There are nearly 800,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park, and they’re full of the prickly, eponymous trees that reminded Mormon pioneers of the Old Testament prophet Joshua, stretching his arms toward the Promised Land. Despite the acreage, the park has no singular, must-see landmark, no Delicate Arch or Half Dome or Old Faithful to plaster on postcards and magnets in the gift shops. Even the cover of the 1987 U2 album is a non-descript landscape (in 2011, two people died of heat illness trying to locate the exact spot). So when I arrived at the west entrance of the park, I didn’t know exactly where I was supposed to go to get the real Joshua Tree experience.
I’d researched a few hikes online, but when I stopped at the visitor’s center for a map, I decided to ask a ranger for her recommendation. “What’s a good hike?” I asked, expecting her to point me toward one of the prominently marked trails. But she asked, “Do you want to do a secret trail?”
She directed me to Pine City, a backcountry trail not even marked on the official NPS map. To reach it, I had to veer off the main Park Boulevard onto an unpaved road so long, at one point I wasn’t sure I’d taken the right path. Before turning off the main, paved road, I had passed several convenient and even picturesque turnouts and parking lots full of minivans and SUVs with kids scrambling over boulders. But once I reached the remote Pine City trailhead, I found only two other vehicles in the lot.
The trail wound north into the wilderness area of the park – if I’d been planning on doing anything longer than a day hike, I would have needed a backcountry permit. After crossing several arroyos, and encountering only four or five other hikers, I came to a playground of large boulders that were like an archipelago in the desert. These islands of rough granite were broken up to form nooks and walls, slots and passages. It was hard to imagine any place in Joshua Tree National Park being as fun to explore.
I was reminded of my senior in high school, when some friends and I drove to Moab, Utah to bike Slickrock and visit Arches National Park. Our first night there, we left our campground and drove into Moab for some pizza. My friend asked our waitress, a 20-something local, “What’s fun to do around here?” When she began telling us about Arches and Slickrock, my friend interrupted and said, “No. What do high school kids do here on the weekend?”
“Oh,” said the waitress. “Well, there’s the rope swing under the Colorado River Bridge. And if you follow Powerhouse Lane up into the canyon, there’s a swimming hole and waterfall – kids jump off the cliffs into the water there.” Neither of these are listed on the Arches National Park maps, or promoted by Moab’s Tourism Office. We only discovered them by talking to one of the locals.
I’m 40 now, and have no desire to find hidden rope swings or cliff dive into swimming holes. But talking to the ranger at the Joshua Tree visitors center set me on a trail I never would have discovered if I’d followed the map and looked for the postcard icons. It reminded that the best resource for a good experience isn’t the official map or a tour book. It’s the people who’ve taken the time to explore the land again and again.
If you want an Instagram moment, a background monument to check off your list, just follow the crowds. But for a path less traveled, and probably more spectacular, talk to the locals.
Note on photographer: Rob Hollenbeck is a creative director and outdoor enthusiast who tries to spend as much time outside as he does kerning type.