Key’s Desert Queen Ranch Tour in Joshua Tree National Park

Located in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park, Key’s Ranch (AKA Desert Queen Ranch) is an incredibly well-maintained homestead only accessible via a 90 minute guided tour. It’s one of those spots that I didn’t even know existed in the park and something that I highly recommend you visit if you get the chance. Here is all the information.

Details

  • $10 + park entrance fees
  • One tour each day, Thurs – Sun. Check dates on their site as they do change and are not offered in certain seasons.

Getting Tickets

Tickets can only be purchased from the Oasis Visitors Center in 29 Palms. If you want to visit this spot, you will want to get to the center early as they sell out fast, especially on the weekends. I have heard stories of it selling out right when they open at 8:30 AM. When I went, I got there at 10 AM on a Thursday, and there were only three tickets left. Once you get a ticket, you will proceed to the entrance and pay your fee to enter the park and for the ticket cost. You can then explore the park until meeting time 15 minutes before the tour starts.

History

George Barth was born in the late 1800s and got into mining before joining the traveling road show and working as a stuntman. He was asked to join the Rough Riders but broke his leg and was sidelined from the show. He traveled around and did some mining before he settled in Joshua Tree in 1914 and was in charge of running the ranch. He changed his name to Bill Keys and married in 1918, raising multiple children at the homestead. After his death, the ranch was sold and passed through a few owners before it became part of Joshua Tree National Park in 1970. They started doing tours in 1972.

The Tour

After meeting at the locked gate 15 minutes before it was time for the tour to start, the ranger let us through the gate, and we all drove to the parking area for the ranch.

The tour began from the parking area, and over the next 90 minutes, we learned the history of the family and homestead as well as walked all over the property, looking in windows and experiencing this unique site.

I will say that it is a tour and you can not go off on your own, so you can’t set up any pictures and must take them as you walk along. Here are some of the highlights from the tour.

The Shed

This metal building had a lot of old tools and artifacts from the early years of the ranch.

The Well

The well, which sits under the windmill, was interesting to see out in the field where they used to grow their food.

The House

The house is the highlight of the ranch tour as it is well maintained and the interior is left primarily as it was when the family moved from the ranch. You can’t go inside, but you can look in the windows.

There’s an old retaining wall reinforced with metal from bed springs outside of the house as well.

The gate that goes around the house is made of Joshua Trees that were cut right here on the property.

In the back is a collection of many old cars and machines that were used on the ranch. They are all in disrepair, but they are cool to see out there.

One of the cars was even used as a makeshift chicken coop to keep the chickens safe from coyotes.

In the 1960s two movies from Walt Disney were filmed here, such as “Wild Burros of the West,” and the building they built to house tools for the movie is still here as well.

After exploring some more, our time at the ranch came to an end. It was a great tour, and it was easy to see why this area is off-limits to the public since there are so many historic artifacts. The sheer amount of stuff here and how well it has been maintained makes it a really unique place to explore in Joshua Tree National Park. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Cholla Cactus Gardens in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees are of course the main draw for Joshua Tree National Park, but one of the most impressive areas, botany-wise, is the Cholla Cactus Garden. The few acres of land here have grown countless Cholla cactus and they dot the landscape as you look out towards the hills. It’s a great short hike in the park and a fun 30-minute adventure for the whole family. Here is all the information.

Details

  • .5 mile round trip
  • Flat
  • Great for sunrise and sunset

Getting There

From the Oasis of Mara entrance to the park, you will head south on Park Blvd till it splits. Head left and go past Belle and White Tank Campgrounds before arriving at the Cholla Cactus Garden about 5-10 minutes later. There is a small parking lot where you can park for the short hike.

The Trail

From the parking area, you will see the two entrances to the trail heading out in front of you. It doesn’t really matter which side you start on as it is a loop trail and you will see everything.

At the further west entrance there is a plaque with information though and a small paper pamphlet on the area (not always there).

The trail is flat and short but you will want to take your time as you look out over the cactus and even get up close with some of them.

Don’t get too close though as the cactus get their name because they stick to you pretty quickly.

