Backpacking to Munsen Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park has been a personal dream of mine for some time now. Though I’ve camped and hiked there a couple times in the previous year, I had never been able to work out the logistics for a real backpacking trip- mostly because I couldn’t find a specific destination that seemed worthy of the extra effort required for desert backpacking. It’s no easy task to carry all that extra water (at least twice as much as is required elsewhere), and I didn’t feel like taking the plunge wander around in an alien landscape that I could just as easily explore on day hikes from a comfortable campsite. I love backpacking, and especially difficult trips, but I’m not out to get myself killed.

Victory Palms Trailhead Oasis - Joshua Tree National Park

Desert Fan Palms Near The Lost Palms Oasis Trailhead

But the Backpacking Gods had other plans for me, and they led Sean to strike gold a couple weeks back by forcing him upon a day hiking trip report detailing some dude’s adventure to Munsen Oasis- the most secluded and difficult to access of all of Joshua Tree’s Desert Fan Palm Oases. Munsen Oasis  instantly became our personal Shangri-La. The trail would be arduous, the water scarce, and all the boulder fields immense, but we didn’t care. We prepared for an arduous adventure, and we found it in spades.

Ocotillo Plants on the Way to Victory Palms - Joshua Tree

Ocotillos Along Joshua Tree National Park’s Lost Palms Oasis Trail

Joining us on this trip was our good friend Tommy, who made the journey all the way down to Southern California from Sacramento. Whenever we gear up for epic trips, Tommy seems to be the only one brave enough to throw himself into the mix. He was with us on last Summer’s absolutely breathtaking trip through the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon and Sequoia Natonal Parks, and I was glad that he could join us for this one too. I’m not sure I would advise doing this trip with any less than three people either, as there are simply too many opportunities for serious injuries, and a two man team would mean leaving an injured man behind, by himself, if something truly terrible were to happen. The Desert is no place to tempt Fate.

Rock Formations along the Lost Palms Oasis Trail - Joshua Tree

Interesting Rock Formations on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail

We arrived at Joshua Tree long after nightfall on Friday evening, entering the Park off the 10 East through the secluded and much less trafficked Southern Entrance near Cottonwood Springs Campground. Finding everything completely full, we had to manage by posting up for the couple hours at a group site, camping in a wash recently flooded by the massive storms that rolled through Southern CA last week. I know it’s not technically what you’re supposed to do, but we were in basically an emergency situation. The weather reports were all clear for hundreds of miles, so it didn’t seem like much of a risk. Definitely not very Eagle Scout-like of me, but whatever.

The Lost Palms Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park

Lost Palms Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

I set up camp sans-tent for the first time in months and really enjoyed being able to simply open my eyes for panoramic views of the stars.  It was a new moon while we were out there, so new that I never caught a single glimpse of it, and I was certainly watching for it to appear. While there’s still a little bit of light pollution from nearby 29 Palms, Joshua Tree (the city), and perhaps even the distant cities of Palm Springs and Thousand Palms, the sky was dark enough that we had some pretty incredible views of the stars. And since I didn’t spot any Scorpions, Spiders, Snakes, or any other of scary desert denizens, I decided to forego my tent for the rest of the trip. I’m glad I left it behind.

Desert Fan Palms at the Lost Palms Oasis

Desert Fan Palms at the Lost Palms Oasis

Waking up at dawn on Saturday morning we drove to the Visitor’s Center to check for last minute information and verify our directionsto Munsen Oasis with the Rangers. We made it to the Lost Palms Oasis trailhead relatively early and found ourselves in the middle of a pretty strong wind storm. It was nice and cool at this point, but the weather didn’t hold for long. After registering at the Backcountry Board and completing final preparations in the parking lot, we set off. Though it was still quite breezy, it was also far warmer than we had been expecting. I made the huge mistake of forgetting to bring along a non-cotton tee-shirt, and I paid dearly for it by sweating like a pig. I was locked in a constant struggle to stop my wet shirt from chafing under the strain of my pack’s hip belt. Next time I won’t forget!

Southernmost Pair of Palms at Lost Palms Oasis

Southernmost Pair of Palms at Lost Palms Oasis

The trail started off relatively easy, with gentle slopes and a pretty minor grade, winding through heavily vegetated desert canyons and some truly barren flash flood washes. Just over 3 miles in we reached the ledge the big canyon that’s home to the Lost Palms Oasis. We paused at the overlook to soak in the incredible view. Joshua Tree is my favorite of the National Parks I’ve visited, due to it’s uniqueness and rugged beauty, and while this Southern part of the Park (Colorado Desert) is much different from the more familiar and more distinctive North-West section (Mojave Desert), it certainly rivals it in natural beauty. The Desert Fan Palms are really an incredible sight, especially after walking through miles of relatively barren desert. I’d rate Lost Palms Oasis as a must see destination.

