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Hiking: Joshua Tree National Park

Mining for History on the Trail

April 21, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Mastodon Peak Trail packs a lot of Joshua Tree National Park sightseeing into a three-mile walk: a cottonwood-shaded oasis, a gold mine and a grand desert view.

Mastodon Peak, named by early prospectors for its behemoth-like profile, was the site of the Mastodon Mine, a gold mine worked intermittently from 1919 to 1932. The gold was of high quality; however, the main body was cut off by a fault.

A mile down the trail from the mine is Winona, where some concrete foundations remain to mark the former mill and little town. Winona was home to workers at the Mastodon mine and the mill, which processed ore from a number of nearby mines.

The path connects to the trail leading to Lost Palms Oasis, an eight-mile round-trip hike (my favorite in the park if I had to choose just one).

Views from elephantine-shaped Mastodon Peak include the Cottonwood Springs area and the Eagle Mountains. Clear-day panoramas extend from Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs to the Salton Sea.

Another short path from the Cottonwood Spring trail head is one-mile-long Moorten's Mill Trail. During the 1930s, "Cactus" Slim Moorten operated a stamp mill that processed ore from mines in the Cottonwood Spring area. After his mining days ended, Moorten turned desert landscaper and developed a reputation for locating and transplanting exotic cactus species during the cactus craze in the early 1950s. Moorten and his wife, Patricia, founded Moorten's Botanical Garden in Palm Springs.

Except for some building foundations and rusted tanks, not much remains of the mill site; however, another historic attraction nearby invites a visit.

In the early 1900s, teamsters drove their mule teams over a stretch of nasty road near Cottonwood Spring known as Little Chilkoot Pass, a comparison to the infamous divide that faced Yukon prospectors faced on the way to the Klondike gold fields in 1898.

The pass--a bypass, really--was built to get over a low cliff in a wash. Even by 1906 accounts it was clear this so-called shortcut wasn't; heavily laden ore wagons and their teams found passage extremely difficult. Misuse of public funds and moronic engineering were two common complaints about the pass. Certainly digging the pass with hand tools must have been quite an ordeal. Beyond the pass are the ruins of Moorten's Mill.

Directions to trail head: Entering Joshua Tree National Park from the south (via Interstate 10), travel eight miles north of the park boundary to Cottonwood Spring Campground. Park at the Cottonwood Spring day use area.

The hike: From the parking area, the path proceeds immediately to Cottonwood Spring, a collection of cottonwoods, California fan palms and cattails crowded around a trickling spring.

The path continues half a mile, following a wash to a junction. Lost Palms Trail heads right, but you take the left fork to ascend Mastodon Peak. A short spur trail leads to the summit. Enjoy the views from Cottonwood Campground just below to the Coachella Valley beyond.

The main trail descends to the shafts and ruins of Mastodon Mine. Another mile of travel brings you to Winona. Some shady trees--including eucalyptus planted by miners--offer a pleasant rest stop. A last quarter-mile brings you to a fork in the road. The right fork leads to the campground; the left fork returns to Cottonwood Spring parking lot.


Mastodon Peak Trail

WHERE: Mastodon Peak and Mastodon Mine.

DISTANCE: 3-mile loop trail with 400-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Cottonwood-lined oasis, rocky peak.

HIGHLIGHTS: Cottonwood Spring, historic mining site, good vistas.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: easy-moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277 or tel.(619) 367-7511.

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