large hole in the bottom of the dam.

Grand Tank

Undaunted by the lack of water in White Tank, I drove to the trailhead for Twin Tanks and set out on the trail. Sadly, both tanks were waterless. Sure, there was a bit of damp sand behind the dams, but no beautiful pools of water. 

Next stop, Ivanpah. No luck. On to Squaw Tank which I was certain would be full. Alas, not a drop. Rock Garden Valley dam? Nope. I came to the conclusion that the park service does not maintain most of the old dams in the park. How difficult or expensive would it be to repair the dams? But such matters are way beyond my paygrade, so I took a quick detour to hike out to Surprise Tank, to renew my spirit.

Surprise Tank

I saved Barker Dam for last, as I knew there would be a lot of water behind the dam, and I was hoping to get some nice photos of the rocks, sky and reflections in the lake.

Barker Dam, sometimes referred to as the Big Horn Dam, was constructed in 1900 by early cattlemen who used Queen Valley to graze their stock. C.O. Barker was one of the men behind building the original nine-foot-tall dam. The dam was raised an additional six feet by rancher William Keys in 1949-50. Constructed with concrete, stones and ingenuity, the dam is located at the western edge of the Wonderland of Rocks and when it holds water it really transforms the surrounding area.

The parking lot was packed to overflowing, cars filled every nook and cranny, and every parking turnout within a mile. Good fortune smiled on me, however, and I found a spot on my first drive through. Grabbing my gear, I hit the trail.

And full, the dam was. It's amazing how beautiful this area is, with or without water in the lake. I hiked around the perimeter of the water and took a lot of pictures. The slight breeze that was blowing created ripples on the water's surface, throughout the time I was there. I had been hoping for still water, as this spot creates some of the most beautiful reflection photographs I have ever seen or taken. Hiking back to T-Red, I drove home. All the while with a still, small voice in my head telling me to return the following Monday.

So, two days later, I headed back out to JTree. There were a couple places Murbachi and I wanted to visit, including Barker Dam. Still searching for water in the desert, we located the mysterious Pumphouse of Quail Springs Valley. That is an amazing spot.

It was a perfect day in the park. Clear blue sky with the temperature in the low 60s. Great hiking conditions. And when we arrived at Barker Dam, there was no wind, no breeze. No one even sneezed. The water's surface was flat and glossy, perfect for reflecting on Barker Dam. Here are a few of my favorite pictures:

This is a three photo panorama. Barker Dam itself is located out of frame at the far left. The formation at the far right is part of Lakeside Rocks, but I like Robert Miramontes' name for the upper reaches, Valhalla.

Here's a two photo panorama of the Lakeside Rocks.

Rat Rock, with Barker Dam at the lower left base of the dome.

I kinda like the colorful lens flares in this shot.

The water looks so inviting, but the area is posted, so no swimming. As this shot shows, the water level is still about five feet below the top of the dam. I have seen the water level near the top of the dam, but that was more than ten years ago. I'm hoping the park gets some more rain during February and March (good for the wildflowers, too), I'd love to revisit and spend another day at Barker Dam. 

Feel free to download any of my images for your own, personal use. No fee, no license, no red tape. They're just pixels. Credit back to would be nice, but it's not required. If you get the chance, go visit Barker Dam, Grand Tank and Surprise Tank while their water level is high, you never know when they'll all be this full again. And be sure to checkout Murbachi's report of this visit, with some awesome 3D and 2D images. Clicky HERE.

Hikers at Barker Dam