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Hike Black Rock Canyon and Warren Peak, CA

Hike Distance: 8.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 1690 ft elevation gain.

Prominence: 343 ft Warren Peak

Click here for a review of prominence and its role in mountain topography

An satellite view of the hike from the Under Armour MapMyRun app.

When it's over 100°F in Palm Desert, the best way to beat the heat is to travel to the higher elevations of Joshua Tree National Park. In our case we traveled to Black Rock Canyon which is tucked away in the northwest corner of the park. We've been exploring Joshua Tree for more than 5 years and had never visited this area.

From the parking lot we followed the signs for Panorama Loop /Warren Park. The trail started off in a wide, flat, sandy floor at the lower end of Black Rock Canyon.

We were heading toward the ridge left of center.

At a starting elevation of 3,800 ft for this hike, it wasn’t surprising that Joshua trees were the dominant species by size on the canyon floor. The elevational distribution of Joshua Tree habitats varies from 2,500 to 7,500 ft, but maximum development typically occurs above 3,300 ft. and we were hiking in that sweet spot.

These shaggy, spiny trees are found only in the Mojave Desert located in southeastern California and southern Nevada with bits in Arizona and Utah. As desert residents they are reasonably adapted to dry conditions but will struggle through the decade long megadrought that is predicted.

Whenever it rains in the Mojave Desert, these trees absorb water in their cork-like trunks and conserve that water for years. But it has been several years since the park experienced its historic average of annual precipitation of four inches per year. The older established trees are stressed and will survive but they'll produce fewer seedlings and the ones they do produce now aren't surviving. Their fragile root system can not survive the double stressors of extreme heat and drought.

The question now is, will these iconic trees survive climate change? Biologists have already noticed a one-inch per year migration of the mighty trees to higher elevations and westward toward the Pacific Ocean but can they outrun climate change?

Although Joshua trees were the dominant plant species, the bulk of plant life consisted of a variety of widely spaced desert shrubs such as the Engelmann's Hedgehog (Mojave Mound Cactus), prickly pear and cholla cactus.

Like Joshua trees, these ‘hoarders’ store and conserve water in their stems and then use that water during drought conditions.

A silver cholla basking in the sun.

This cholla wasn't as lucky, all that remains are its spine-covered skeleton.

After 1 mile walking through the sandy wash, the trail began to narrow and ....

.... the walls steepened as we entered a ravine and the start of the Panoramic Loop trail. We decided to follow the Loop trail in a clockwise direction.

Although not a towering canyon, there was some impressive rock formations in the canyon. These rocks were not like the piles of massive, rounded, light-colored granite boulders found elsewhere in the park, hence the name ‘Black Rock’ canyon. These banded rocks, visible in the lower left, are gneiss which are some of the oldest rocks in Joshua Tree.

Gneiss is a metamorphic rock formed by high amounts of heat and pressure that occur deep in the Earth's crust. With directed pressure, mineral grains segregate and band together; this alternate banding of light and dark minerals is what defines a gneiss. Gneiss typically forms at convergent plate boundaries where the heat and pressure from two plates colliding (i.e. San Andreas fault network) is enough to recrystallize the minerals into the bands that define gneiss. Now back to the hike.

Now that we were hiking at an elevation greater than 4000 ft, the isolated Joshua trees were joined by piñon pines and junipers.

Fun Fact: Juniper is the only botanical which is in all gins. The cones of the juniper bush (often referred to as 'juniper berries') are required by legal statute, to be present and perceptible, in order for a spirit to be called gin.

Junipers have a three-year fruiting cycle. They produce flowers the first year and green berries appear the next. The berries ripen and turn blue from September to October of their third year. So each mature plant will have some combination of green and blue berries in any given year. Looks like no gin from this juniper yet!

At 2.5 miles, we had hiked out of the canyon and followed the trail as it climbed a series of switchbacks up to a rocky ridge.

As we climbed out of the canyon floor, the views kept getting better with each step.

We had outstanding view of Mount San Jacinto, the second highest mountain in Southern California.

The trail which led across this narrow ridge line provided views in every direction. We were heading to the unnamed 5,195 foot peak (left of center).

With an incline of > 25%, it was definitely steeper than it first appeared.

At the top and time for a selfie and then lunch.

Looking back at the ridge trail.

View looking to the west of the San Bernardino Mountains with Mount San Gorgonio (center) standing tall. San Gorgonio at 11,503 ft is the tallest peak in Southern California. Summiting this mountain has been on my bucket list for a number of years. However, timing the hike with our travel plans to California has been tough, but it finally worked out. Click here to navigate to the San Gorgonio blog.

Views looking north at the wide canyon floor and the town of Yucca Valley.

From the peak, the trail headed steadily downhill.

Once off the ridge, the floor broadened and we entered a Joshua Tree Woodlands environment at around 4,500 feet. It's not unusual to find scattered pinyon pines at higher elevations with Joshua trees. The pines and Joshua Trees were both immense.

It was around this time that we decided to climb Warren Peak, the pyramidal peak in the center.

Around the mile 4 mark, the trail to Warren Peak branched off from the Panoramic Loop Trail. It was a short but steep 0.7 miles through a sandy wash to the base of the peak and then a rocky climb to the summit. If you look closely at this photo, you can see an individual standing on the summit.

Getting closer.

Standing on the 5,103 ft summit.

A nice view to the east looking out at this remote section of Joshua Tree National Park. You can see the trail leading to Warren Peak as it traces the fold between the hills surrounding the peak.

Another summit survey marker photo captured and recognition of a great travel blogger, Claire, on Twitter @TheDetourEffect.

From the peak, it was a 3-mile hike back to the trail head. The terrain was similar to what we experienced earlier so there aren't any additional pics to include. It was an fun exploring a new area of Joshua Tree National Park and definitely recommend it if you want to escape the typical crowds at Joshua Tree National Park.

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