Hikers know that the best views usually aren't found by following short, paved trails to official park overlooks. Keys View is a case in point. Arguably the best in Joshua Tree National Park, it has magnificent vistas by any standard; however, the vistas are even better from adjacent Inspiration Peak.
At 5,558 feet, Inspiration Peak is a bit higher than such well-known summits as Warren Peak, Eureka Peak and Ryan Mountain, and the view offered is unequaled. A short but steep climb to Inspiration Peak rewards the hiker with all the vistas available from Keys View plus additional panoramas of the national park and a glimpse of the mountains in Mexico.
The drive out to Keys View is enjoyable and passes right by Cap Rock, one of the park's most intriguing rock formations.
Perched atop a monolithic dome is a boulder resembling the bill on a baseball cap. It's well worth the short hike. Signs along the level, paved, wheelchair-accessible Cap Rock Nature Trail interpret what author Mary Austin called a "Land of Little Rain."
Bone dry as this land is, it's certainly not lifeless. Mormon tea, Mojave yucca and peach thorn grow alongside cholla and beaver-tail cactus. The path loops among boulder formations and affords good views of Cap Rock and the many climbers who scale it.
Keys View and Inspiration Peak are perched on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, a mellow-looking range when seen from the north side. From the crest, however, they appear anything but gentle as the south side plunges thousands of feet toward the Coachella Valley.
Clear-day views encompass the Coachella Valley, the Salton Sea shimmering at its south end. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains (crowned by 10,804-foot San Jacinto Peak) form the valley's far wall. Mighty Mt. San Gorgonio (11,502 feet), the Southland's highest peak, is seen to the northwest.
It's often breezy atop Keys View and Inspiration Peak, and when smog obscures Palm Springs and its desert suburbs, I'm overtaken with the urge to send some fresh air down below. Park service displays explain the local effects of air pollution on the Coachella Valley, the park and the Keys View panorama.
The hike: Join the paved path to Keys View and partake of the its fine vistas. Retrace your steps and locate Inspiration Peak Trail, signed by a hiker symbol, on the north side of the parking lot.
As you ascend steeply above Keys View, ever more expansive vistas unfold. Continue past Inspiration Peak's first summit to a higher one, crowned by dark boulders.
Directions to trail head: From California 62 in Joshua Tree (the town) drive five miles south on Park Boulevard to the national park's west entrance. Continue 15 miles to a junction and turn right on Keys View Road. The parking area for Cap Rock is 0.1 mile down the road from the intersection on the left (east) side of Keys View Road. To reach the Keys View trail head, continue south six more miles to road's end and parking.
John McKinney is the author of "Day Hiker's Guide to California's State Parks" (Olympus Press, $14.95)
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Cap Rock Nature Trail, Inspiration Peak Trail
Where: Joshua Tree National Park.
Distance: Loop around Cap Rock is 0.4 mile round trip; from Keys View to Inspiration Point is 1.5 miles round trip with 400-foot elevation gain.
Terrain: Breezy crest of Little San Bernardino Mountains.
Highlights: Learn Mojave Desert natural history, enjoy one of the park's best vistas.
Degree of difficulty: Easy.
For more information: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277; tel. (760) 367-5500.