Sunday, December 20, 2015

Joshua Tree - Crown Prince Lookout - December 20, 2015

The amazing beauty of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) always exceeds my expectations in providing superb hikes. It’s been one year since I’ve discovered JTNP and this hike to Crown Prince Lookout is my sixth hike in this incredible high desert landscape. Previously I’ve hiked to an oasis, climbed two 5,000-foot peaks, experienced a wonderful nature trail, and enjoyed a cross country scamper to a massive boulder pile.

A visit with my daughter this weekend in Twentynine Palms for some Christmas festivities yielded one three-hour window for a hike. I needed something short and close so I turned to my three books, and On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush detailed an ideal hike: 3 miles rounds trip, road-trail/cross-country, 181 feet in elevation change, a destination of a 4581-foot boulder mass, and less than 20 minutes from the house.

As I get ready to leave the house in the early afternoon, I’m surprised how fast the weather changed. During the morning it was sunny with a cloudless sky. Now it’s cloudy, foreboding, and cold. I leave the house in Twentynine Palm and head east on Hwy 62, then south on Utah Trail to enter the park from the Oasis Visitor Center/North Entrance. I’m thankful there are no cars in line at the entrance station. I have my park pass and driver’s license ready (I bought another annual pass for $30 yesterday). I enjoy my drive through the picturesque desert landscape. I pass Skull Rock and a minute later pass the entrance to Jumbo Rock Campground, and in another 0.2 mile park on a wide shoulder (north side of road) across the street from the trailhead.

2:15 - Begin hike. The route is an old dirt road that angles southwest from the highway. Several large rocks have been placed along the highway to block the dirt road from vehicle use. It’s cloudy and brisk with a stiff breeze. I may have to add my third layer and knitted gear. This is not my favorite hiking weather. But there is a beauty to the desert. I can see my destination rising from the desert floor to the southeast. In several minutes the route cuts southeast. It gets a lot of foot traffic. The streaked clouds with intermittent sun create a fascinating sky and cast modeled shadows across the desert. The sand is soft beneath my feet. Gawky Joshua trees accent the creosote-dominated landscape. Jumping cholla cactus are so beautify but oh so threatening. In fact, most of the plants out here can inflict pain. Aside from the cold, I’m really enjoying myself. It’s so peaceful. I crest a slight rise and the rocky mass of Crown Prince Lookout strikes a full profile from the desert floor. I see some tiny figures up ahead and soon I realize it’s a couple with two young girls heading back. They are all bundled up and seem to be enjoying themselves.

The route gentle curves east. Interesting rock formations begin to punctuate the scenery. My rocky mass gets bigger and looks intimidating with boulders the size of cars and small houses. At about one mile from the start, adjacent to a large outcropping on the left, the route splits. I take the one to the right heading south. In a few minutes I approach the base of my destination. A use path curves around the east flank of the boulder mass. I’m feeling a little anxious because the massive boulders seem to forbid guests from climbing to the summit, and I’m still humbled by being rejected by Mount Mel a year ago. But the guide says, “A short scramble up (ten vertical feet) the rocks leads to a more obvious trail.” So I’m banking on it. The trail reaches a gentle ridgeline projecting east from the rock pile providing a splendid panorama south.

I decide it’s time to put on my third layer and a beany and gloves. Why not be more comfortable?

The path curves west and leads to a shire rock face. A crease jutting to the right behind a rock face appears to be what the trail guide describes. Up I climb. It’s not bad. I’m thankful for long legs and gloves. At the top a clear path heads west toward the top. I’m relieved and excited. The huge boulder pile is basically flat on top and so my gentle route takes me toward the highpoint. The views are amazing. A vast desert sprawls out before me. In about 150 yards I reach the top.

3:05 - Crown Prince Lookout (4581’). Wow, this is great! The lookout point is on the south edge of the large mesa-like summit. There is a 3 by 3 foot concrete block which provided the foundation for the lookout structure. The book says it was an airplane warning station possibly built during World War II. However, one concrete footing indicates 1961. At any rate, it is easy to see way this location would be selected as a strategic vantage point. The 360 degree panorama is stunning.

It’s too cold to mess with getting my maps out to see if I can identify landmarks. I recognize Ryan Mountain (5457-61’) silhouetted to the west. I climbed it a year ago as my first peak in the park. To the southwest I recognize Malapai Hill (4280), a volcanic dome rising sharply from the floor of Queen Valley. I’m guessing that highpoint on the northern horizon is Queen Mountain (5677’). I walk toward the northern edge and soon am greeted by a jumbled assortment of huge boulders between me and the northern rim. I attempt to find a manageable route but soon realize that it will take some serious bouldering to get over there. So I’m content with where I am.

I shoot photos in all directions. Then the sun on the western horizon dips below the cloud layer and relights the whole setting. I have to shoot the photos all over again, now in wonderful lighting. If it was warm and I had more time, I could easily spend a long time up here. The desert beauty is spectacular.

3:41 - Leave summit. Climbing down the 10-foot crease in the boulders is a little more tricky than climbing up, but not bad. I circle back around to the north side of the rocky mass and explore some. It looks like any approach to climbing Crown Prince from the north would require rock climbing expertise. I wander off trail some to photograph amazing rock formations from different angles. The sun creates wonderful lighting. Wispy clouds add beauty to the sky. I’m so intrigued by the surreal landscape. It’s so different from my San Gabriels. The moon, high in the southeast sky, stands stark against a deep blue backdrop.

Back on the trail, I retrace my steps. I see tiny figures climbing on the rock formations to near east. As the sun dips near the horizon, I’m on the lookout for the best vantage point to capture the sunset. I look back over my shoulder often to see to Crown Prince in different lighting. The surrounding beauty mesmerizes me. I take a number of shots of the disappearing sun and hope I get something that captures the beauty of a desert sunset. The sun vanishes at 4:31 and immediately the lighting is dramatically different.

I saunter slowly and soak in the stunning scenery. Gangly Joshua trees stand silhouetted against the twilight sky. A pinkish strand highlights the horizon. The moon gets brighter. The air is brisk. I ponder the words to describe this amazing setting. The sound of cars on the road ahead is a sign that my adventure is nearly over. I take a final shot of distant Crown Prince before crossing the street to my car.

4:42 - End hike.

Epilog - What a superb hike! It was only a short scamper across the desert to a boulder pile, but immensely enjoyable. A splendid route, amazing scenery, picturesque rock formations, intriguing plants, sweeping panoramas, beautiful clouds, satisfying destination, lovely sunset, and welcome solitude. What a thoroughly enjoyable hike. I am eager to return for my next adventure in JTNP. icon

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  1. Hi, Dan,

    Got another short one for you in Joshua Tree, the next time you've just got a few hours: Contact Mine. I think it's in your "Afoot" book; I think the ranger at the gate mentioned that. But it was easy enough to find on my own, just from the very low-resolution National Geographic / Trails Unlimited map.

    1. Thank you, SkyHiker! Looks like a good hike to add to my list.