The trail continues to wind around, and there are a few short bridges that you will use to cross the terrain.

While it doesn’t take long to see this area, it is a really impressive area of the park. It’s also a perfect spot for sunrise as well, since the views are facing east. Be sure to check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Cholla Cactus Gardens in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees are of course the main draw for Joshua Tree National Park, but one of the most impressive areas, botany-wise, is the Cholla Cactus Garden. The few acres of land here have grown countless Cholla cactus and they dot the landscape as you look out towards the hills. It’s a great short hike in the park and a fun 30-minute adventure for the whole family. Here is all the information.

Details

  • .5 mile round trip
  • Flat
  • Great for sunrise and sunset

Getting There

From the Oasis of Mara entrance to the park, you will head south on Park Blvd till it splits. Head left and go past Belle and White Tank Campgrounds before arriving at the Cholla Cactus Garden about 5-10 minutes later. There is a small parking lot where you can park for the short hike.

The Trail

From the parking area, you will see the two entrances to the trail heading out in front of you. It doesn’t really matter which side you start on as it is a loop trail and you will see everything.

At the further west entrance there is a plaque with information though and a small paper pamphlet on the area (not always there).

The trail is flat and short but you will want to take your time as you look out over the cactus and even get up close with some of them.

Don’t get too close though as the cactus get their name because they stick to you pretty quickly.

The trail continues to wind around, and there are a few short bridges that you will use to cross the terrain.

While it doesn’t take long to see this area, it is a really impressive area of the park. It’s also a perfect spot for sunrise as well, since the views are facing east. Be sure to check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree National Park

Mastodon Peak is a great hike if you are coming from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. This is the most likely entrance you would use if you are staying in the Coachella Valley and want to visit the park. The hike is 3 miles round trip, and it takes you to the top of a small peak as well as past an old mine. Here is all the information.

Details

  • 3 miles round trip
  • 450 feet of elevation
  • Leaves from Cottonwood Springs parking area.

Getting There

From the 10 Freeway, you will want to get off at Cottonwood Springs Road and head north towards the park entrance. Eventually, you will make it to the Cottonwood Visitors Center. Turn left here and head towards the parking area for Cottonwood Springs, which is where you will start the hike.

The Trail

I chose to make the loop counter-clockwise since the trail is easier to follow in this direction.

The trail leaves from the east side of parking lot and heads down into a small oasis with a few green trees.

From here you will head up on a gradual incline on an easy to follow trail.

The trail does have a lot of sand sections though which are not very fun to walk on.

It builds momentum as you continue the progressive climb with small hills on each side.

After . 7 miles the trail splits from the Cottonwood Springs trail and goes up towards Mastodon Peak.

This split is where you will experience some of the elevation as you climb up the roughly hewn rock steps.

When you get to the top of the small climb, you will be at the base of Mastodon Peak.

It’s a tenth of a mile scramble to the top, but it’s not bad. I recommend walking around the backside and climbing up that way to the top.

The top provides a great 360-degree view out over the park and even across to the Salton Sea if it’s clear.

After hanging out and taking photos head down the way you came, back to the trail, and continue on towards the mine.

Mastodon Mine

After a tenth of a mile, you will see the remains of the mine.

There is not a lot to see here, but you can still look down into the mine shaft which is pretty cool. From here it is a .9 mile hike back to the car.

The end of the trail is uneventful with most of the walking on a sandy washout area. Don’t miss the turn to go back to the parking area and not on to the campground though.

All in all, this is a fun, relatively easy hike in the park. I recommend you check it out if you come in from the south entrance, but I wouldn’t drive down from one of the other entrances just to see it. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Geology Tour Road: Joshua Tree’s Easiest 4×4 Road

Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile drive in Joshua Tree National Park that has sections only accessible to 4×4 cars. It is a fun place to drive that shows you what the park would have looked like back in the day and while there isn’t a ton to see here, it is a good intro into the parks geological history as well as a few human elements. Here is all the information.

Details

  • 4×4 is recommended, but you can usually get to Squaw Tank without it. Heading on to complete the loop generally requires 4×4 though. Check with a park ranger for the status of the road.
  • 18 miles round trip
  • Location: The marked turnoff is near Jumbo Rocks Campground.

