Rarely visited Saddleback Butte State Park, located on the eastern fringe of Antelope Valley, offers an easily reached but out-of-the-way destination for a day hike.
This is high-desert country, a land of creosote bush and Joshua trees. Seventy-five miles north of Los Angeles, the park takes the name of its most prominent feature--3651-foot Saddleback Butte, a granite mountaintop that towers above the Antelope Valley.
The spartan country around once supported thousands of pronghorn antelope--hence the name Antelope Valley--and the numerous Indian tribes who hunted them. The antelope are all gone now, victims to hunting and encroaching civilization. But today's park visitor may still glimpse other animals native to the valley, including coyotes, jack rabbits, lizards and the Antelope Valley ground squirrel. Some fortunate hikers may even witness the unhurried progress of a desert tortoise.
Before you hike to the top of the butte, you may wish to walk the short nature trail located near the park entrance. It's a good introduction to the Joshua tree and other plant life found in this corner of the desert.
The trail to the boulder-strewn summit of Saddleback Peak takes a straight-line course, with most of the elevation gain occurring in the last half mile. Atop the peak, the hiker is rewarded with see-forever desert views.
Directions to the trailhead: From Highway 14 (Antelope Valley Freeway) in Lancaster, take the 20th Street exit. Head north on 20th and turn east (right) on Avenue J Drive for about 18 miles, past barren land and farmland, to Saddleback Butte State Park. Follow the dirt park road to the campground, where the trail begins. Park near the trail sign. There's a $2 state park day use fee.
The hike: The signed trail heads straight for the saddle. The soft, sandy track, marked with yellow posts (this may be the best marked trail in the state park system), leads through an impressive Joshua tree woodland.
With the exception of pathfinder John C. Fremont, who called them "the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom," most travelers have found Joshua trees to be quite picturesque. Mormon pioneers thought that the tree's outstretched limbs resembled the prophet Joshua pointing to the promised land.
After 1 1/2 miles, the trail begins to switchback steeply up the rocky slope of the butte. An invigorating climb brings you to the saddle of Saddleback Butte. To reach Saddleback Peak, follow the steep leftward trail to the summit.
From the top, you can look south to the San Gabriel Mountains. You may be able to spot Mt. Baldy, lording over the eastern end of the range. At the base of the mountains, keen eyes will discern the California Aqueduct, which carries water to the Southland from the Sacramento Delta. To the east is the vast Mojave Desert, to the north is Edwards Air Force Base. To the west are the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale and farther west, the Tehachapis.
Return the same way.
Meanderings: If you visit Saddleback Butte State Park on the second weekend of any month, plan a stop at nearby Antelope Valley Indian Museum. The museum houses an eclectic collection of artifacts, including rugs, baskets and kachinas. The museum emphasizes the culture and heritage of Southwest and California Indians.
To reach the museum from the state park, head 3 miles south on 170th St. East. Turn right on Avenue M and drive a mile to the museum. You can next visit the museum between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13-14.
For more information about either the museum or park, call the state parks' High Desert Area Headquarters: (805) 942-0662.
Campground to Saddleback Peak: 4 miles roundtrip; 1000-foot elevation gain.