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Mastodon Peak Loop: Joshua Tree National Park

This 3-mile loop to Mastodon Peak in iconic Joshua Tree National Park features a palm oasis, an abandoned mine, and spectacular views of the Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley. While this trail isn’t difficult (only 375-feet of elevation gain), it will get your blood pumping. The hot desert sun seems to make any physical activity more difficult, so unless you’re hiking in the winter you’ll want to start your hike in the early morning or late afternoon.

What to Bring

Hikers should be prepared with plenty of water and some salty snacks, especially if you are hiking between 11am-3pm. The desert sun is very powerful so you’ll also want to pack a hat, sunblock, or a light-colored, lightweight long sleeve shirt (to use in lieu of sunblock).

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.

Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.

the view from Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree National Park

The Mastodon Peak Trail in Joshua Tree

When we hiked this loop in early-March the wildflowers were already blooming and yellow and purple flowers were popping up around all of the amazing rock formations.

The hike starts as a nature trail. You’ll pass several plaques telling you about the natural vegetation and how the native people used the plants to cure common illnesses. The trail soon leads uphill and you’ll climb a series of rock stairs. Shortly after summiting the first hill, the trail drops down into a wide, sandy wash and meets up with the main trail. We briefly lost the trail while walking through the wash, but it is difficult to get too lost. Remember starting from the campground, you’ll be hiking in the opposite direction of most of the other hikers, so when you see trail marker arrows you’ll go in the opposite direction from where the arrow is pointing.)

You’ll stay on the main trail and travel through the wash a bit, before going uphill again and passing by an old mine site. As you approach the mine, Mastodon Peak will come into view and you’ll start getting views of the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. At mile 1.2 you’ll reach a junction where you can go left and take an unmaintained trail up to the top of the peak, or you can continue straight on the trail following signs for Cottonwood Springs. Even if you choose not to take a short side trail to the top of the peak, the views from this junction are outstanding!

The last .9 miles to Cottonwood Springs is an easy downhill stroll. Most of the path is made of stone stairs and there are plenty of unique rock formations to admire. This section of the trail might be crowded with hikers who started the trail at the Cottonwood Springs parking area. It seems like a lot of people do a small section of the trail instead of the full loop. (They don’t know what they’re missing!)

When the fan palm oasis comes into view you’ll wonder if it is a mirage! It is so strange to see this abundance of palm trees in the middle of the desert!

Just after passing the palm oasis you’ll come to the Cottonwood Springs parking lot.  Head straight through the parking lot to pick-up the trail again and follow signs for the Cottonwood Campground, it is a short half-mile back to the camp.

The Trailhead

This route begins at the Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, but you can also begin this hike at the Cottonwood Springs trailhead (noted by the Parking symbol on the map). There are trailheads at both loops of the campground. Look for the trail markers at the far end of the loop (directly opposite of where you enter and exit the campground loop). There is running water and flush toilets at the campground.

The Route

The trail from Cottonwood Campground leads briefly uphill before dropping down into a wide, sandy wash and meeting up with the main trail. Continue straight on the main trail through the wash and follow the arrows You’ll stay on the main trail and travel through the wash a bit, before starting to climb uphill again. The trail passes an old mine site. As you approach the mine, Mastodon Peak will come into view and you’ll start getting views of the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. At mile 1.2 you’ll reach a junction where you can go left and take an unmaintained trail for .1 mile to the top of the peak, or you can continue straight on the trail following signs for Cottonwood Springs. The last .9 miles to Cottonwood Springs is an easy downhill stroll. Most of the path is made of stone stairs and there are plenty of unique rock formations to admire. At the bottom of the hill you'll reach the palm oasis and the trail will continue to the Cottonwood Springs parking lot. Head straight across the parking lot to pick-up the trail again and follow signs for the Cottonwood Campground. The trail will follow the road for a bit before turning right and heading back in the direction of camp. It is a short half-mile back to the camp.

Other Details

If you want to learn more, check out my ultimate one-day Joshua Tree itinerary with all of the best Joshua Tree hikes.

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