Getting There

Geology Tour Road is in the park map between Jumbo Rocks and Sheeps Pass. There is a sign noting the turnoff, but you have to keep your eyes peeled to see it.

The Drive

When you turn onto Geology Tour Road, it will be paved for about 100 feet before becoming dirt.

I would recommend taking a picture of the map or grabbing one of the printouts, so you know where you are going before heading out.

There are numbered signs that correspond to the different points of interest in the printout, but I found it hard to see these signs while driving.

Also, the first 6 or so miles to Squaw Tank is not very exciting, it is flat, and there are sparse Joshua Trees around.

Squaw Tank

At the 6 mile mark, you will see a turnout for Squaw Tank which is the primary point of interest on this drive.

You will have to walk about a tenth of a mile to see it. Squaw Tank is an old concrete wall that once served as a dam for water in the area.

I would recommend not heading on from here if you do not have 4×4 since this portion of the drive was rougher when I went.

The road then enters into a one-way loop that will take you alongside a mountain before arriving at Cottonwood Springs.

Cottonwood Springs is the start of many other backcountry adventures in the park, but I didn’t do anything here when I went. There are two old water tanks near the sign though.

The road gets more narrow and rocky here as you head up the small hill to the junction with Berdoo Canyon Road.

This is an actual 4×4 road so don’t attempt it unless you know what you are doing.

The road bends inward and continues the climb before arriving at point of interest 14, 15 and 16.

Point 16 is the best part on this trail as it looks out over the valley and provides a 180-degree view. You can also see the road you came in on in the distance.

After taking some photos at this small pullout, you will want to continue back to where the road split and then head back the way you came.

When I went on a weekday, I didn’t see anyone else on this trail, so it felt pretty remote even though it isn’t. While it is not one of my favorite things to do in the park, it was still a fun adventure that I wholeheartedly recommend. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Lukens Lake on Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park

Lukens Lake is one of the easiest high altitude lakes to access in the high country of Yosemite. This lake is less than a mile hike each direction, and it is one of the most peaceful and relaxing areas you can access on Tioga Pass Road. Here is all the information on this spot.

Details

  • 1.6 miles round trip
  • 100 feet of elevation
  • Location: Lukens Lake parking area on Tioga Pass

Getting There

Heading east on Tioga Pass Road Lukens Lake is a good 16 miles into the journey but one of the first parking areas you will see. Even though the hike is easy, it is not super popular, so the small parking lot usually has a spot or two left.

The Trail

From the parking lot, you will cross the road to get to the trailhead for Lukens Lake.

The trail starts out flat as it heads into the trees, but from there it starts to go uphill for the next half mile.

Eventually, the trail flattens out again, and you start a short downhill to the lake.

There was some snow when we went, but the trail was easy to cross as long as you took your time.

There was a path through the meadow to the base of the lake. We walked out here and made it our picnic spot for lunch.

We also did a little fly fishing at the lake but didn’t catch anything. After hanging out for 45 minutes, we started the short hike back to the car.

While there are certainly more exciting places to explore along Tioga Pass Road, Lukens Lake is a great whole family stop, especially for those not looking for a long hike. If you have been, let me know what you think in the comments.

Yosemite Family Adventures Private Summer High Country Tour

At the beginning of 2016, I connected with David from Yosemite Family Adventures for a day trip to Hetch Hetchy in the winter. It was an epic experience, so we have been trying to connect for another adventure since then. Two weeks ago that happened, and Amie and I were able to go spend two days exploring the high country of Yosemite with David and the crew at YFA. They are a great outfit and set up everything you want to do with you beforehand so that the trip is just what you want. Here is all the information on what our two days entailed.

Day 1

We stayed at the Groveland Hotel near the northeast entrance to Yosemite. We have stayed here before, and it’s a nice quiet spot with a few restaurants and an excellent location near the park.

We headed out on our first morning with a two-hour ride into the Tioga Pass region and over to Tuolumne Meadows. Yes, this part of the park is slow to drive through.

