Quail Mountain (Joshua Tree National Park)
The hike to the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park feels more like three separate trips: an easy going but long stretch on the California Riding & Hiking Trail, a cross country scramble across a trail-less wash and a short but very steep climb up a ridge to the peak. Unless you are completely confident with your navigational skills seriously consider using some sort of tracking device to record your route (the Map My Hike app saved my butt several times). Hikers not experienced with off-trail routes might want to do this one with a group. The peak’s coordinates are N 34.0072, W 116.2414 and the elevation is 5,816.
From the parking area, follow the spur to the California Riding & Hiking Trail. Turn left and take the trail through Lost Horse Valley. In addition to the Joshua trees you will see junipers, cholla and beaver tail cacti and mesquite creosote. Shortly after the marker indicating trail mile 21, at about the halfway point between the parking area and Juniper Flats, you climb to a ridge where you get your first look at the rounded summit of Quail Mountain to the northwest. San Gorgonio is also visible to the east and as you continue west, San Jacinto comes into view.
At 4.6 miles, turn right at an unsigned junction onto a sandy dirt road. Head north half a mile to a dead end. Quail Mountain is prominent to the northwest, the rightmost of the two major summits that are visible. Also note the rocky mound on your immediate right. Don’t worry about your exact route, especially if you are tracking yourself; just familiarize yourself with the major visual landmarks in both directions and pick a path with which you’re comfortable.
Head north across the wash, keeping the short ridge ahead as your target. Depending on the exact route you take you will reach it in about 0.4 miles. Climb up it or around its west side and descend to a wash. On the opposite side, continue working your way north, now aiming for the long ridge in front of you, the east ridge of Quail Mountain. You descend into another wash and then begin the steep ascent to the ridge. The exact route may vary but your best bet is to use a small, crude trench (look for a row of rocks on the left).
After about 0.2 miles of unrelenting climbing, you reach the ridge. Here your going gets a little easier as you turn left and follow a faint but smooth and well graded trail west to the summit. You may well have to contend with serious winds here though; keep an eye out for a pile of boulders on the right side of the ridge, providing a buffer from the gusts.
Continue climbing west, finally reaching the long, flat summit. The true summit is at the northern end of the peak, but at the southern end there is a summit register. The views from the entire peak are excellent in all directions. After enjoying it all, retrace your steps, preferably with the help of your tracking unit and respecting the steep descent. Even veteran hikers will probably be tired after this journey, but the bragging rights that come with climbing Joshua Tree National Park’s highest summit are worth it.
Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.