6 Beautiful Desert Day Hikes Within Los Angeles County
When it comes to nearby desert hiking, Joshua Tree and its namesake national park deservedly come to mind. At over two hours away, it makes for a great getaway. But such a distance can be an impediment for a desert day hike where starting and ending the day in the comfort of your own home is what you're feeling. Luckily, Los Angeles County shares a swath of the Mojave Desert in the Antelope Valley and that means Joshua trees, wildflowers, and some sweet looking geology are within reach. Here are six classics:
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area in Agua Dulce (Photo by Rennett Stowe via Creative Commons on Flickr)
It's stood in as the home of Vulcans and the Flinstones in popular culture, and, in real life, Tataviam Indians and outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, for which the site is named after. Today, the uplifted, folded angular slabs of sandstone are part of a county park just off the 14 freeway in Agua Dulce. It's not a huge spot, but you can get in over three miles of hiking on its trails, or for something longer, take on a small segment of the 2,300-mile Pacific Crest Trail that passes through the park. It's also a fun spot to explore, scramble on the rocks and picnic. Alcohol is not allowed, but there are two wineries in the neighborhood—Agua Dulce Winery and Reyes Winery—both which allow you to bring in food to picnic.
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, 10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce | Dogs on leash allowed
Stroll the pathways of this city preserve in Lancaster. (Photo by Zach Behrens)
PRIME DESERT WOODLAND PRESERVE
Take a relaxing meander through the nearly three miles of trails in this island of habitat rich in Joshua trees, juniper, and creosote. While not exactly a rugged and remote hike, this 100-acre city park—nestled among suburban development—is a true joy, especially with plenty of jackrabbits hopping about. Bring your binoculars, take in the informative wayside signs and you could easily be here for hours geeking out and becoming an amateur desert naturalist. And since all the trails are wide, flat and graded, it's a great spot for those using strollers and wheelchairs.
Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, 43201 35th Street West, Lancaster. | Dogs not allowed
Hikers walk among flowers on the Lighting Bolt Trail in April 2014 (Photo by Zach Behrens)
ANTELOPE VALLEY CALIFORNIA POPPY RESERVE
The internationally-regarded poppy fields here attract throngs of people to the High Desert. On a good wildflower year, when the western Antelope Valley is carpeted with orange, this place is slammed. Luckily, the reserve boasts several miles of trails (map, .pdf), which means there are opportunities to get away from the crowds if you're willing to put your feet to work. There are two main outer loops: combine the Poppy Trail north and south loops for a little over two miles or hit all three of the park's vista points by combining the Lighting Bolt, Antelope Butte, and Antelope Trail South Loop for a four-mile trek. You could also combine these two for about six miles total. It should be noted that off-trail travel in this park is strictly prohibited for obvious reasons.
If the bloom is peaking (keep an eye out on the Bloom Status section of this page for updates), other good flower spots are found along 110th Street between Avenues G and D (some call this the "Boulevard of Poppies") and at the intersection of Munz Ranch and Lake Elizabeth roads for a scene that looks like this.
And while you're up there, why not take a ride on the musical road?
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, 15101 Lancaster Road (parking fee in effect all year), Lancaster | No Dogs Allowed
A more wild experience in this state park. (Photo by Zach Behrens)
ARTHUR B. RIPLEY DESERT WOODLAND STATE PARK
Like Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, this small state park lacks the mileage and elevation challenges other trails offer. Yet Ripley lets you walk through a wild juniper and Joshua tree forest that's mostly pristine (except those non-native grasses), allowing you to perhaps experience the landscape as Native Americans and explorers saw it before it was plowed to make way for farming. Arthur B. Ripley was a farmer himself, but preserved this 500-acre site, willing it to the state. It's a quiet, off-the-radar park and you can easily have it to yourself (I have twice now). Visit for a nice sunset walk after enjoying the flowers at the aforementioned poppy reserve, a 10-minute drive away.
A view of Saddleback Peak from the Little Butte Trail. (Photo by Zach Behrens)
The most far flung hike in this list, but one of the coolest. Walk among a Joshua tree forest on a 4.5-mile hike to the top of Saddleback Butte and back (start on the Little Butte Trail and connect to the Saddleback Butte Peak Trail—here's a map on page four of his .pdf). When the winter rains are just right, the place can burst with wildflowers, namely yellow coreopsis, as the above photo from 2014 shows. The 360-degree view from the top shows you just how expansive and open the desert can be, and when the San Gabriel Mountains to the south are blanked in snow, that view is much more breathtaking. If you like the setting enough, campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
And a bonus for film nerds: that extremely violent wedding scene in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series was filmed nearby at The Sanctuary Adventist Church. If it's a weekend, also consider visiting the very funky Antelope Valley Indian Museum down the road.
Saddleback Butte State Park, East Avenue J/170th Street East (parking fee in effect year round), Lancaster. | No Dogs Allowed
A rock formation at Devils Punchbowl. (Photo by JefferyTurner via Flickr)
This is an all-time classic Southern California hiking spot at the edge of the desert where it meets the San Gabriel Mountains. And it comes with a number of hiking options, the easiest of which is an amazing one-mile loop 300 feet down into the punchbowl itself, a product of seismic folding just like Vasquez Rocks (this area is an earthquake rift zone, after all). The rock formations you walk among and the meandering Punchbowl Stream here make up for the incredibly short length of the trail. Don't rush through here; take time to scramble and explore the area. I especially loved following the stream off-trail.
For something longer, trek the seven-and-a-half miles roundtrip to Devil's Chair, a vertigo inducing vista spot overlooking the eastern bowl. Devil's Punchbowl is also the start/finish for longer day hikes or backpacking trips in the San Gabriels, including the one-way, 27-mile High Desert National Trail.
If you're interested in learning more about the geology here, Ranger David Numer, who has stood guard over this park for over 40 years, gives talks most Sundays at 1 p.m. (call ahead to make sure). The tour ends with a little drive outside the park to where the San Andreas Fault crosses the road, located nearby on Pallet Creek Road. Take joy in jump skipping between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates!
Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area, 28000 Devil's Punchbowl Road, Pearblossom. | Dogs on Leash Allowed
Zach Behrens is a freelance outdoors writer based in Los Angeles. Follow his adventures on Instagram.