Boulders Between Lost Palms and Victory Palms Oases

The First Boulder Field Between Lost Palms and Victory Palms Oases

We stopped briefly for lunch under the shade of the last pair of trees at Lost Palms Oasis. I couldn’t believe how much water we’d seen already- small pools, tiny waterfalls, and a gurgling stream made up the majority of the trail through the Oasis itself. I hadn’t expected to encounter anything but stagnant, disgusting, festering cess-pools, and yet, there we were amongst a literal stream right through the heart of the desert. I had left my water filter in the car because of our expectations, but I was already regretting that mistake. From now on, I’m carrying that thing everywhere. It would have saved us quite a bit of trouble (and probably around 10 pounds of weight each).

Gigantic Boulders in the Most Difficult Stretch of the Trail

Gigantic Rocks in the Second Boulder Field

I love the desert for it’s resourcefulness and efficiency- especially for it’s ability to make so much out of so little (water that is). And this canyon’s abundance seemed excessive compared to the much more arid surroundings- it was almost as if the desert was being wasteful here. Temperatures dropped substantially near the water, dipping down into a much more comfortable range and providing a welcome respite to the screaming desert heat. Each of the Oases that we visited during the trip was at least 10 – 15 degree cooler than being in the sun. I can totally understand why people lost in the desert hallucinate these things, because they’re absolute Godsends!

Self-Portrait to Provide Scale for Boulder Size - Joshua Tree

Self-Portrait – Provides Scale for Boulder Size – I’m 10-15 Feet Off the Ground

We had each started the trip with around 10 liters of water (Tommy is smartest and brought the most), planning to use around a gallon a day for our proposed two-night trip. But by the first evening it had become eminently clear that we were going to run out too soon and would have to head back the following day. In most environments, a gallon of water is plenty for even the most strenuous of activities, but the desert is another animal entirely. I should have known better, considering I ran into the same problem last October during my solo foray into Saguaro National Park. Next time I certainly won’t leave my water filter in the car.

Unmarked Cholla Cactus Garden South of Munsen Oasis

Unnamed Cholla Cactus Garden – South of Entrance to Munsen Canyon

Following lunch we began the real daunting part of the trip- passing through the harrowing Boulder Fields between Lost Palms and the much smaller Victory Palms Oasis. This part of the trek is a tough nut to crack, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who’s afraid of heights or doesn’t have at least a little bit of experience in rock climbing. It’s one thing to scale boulders the size of large trucks with a day-pack, and something entirely different to do it while carrying 40-50 pounds. At times I was forced to lower myself (pack weight and all) between gigantic rock cracks using just my arms. My camera spent most of this part of the trip swinging around from my neck like a pendulum. I’ve got to figure out a better system for carrying it at times like these…

First Sight of Summit Spring Oasis - Joshua Tree National Park

First Sight of Summit Spring Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

Up and over, around the side, and even underneath at a couple points, we slowly made our way through the three sets of truly enormous boulder fields, occasionally meeting with such difficult points that we had to take our packs off completely and pass them to each other just to continue forward progress. It was as physically demanding as anything I’ve ever done with a full pack, but also incredibly fun. Before I knew about leave-no-trace backpacking (many, many years ago), I used to love bushwhacking trails, but creative route-finding through gigantic boulder fields is something even more exciting. I felt quite fulfilled after making my way through the unique set of obstacles this part of the hike presented.

Lush Green Foliage at Summit Spring Oasis in Joshua Tree

Lush Greenery at Summit Springs Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

When we did reach Victory Palms, the smallest of the oases we encountered on the entire trip, we stopped to rest and sit amongst its cool shade, giving our bodies the chance to cool down. I took the opportunity to dry out my now-soaking shirt. It seemed odd that any Desert Fan Palms could make it in this location, because I didn’t see or hear any running water. I began a rudimentary exploration of the area around the sole giant’s trunk, trying to determine how it managed to survive there. Climbing up a steep rock face I caught a glimpse around it’s massive fans and noticed that it’s shade created a cave-like area about the size of a small living room between the trunk of the tree and the canyon wall. I descended into it and found signs of human activity.

Summit Springs Oasis - Joshua Tree National Park

Summit Springs Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

What I had first thought might be some sort of voodoo shrine turned out to be a couple fence posts blocking off a deep cave. It was only 2 or 3 feet high, so I got down on my belly to get a better look, realizing that it was far deeper than I had originally guessed. I then heard the sound of dripping water. There was a large pool of it deep in there- probably 10-15 feet away based on the rocks that I threw- being fed by an internal spring within the base of the hillside. A cool air blew from the cave onto my face, cooling my body, and tempting me to crawl inside. Looking around the little cavern created by the fan palm I felt like I was in a scene out of Apocalypse Now. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have sworn that I was deep in the jungles of South East Asia.

