Modern Hiker describes the Maze trail within Joshua Tree National Park as, “difficult to navigate” and warned prospective hikers to allow plenty of time to “course correct” after getting turned around in its many nooks and crannies. It’s not marked on the map handed out to visitors at the entrance stations, nor does any sort of roadside signage denote its trailhead. If you’re looking for no man’s land inside of a popular national park, this is it.
This is the hike Luke selected for our very first foray into the desert.
Yes, we were desert noobs, but we’ve spent enough time hiking in adverse conditions to understand the value of preparedness. We planned for the worst case scenario by topping off our CamelBaks, packing plenty of food, and dressing in layers so that if we had to spend the night in the desert, we would have been 75% prepared to do so.
The seven-mile hike consists of three trails: North View Trail, Maze Loop and Window Rock Loop. It’s relatively flat and easy-going, with only 400 feet of elevation gain. The hardest part is keeping track of the trail among the many washes and slot canyons along the way.
We picked up the North View trailhead a short distance past the four-car parking lot located at miler marker #24. Almost immediately, we trained our eyes to look for placed rocks and logs to help keep us on track. It’s easy to imagine how someone could get lost in this environment; carelessly stray from the trail for a moment and it instantly vanishes into a blur of sand and stone.
As we hiked further into the interior of the park, forests of Joshua Trees stretched to the horizon in every direction. I took the opportunity to hug an elaborately tangled fella and quickly found out how prickly these guys are. Joshua Tree’s trunks are covered with a dusty bark that embeds itself into your clothing. Their leaves are sword-like palm fronds that are stiff and surprisingly sharp. I jokingly poked Luke in the back of the arm with one and it legitimately stung.
About half way through our hike, we entered the Maze Loop, which is essentially a large collection of naturally-occurring rock cairns. Prior to leaving the trail, we selected a cartoonish Joshua Tree topped with a giant yellow bloom as our reference point. We wedged ourselves into narrow slot canyons and scrambled up sticky granite to take in the surrounding landscape. We sat on top of a flat, warm rock for a long time. The only disturbance to our silence and solitude was the occasional strong gust of wind or plane flying overhead.
Eventually, we climbed down from our perch and continued exploring the Maze’s corridors. Every time we’d pop out of the rock and catch a glimpse of the wide-open valley ahead of us, we’d exclaim “WOW!” and snap a couple of pictures. This exercise was repeated several times before we realized the desert’s subtle beauty could not be accurately captured with a wide-angle lens. It’s at its best when viewed in-person through bare eyeballs.
The Window Rock Loop led us through a variety of vegetation. We saw plants that looked dead, but sprouted tiny yellow blooms. Joshua Trees grew that grew in a variety of shapes and sizes: some stood up straight and tall, while others bent over to touch the ground. Many flailed their branches wildly in all directions and a few partied-out Phils tipped over completely.
We returned to our car about four hours after initially setting out. This gave us plenty of time to travel at a leisurely pace and stop whenever we wished to take in the ever-changing view. Hiking the Maze is a great way to see much of what Joshua Tree National Park has to offer in a single day. Just remember to pack the proper essentials for the journey, including a partner with a proper sense of adventure and direction.