From here we headed out on the trail to Elizabeth Lake and when we got there we had the lunch that YFA packed for us, sandwich, chips, Butterfinger and an ice tea.

From here we made the slow trek up to the summit of Unicorn Peak. This was a somewhat crazy hike, and I was glad to have a guide with us on it. You can read more about the hike here.

After submitting and hanging out on top, we started the long hike back to the car.

Last stop for the day was sunset at Olmsted Point, which is just a turn out on Tioga Pass Road but an epic place to see the backside of Half Dome.

When we got back to Groveland, we grabbed dinner in town at Fork and Love which you can read about here before resting up for day 2.

Day 2

For day two we got a later start since we were planning on staying out for stargazing.

We again took the long drive into the park and then David, who is a professional fly fisherman, spent the morning helping to teach us how to fly fish.

Fly fishing was one of the things I really wanted to do so I was glad to be able to accomplish it.

Amie and I both caught a fish during our morning of fly fishing the creeks thanks to David’s teaching.

After fishing, we made our way to Lukens Lake which is a short 1-mile hike and had a late lunch.

This area is beautiful and is not super popular, so it’s a great spot for a bit of relaxation.

After that, we went up to Tuolumne Meadows area to do our last bit of fly fishing for the trip.

This area is so pretty it was the perfect backdrop for fly fishing.

From here we went to our last adventure of the trip, which was a sunset hike out to North Dome.

On this hike we got to see a bunch of deer as we chased the fading light.

When we got to the top of North Dome, we ate a spread of cheese, crackers, fruit, and cookies that David had prepared and hiked up for us. It was a pretty spectacular place to eat dinner and watch the sun go down.

After dinner, we made our way up to Indian Rock Arch where we did some astrophotography.

Indian Rock Arch was a fantastic place for star shots since the arch was a great backdrop and it was so dark up there. Read more about it here. After that, it was a long hike out in the dark and a long drive back to the hotel.

I enjoy exploring with David from YFA because he does a great job of working with you to plan your experience and he even tried to find a bunch of things that I hadn’t done for us to do during our two days. Be sure to check out Yosemite Family Adventures if you are looking for a planned trip like this. Here is a video I made on our two days.

Check out more recommendations from Yosemite here and let me know what you think in the comments.

Disclosure: This trip was provided by Yosemite Family Adventures, all opinions are my own.

Mist Trail: One of Yosemite National Park’s Most Popular Hikes

Yosemite National Park’s Mist Trail is probably one of the most popular trails in all of California. It is the trail that leads to the iconic Half Dome, but even by itself, it still combines a grueling uphill charge with two amazing waterfalls. Here are all of the details if you want to take down this famous trail yourself and check out more of my favorite Yosemite spots here.

Details

  • 3 miles round trip, more if you don’t take the shuttle
  • 1,000 feet of elevation

Getting There

The Mist Trail is accessed by the park shuttle at shuttle stop 16 near Happy Isles. If you can driving into the park, you can park at Curry Village and shuttle / walk over. If you walk,  it is an extra 1.5 miles round trip. There is trailhead parking a little closer as well, but it usually fills up pretty early.

The Trail

From the shuttle stop, you will head over the bridge that crosses the Merced River. You will then turn right at the sign and parallel the river as you start the hike.

The trail begins flat but almost immediately goes uphill. I will say this in advance; most people are not prepared for this hike. They see the 3 miles round trip and think its easy; it’s not. The hike is uphill pretty much the entire way, and it’s a steep uphill as well.

I have seen all sorts of people do it and a wide range of ages, but just plan on having a lot of time if you are not used to hiking uphill like this. The park usually suggests 2 – 6 hours. Six is a little excessive, it usually takes me 2 hours to do this hike to Vernal Falls, more if heading up to Nevada Falls, but planning on 4 is probably a safe bet.

At the start of the trail, you will also pass the sign that designates the beginning of the John Muir Trail, one of the most popular long hikes in the USA. It is fun to see this sign and note that the summit of Mt Whitney is only 211 miles away.

The trail heads up from here on a paved path. It is mostly shaded, but as you go up you will go through patches of sun. Be sure to wear sunscreen and have water.

