Joshua Tree National Park (JOTR) is much like Death Valley in that there were a lot of little roads and trails and other types of vehicle access routes running all over the joint back in the days before it was made a park, and some of those trails still exist today.
Not too long ago, I made the wise decision to buy an old beater pickup truck. BeaterTruck™ has a few things that make it fantastic for exploring 4×4 trails: It’s got great tires, skid plates and low-range 4×4 gearing that make it damn near unstoppable. And it’s already cosmetically challenged – no need to worry about scratchin’ the paint.
JOTR is a big park; not as enormous as Death Valley, but to drive from the north gate to the south takes a bit more than an hour. I spent the better part of a day driving most of the 4×4 trails in the park, and came away with two favorites: Geology Tour Road and Pinkham Canyon Road. Here’s a brief rundown of each.
Geology Tour Road (GTR) is near the center of the park and features a nifty little one-way loop section in the center where you can then double back to where you started, or continue south out of the park via Berdoo Canyon Road. GTR starts out as a fairly mellow, well-maintained gravel road when you first turn off Park Boulevard, but becomes a bit more rutted and uneven as you continue on.
Once you start to dip into Pleasant Valley (who doesn’t love Pleasant Valley?) there’s a sign warning that 4×4 is recommended beyond. I never needed to shift into 4-wheel drive on this road, but there are more than a few spots where extra ground clearance was needed.
The one-way loop section of GTR is probably a little sketchier if you’ve got one of those froofy-froo trucks with shiny paint that can’t handle a tree scrape or two. Needless to say, BeaterTruck made that part the most fun; cholla cactus, prickly pear and lots of desert scrub will caress your mirrors and fenders as you gawk at the gorgeous views. I took the loop back to Park Boulevard, but can’t wait to go back again to see what Berdoo Canyon Road has to offer. GTR, being in the middle of the park and well marked, did have a fair number of other visitors roaming on it the day I was there (middle May), but no cell service (AT&T) anywhere on the road.
Pinkham Canyon Road (PCR) is on the quieter south end of the park, and is a bit more of a commitment in time, distance and necessary 4×4 capability.
PCR’s entrance is directly opposite the Cottonwood Visitor Center and is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. It starts out as a pretty narrow little two track with lots of runoff dips and whoop-de-doos, spots for tree scrapes, then devolves further with soft, sandy sections where 4-wheel drive is not necessarily required, but highly advised.
I ran 4-wheel drive the whole time, mainly because in the three hours I was on PCR, I didn’t see another soul and there is no cell service (AT&T) anywhere on this trail. The western half of the trail gets a bit rocky in a few sections, which put BeaterTruck’s skid plates to use once or twice. That said, there weren’t any spots that I needed 4-wheel drive low gears, so you could probably do PCR in a small AWD SUV without much trouble if you’re a better driver than I am and can pick your way around the rocks.
PCR runs along the northern edge of the Cottonwood Mountains and teases with the thought of maybe going up into the hills at a few points. But it stays mostly level and sneaks around the western edge of the hills via a little escape route in a canyon, where I stopped for a little dinner picnic (photo above).
My only real beef about Pinkham Canyon Road is on the western/southern end; PCR ends just outside of the park where it meets with a fairly well-graded dirt road that features no signs whatsoever telling you where you are or where you might go. Interstate 10 is right nearby and runs parallel to this road, but you’re expected to drive all the way back to Pinto Basin Road. I cheated and found a hole cut in the fence near the I-10 rest stop and snuck onto the freeway there.
That minor beef aside, Pinkham Canyon Road is a neat trail and well worth the time and vehicle abuse. I’d like to run it again and check out Thermal Canyon Road, which gives an alternate exit out the park when running east to west.