You don't have to look far to see a palm tree in Southern California. Freeways, boulevards, beaches and parks are lined with them. But these are pruned and pampered imports. To see a Washingtonia filifera, the native California fan palm, in its natural habitat you have to journey to the desert.
George Washington is more often associated with cherry trees than with desert flora, so perhaps it was with a bit of whimsy that botanists named a palm after him. The Washington palm is the state's, in fact the nation's, only native palm and is found naturally only in oases scattered in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
One of the most beautiful of Southern California's palm oases is Lost Palms in Joshua Tree National Monument. This Shangri-La in the south end of the national monument has a handsome grove of Washington palms. A fine trail leads to the oasis.
There's something undeniably silly about a palm tree, and it's easy to see why Mark Twain described it as "a feather duster struck by lightning." Palms sway in the wind like beautiful but uncoordinated hula girls. The droopy dead leaves form a ground-length skirt that distinguishes the native California fan palm from other varieties, and depending on your point of view, makes them appear half-naked or half-dressed.
Lost Palms Oasis Trail passes through a cactus garden, crosses a number of desert washes, and takes you to the two southern oases in Joshua Tree National Monument: Cottonwood and Lost Palms. President's Day--or any other clear winter day--is a fine time to visit the Washington palms.
Directions to trail head: Joshua Tree National Monument is reached off Interstate 10, east of Indio. Enter the south end of the Monument, follow the park road eight miles to Cottonwood Spring Campground, and park your car there. The trail head is at the end of the campground.
The hike: Leaving Cottonwood Spring Campground, the trail ambles through a low-desert environment of green-trunked palo verde trees, ironwood and cottonwood trees, spindly ocotillo plants and cholla cactus.
The trail crosses a sandy wash and, after half a mile, arrives at Cottonwood Spring Oasis. The largely man-made oasis was once a popular overnight stop for freight haulers and prospectors during the mining years of 1870 to 1910. Travelers and teamsters journeying from Banning to the Dale Goldfield east of Twentynine Palms rested at the oasis. Teamsters planted the trees that gave this oasis its name.
From Cottonwood Spring, the trail marches over sandy hills, past heaps of huge rocks and along sandy draws and washes. Park service signs point the way at possibly confusing junctions. Finally, you rise above the washes and climb to a rocky outcropping overlooking the canyon harboring Lost Palms Oasis. From the overlook, descend the steep path around the boulders to the palms.
More than 100 palms are in the deep canyon. Little surface water is present at Lost Palms Oasis, but enough is underground for the palms to remain healthy. Lost Palms remained relatively untouched throughout the mining years, though some of its water was pumped to settlements eight miles to the south at Chiriaco Summit. Next to Lost Palms Canyon is a handsome upper canyon called Dike Springs.
The sheer tranquility of this oasis often lulls tired day hikers to sleep. Hikers who are insomniacs might try counting sheep. Shy and reclusive desert Bighorn sheep are often seen around this oasis--particularly in hot weather, when they need water more often.
After enjoying a peaceful nap, return the same way.
Lost Palms Oasis Trail
Cottonwood Springs Campground to Lost Palms Oasis: eight miles round-trip; 300-foot elevation gain.