The views get more impressive as you gain elevation, especially looking up towards Glacier Point.

The trail continues to climb with a few downhill jaunts put in for good measure and eventually reaches the bridge.

The Bridge

If you are destroyed from hiking this first part, then the bridge is a good turn around point. You can see Vernal Falls in the distance from here, and it only gets harder if you continue. There is also a water refill station and a bathroom here as well.

From the bridge, the trail continues a gradual climb through a shaded area.

You will be walking along the river before you eventually reach the base of the stairs and can see Vernal Falls in front of you.

This area of stairs is where the Mist Trail gets its name. During the spring when there is a good water flow the stairs are wet, and there is mist everywhere, getting you wet as well.

Be careful as this makes them more slippery, which is especially apparent when you are heading down.

As you go up the stairs, you will notice how fantastic the views are of the waterfall in front of you. Take your time and pull out to enjoy the views and rest as much as you need.

My favorite view is right before you enter the trees again. From here you will be looking at the falls from a high angle and can often see a rainbow.

Entering the trees takes you to the last portion of stairs, but these are the toughest as well.

These stairs are large and not accommodating for your knees, especially on the way down. You will be feeling it here, but the payoff is worth it.

Continuing on you will reach the cables, which is a narrow section cut out of the rock that you traverse to get to the top of Vernal Falls.

This is a slow area if it is busy as you have to let people pass as they come down.

Reaching the top, you will want to head down to the overlook for Vernal Falls. This area is always popular with lots of people hanging around but just wait your turn, and you will be able to get a good picture.

Make sure to stay behind the railing; people die here every year, and it’s not worth it.

If you want to continue to Nevada Falls or Half Dome (only if you have a permit), you can read more about that here. If not, head back down the way you can and watch out for the slippery stairs.

Video

Here is a 4k video I made from my hike along the Mist Trail.

Even though this hike can be a zoo in the summer, it is still a must do in Yosemite. Make sure it is on your list if you go, it’s worth it.

Mist Trail: One of Yosemite National Park’s Most Popular Hikes

Yosemite National Park’s Mist Trail is probably one of the most popular trails in all of California. It is the trail that leads to the iconic Half Dome, but even by itself, it still combines a grueling uphill charge with two amazing waterfalls. Here are all of the details if you want to take down this famous trail yourself and check out more of my favorite Yosemite spots here.

Details

  • 3 miles round trip, more if you don’t take the shuttle
  • 1,000 feet of elevation

Getting There

The Mist Trail is accessed by the park shuttle at shuttle stop 16 near Happy Isles. If you can driving into the park, you can park at Curry Village and shuttle / walk over. If you walk,  it is an extra 1.5 miles round trip. There is trailhead parking a little closer as well, but it usually fills up pretty early.

The Trail

From the shuttle stop, you will head over the bridge that crosses the Merced River. You will then turn right at the sign and parallel the river as you start the hike.

The trail begins flat but almost immediately goes uphill. I will say this in advance; most people are not prepared for this hike. They see the 3 miles round trip and think its easy; it’s not. The hike is uphill pretty much the entire way, and it’s a steep uphill as well.

I have seen all sorts of people do it and a wide range of ages, but just plan on having a lot of time if you are not used to hiking uphill like this. The park usually suggests 2 – 6 hours. Six is a little excessive, it usually takes me 2 hours to do this hike to Vernal Falls, more if heading up to Nevada Falls, but planning on 4 is probably a safe bet.

At the start of the trail, you will also pass the sign that designates the beginning of the John Muir Trail, one of the most popular long hikes in the USA. It is fun to see this sign and note that the summit of Mt Whitney is only 211 miles away.

The trail heads up from here on a paved path. It is mostly shaded, but as you go up you will go through patches of sun. Be sure to wear sunscreen and have water.

The views get more impressive as you gain elevation, especially looking up towards Glacier Point.

The trail continues to climb with a few downhill jaunts put in for good measure and eventually reaches the bridge.

