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Hiking Mastodon Peak from Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree

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. The trail is a short drive from the park’s south entrance and it’s a great way to kick off your Joshua Tree trip.

We started our Joshua Tree explorations with this hike. We had planned to spend two days in the park, but the wind kicked up on Saturday afternoon and made hiking impossible. As we were approaching the park there was so much sand swirling in the wind we could barely see the road. We decided to detour to Palm Springs until conditions improved. That limited us to only one day in the park, so we had to be strategic with our plans.

We got up early and had breakfast at camp before we hit the trail. If you’re camping at Cottonwood Campground you can leave your car at the campsite and pick-up the trail directly from the campground. This saves you a bit of driving time and you won’t need to fight for parking at the trailhead near the Cottonwood Springs parking lot. While the trail to Mastodon Peak isn’t difficult (only 375-feet of elevation gain), it will get your blood pumping. After hiking the loop check out the other sites on my Joshua Tree Hiking Guide.

Close-up of the fan palms in the Cottonwood Springs oasis on the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail.

Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is from October-May. The desert gets really, really hot (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, and it can be unsafe to hike in Joshua Tree at the peak of the day in these extreme temperatures. If you’re visiting in the winter (December and January) temperatures can dip below freezing, so be sure to bring plenty of layers.

Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in the park. If you are traveling with your best four-legged friend you’ll need to stick to walking on the roads. And if you’re visiting the park on a warm day don’t leave your dog unattended in the car. Honestly, it’s probably best to leave your pet at home when visiting this park.

The Mastodon Peak Loop trail sign from Joshua Tree's Cottonwood Campground

Joshua Tree Park Entrance Fee

In 2020 the Joshua Tree National Park entrance fee was $30 for those without a National Parks pass. The fee is charged per car (not per-person) and the pass is good for 7 days. If you love our parks as much as I do it is totally worth it to get a America the Beautiful annual pass. The annual pass is $80 and it can be used for national parks and national forests throughout the country.

The park and campgrounds are open 24/7, 365-days a year so you can come and go as you please. If you pass through one of the park’s five entrance stations when it is closed know that you may need to pay on your way out of the park.

If you’re on a budget the park has multiple free entrance days every year. In 2020 the free entrance days are:

January 20th

April 18th

August 25th

September 26th

November 11th

Climbing on rocks along the trail to Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree.

Preparing for Desert Hikes in Joshua Tree

Water is hard to come by in the desert and Joshua Tree National Park is no different. Most stops along this route don’t have water fountains or spigots so you should bring extra water in the car with you. It is recommended to pack 2-gallons of water per person. 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).

The desert seems to suck all moisture out of your skin and the sun is extra strong. In addition to extra water, you’ll want to pack a hat and slather on the sunblock. I hate the greasy feeling of sunblock so I choose to wear a light colored, lightweight long-sleeve shirt to protect my skin. I typically wear something like this Columbia button down shirt or this cute, but inexpensive lightweight long-sleeve shirt with UPF 50 protection.

There’s no wifi or cell service in the park. Be prepared with a full tank of gas and a map of the park. The free map that the park provides is a good reference guide, but if you are going to do any significant hiking you’ll want a map of all of Joshua Tree’s trails. The National Geographic Trail Illustrated Guide for Joshua Tree is a great map. It’s what we used and it helped us navigate the trails as well as navigating through the park. And since the park doesn’t offer any wifi or cell service a paper map is essential.

the view from Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree National Park

Hiking Mastodon Peak from Cottonwood Campground

When we hiked the loop to Mastodon Peak in early-March the wildflowers were already blooming and yellow and purple flowers were popping up around all of the amazing rock formations. This trail doesn’t have the namesake alien-like Joshua Trees, but there are plenty of large rock formations and colorful wildflowers.

Pick-up the trail next to campsite 13A. The hike begins as a nature trail. You’ll pass several plaques telling you about the natural vegetation and how the native Cahuilla people used the plants in their daily lives, and as cures for 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.

Mastodon Peak

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. The Mastodon Mine was an old gold mine. You can peek into the old mine shaft and there are still some remnants of the buildings.

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 Mastodon 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!)

Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree National Park

California Fan Palm Oasis and Cottonwood Springs

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! The area surrounding these majestic trees is bustling with life. Birds sing and flit from tree to tree and lizards scurry along the ground. Dead palm fronds hang in layers down the trunks of the palm trees and they are valuable shade and nesting areas for wildlife. It’s amazing how the smallest bit of shade can offer such relief from the desert heat!

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 view of the fan palm oasis from near the Cottonwood Springs parking lot in Joshua Tree National Park.
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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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