Friday, June 10, 2016

Ryan Mountain

Pinto Basin and Little San Bernardino Mountains from Ryan Mountain 
3 miles, 1100 feet round trip
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road, $20 entrance fee for Joshua Tree National Park

Ryan Mountain sits near the heart of California's Joshua Tree National Park, offering hikers a bird's eye view not only of the park's distinctive Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems but also, seemingly, of all the vast expanses of desert of Southern California. An added bonus is that this airy viewpoint is not difficult to reach: most hikers in reasonably okay shape who bring plenty of water will be able to reach this summit. It is an unmissable hike for any visitor to the park.

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses mountains, mines, and two distinctive desert ecosystems. The Colorado Desert, or the low desert, forms the eastern half of the park and contains none of the park's namesake yucca; instead, the drier and hotter landscape is dominated by cholla cactus, ocotillo, and creosote. The Mojave Desert, or high desert, is home to the Joshua Tree, a yucca named for its outstretched arms which reminded early Mormon settlers of the Biblical Joshua praying. Ryan Mountain lies within the Mojave Desert, but is situated close enough to the boundary between the two to offer sweeping views of both areas. The mountain is easily recognizable from most of the park: it towers over the flat Mojave Desert, towering over the forests of Joshua Trees found along the Park Boulevard.

Ryan Mountain amidst the Joshua Trees, seen from Keys View Road

I hiked this trail on a crisp, clear November day on a day visit to Joshua Tree. The trailhead is accessible either by driving in via the Park Boulevard from Twentynine Palms or Joshua Tree, or by driving in from the Pinto Basin Road from the park's southern entrance. Accessing either approach from the Los Angeles metropolitan area requires following I-10 east into Coachella Valley. Most visitors come by the Park Boulevard from Joshua Tree, which is the fastest route; I came from the Pinto Basin Road, which is far less traveled but undeservedly so. The Pinto Basin is quite a remarkable landscape and it's certainly worth the extra time to drive in from the south to explore the rest of the park. When I reached the junction between the Pinto Basin Road and the Park Boulevard, I turned left on the Park Boulevard in the direction of Joshua Tree rather than Twentynine Palms, and followed the road until I reached the trailhead for Ryan Mountain, which from this direction was on the left side of the road.

Heading south from the parking area, the trail immediately began climbing up the slopes of Ryan Mountain, passing some large rocks near the trailhead. The trail soon began to climb along the west face of the mountain, ascending up the side of the slope with views of the flat desert to the west of Ryan Mountain and of the Wonderland of Rocks, the fascinating jumble of monzogranite in the northwest of the park. The hike was quite popular, with heavy traffic going both ways, so I was glad that the trail was fairly wide as it traversed Ryan Mountain's slopes.

Wonderland of Rocks and the forest of Joshua Trees
As I ascended along the trail, there were consistent good views to the right. Huge rock buttresses on the west side of Ryan Mountain framed a view of the high desert and of Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peaks, which peeked out over the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Mojave desert from Ryan Mountain
As the trail climbed along the side of Ryan Mountain, it began curving to the left into a gully. The views shrunk away and I began focusing on my local environs: the desert slopes were dotted with creosote and yucca. As the trail winded its way up the gully and began to approach the summit ridge, views reappeared of Queen Mountain to the north.

Queen Mountain and the ravine approach to Ryan Mountain
The hike ended with a final push uphill along the broad ridge back of Ryan Mountain up to its summit. The wide dirt trail here cut through the low-lying desert vegetation with newly opened views to the east of part of the Mojave Desert and the Pinto Basin in the distance.

Approaching the summit
In just over a half hour's hiking from the trailhead, I arrived at the summit, which was marked by a large and growing pile of rocks. The 360-degree panorama was stunning: it felt as if I could see the entirety of Joshua Tree National Park from the summit (which is nearly true!). Both the Colorado and the Mojave Deserts were visible, as were the two tallest peaks in Southern California, Gorgonio and San Jacinto. Cholla and yucca decorated the mountain's flat top.

San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Peaks from Ryan Mountain
One particularly impressive part of the view was of the Pinto Basin to the east. Although hard to tell from ground level, from Ryan Mountain I was able to make out the gentle slope of the basin.

Pinto Basin
Although there aren't many hiking trails in Pinto Basin, it is a fascinating place to drive through: it's a good place to see the spindly-armed ocotillo and the fluffy-looking but deadly sticky cholla. I highly recommend that you include a stop in Pinto Basin in any trip to Joshua Tree.

Cholla Cactus Garden in the Pinto Basin
After enjoying the views from the top for a while, I returned the trailhead by the way I came.

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