The Bridge

If you are destroyed from hiking this first part, then the bridge is a good turn around point. You can see Vernal Falls in the distance from here, and it only gets harder if you continue. There is also a water refill station and a bathroom here as well.

From the bridge, the trail continues a gradual climb through a shaded area.

You will be walking along the river before you eventually reach the base of the stairs and can see Vernal Falls in front of you.

This area of stairs is where the Mist Trail gets its name. During the spring when there is a good water flow the stairs are wet, and there is mist everywhere, getting you wet as well.

Be careful as this makes them more slippery, which is especially apparent when you are heading down.

As you go up the stairs, you will notice how fantastic the views are of the waterfall in front of you. Take your time and pull out to enjoy the views and rest as much as you need.

My favorite view is right before you enter the trees again. From here you will be looking at the falls from a high angle and can often see a rainbow.

Entering the trees takes you to the last portion of stairs, but these are the toughest as well.

These stairs are large and not accommodating for your knees, especially on the way down. You will be feeling it here, but the payoff is worth it.

Continuing on you will reach the cables, which is a narrow section cut out of the rock that you traverse to get to the top of Vernal Falls.

This is a slow area if it is busy as you have to let people pass as they come down.

Reaching the top, you will want to head down to the overlook for Vernal Falls. This area is always popular with lots of people hanging around but just wait your turn, and you will be able to get a good picture.

Make sure to stay behind the railing; people die here every year, and it’s not worth it.

If you want to continue to Nevada Falls or Half Dome (only if you have a permit), you can read more about that here. If not, head back down the way you can and watch out for the slippery stairs.

Video

Here is a 4k video I made from my hike along the Mist Trail.

Even though this hike can be a zoo in the summer, it is still a must do in Yosemite. Make sure it is on your list if you go, it’s worth it.

May Lake: One of Yosemite High Country’s Best Short Hikes

If you are looking for an easy hike with a fantastic payoff on Tioga Pass, then look no further than May Lake. At a quick 2.4 miles round trip (when the road to the trailhead is open), this hike takes you through beautiful scenery on the way up to a stunning high altitude lake, a High Sierra Camp and a fantastic view of the surrounding area. Here is all the information so you can check it out.

Details

  • 2.4 miles
  • 500 feet of elevation gain
  • Road to trailhead not open in the winter
  • Location: Trailhead for May Lake off Tioga Pass Road

Getting There

After entering from the east side of Yosemite National Park, the trailhead is about 20 miles from the fee station. After Olmsted Point, watch for signs for May Lake on the right and then turn onto the one lane road that takes you to the small parking lot at the trailhead. The road is paved but still pretty rugged, and you want to take your time as you will need to pull out to let others pass. If there is no parking at the trailhead or the road to it isn’t open, then you can still hike to May Lake, but you must add 2 miles each way to hike from the road.

The Trail

From the parking area, the trail to May Lake leaves from right next to the pit toilets.

You will start a gradual incline that you will be on for nearly the entire way to the lake.

The trail has sections of roughly hewn rocks that form steps as you make your way up to the trail.

Eventually, the trees will start to disperse a little bit, and you will get great views of Mt Hoffman, which stands above May Lake.

Continuing on you will reach the final push that leads you up to the lake.

This series of switchbacks is the steepest part, but take your time, and you should be able to make it.

When you get to the top of the switchbacks, you will have a fantastic view back the way you came, including seeing Clouds Rest and Half Dome from the backside.

This area is a great place to watch the sunset from if you are staying the night at May Lake.

We watched the sunset here, and it was stunning. From this spot, it is only a 5-minute walk to the lake itself. If you are staying in the High Sierra Camp that is off to the right, and if you are camping that is to the left.

We came when the High Sierra Camp wasn’t open, after getting a backpacking permit and we grabbed a spot right along the water to set up camp.

It was amazing as the lake was still frozen, but there were a bunch of mosquitoes so be sure to bring repellent.

If you are not camping, you can take the added spur up to Mt Hoffman if you are feeling the extra 3.5 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation. If not, head back the way you came and check out a few more of my favorite spots in Yosemite’s High Country like Lembert Dome, Glen Aulin, and Clouds Rest.