Another Shot of Summit Springs Oasis - Joshua Tree National Park

Standing Water Near Summit Springs Oasis

After 20 minutes or so we left Victory Palms behind, heading further East and beginning to watch for the “steep dry fall that’s easily mistaken for nothing more than another canyon wall”. Sean pointed it out (correctly), but Tommy and I both thought that we hadn’t gone far enough yet, so we kept walking. Our cursory glance of the Topographic Map (which wasn’t detailed enough to provide us with much certainty about our location) made it seem like we hadn’t arrived at the correct location yet. And our directions, which had been excellent up until this point, failed us miserably. Rather than telling us to look for a random, impossible to identify canyon, they should have guided us to follow the rusty copper piping we’d seen everywhere since Lost Palms Oasis!

Pool of Standing Water Between Summit Springs and Munsen Oases

Pool of Water Between Summit Springs and Munsen Oases

We continued for about another half mile down the wash, which opened up into a wide canyon basin here, offering a view of distant mountain ranges hundreds of miles to the East. At this point we figured that Sean had been right, and that we were probably already past the turn off up into Munsen Canyon, but we wanted to make absolutely certain before turning around. Stumbling upon the largest Cholla Cactus garden I’ve ever seen – far larger than the famed “Teddy Bear Cholla Garden” in central Joshua Tree- we took a break to reassess our surroundings and try to pinpoint ourselves on the map. A couple minutes later we were relatively certain that we had gone too far.

Solitary Desert Fan Palm Near Munsen Oasis in Joshua Tree

Solitary Desert Fan Palm Just South of Munsen Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

We lingered for some time amongst the cacti before deciding to return West. We set up camp along the Northern bank of the dry riverbed, hoping that a flash flood wouldn’t arrive that evening. Tommy and I took a quick scouting trip to the base of the hillside we thought led to Munsen Canyon, where we uncovered all the clues necessary for determining that it was in fact, the correct one. The piping heading out of the main canyon and up that offshoot was our first strong indication, followed by the discovery of a very dry, but very obvious stream bed that we figured had to be Summit Springs. We returned to camp and started to settle in for the night.

First Set of Desert Fan Palms at Munsen Oasis - Joshua Tree National Park

First Grove of Desert Fan Palms at Munsen Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park

As the sun dipped beneath the towering canyon walls to the South, we put on our evening clothes and began collecting up deadfall for a fire. It didn’t take long to amass quite a collection that would last us through most of the night. I set up my tarp just a few feet from the fire, then relaxed in my camp chair and enjoyed the stillness of the impending darkness. Lighting the fire was so easy I could hardly believe it. The stuff out here was even drier than what we found in Death Valley. No kindling whatsoever was necessary- a single chemical block managed to light logs the thickness of my forearm in mere seconds.

Second Grove of Desert Fan Palms at Munsen Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park

Munsen Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park – Second Grove of Desert Fan Palms

About an hour after darkness fell I finally noticed the beauty of the night sky, which was just absolutely filled with stars! It was clear enough that we could spot the haze of the Milky Way, a couple different constellations, and what I still think was Venus and Mars. I really enjoyed sleeping without a roof over my head so I could take in the view. On previous trips I’ve always planned to wake up in the middle of the night for stargazing, but the comfort, warmth, and security provided by my tent has kept me from doing so. I will most certainly be traveling without that extra two and a half pounds on future trips, whenever possible.

X Marks the Spot at Munsen Oasis

X Marks the Spot at Munsen Oasis – We Must Have Arrived Right on Time

We got up early the next morning and packed up everything but water and food. Leaving it behind in Sean’s tent, we set off for Munsen Oasis. The trip there was certainly no cake walk, though I think the boulders between Lost Palms and Victory were probably more difficult to navigate. It certainly made things easier that we were able to leave so much weight behind at camp. Had we attempted the climb through the boulder fields with full packs the day before, I’m doubtful we could have even made it through. It took a lot of energy just to reach Summit Springs Oasis, and Munsen was considerably further North.

Returning North Toward Victory Palms Oasis

Canyon Leading to Boulder Fields South of Victory Palms Oasis

The first view of Summit Springs was incredibly rewarding! At this point we knew without any doubt that we were, in fact, in Munsen Canyon, and heading the right direction. This area hosted some of the largest pools of water I had yet seen on the trip, and I would have wanted to stay a bit longer if I thought we had time for it. There were some bees in the area though (as our directions had warned), and Sean doesn’t know if he’s allergic or not (somehow he’s never been stung…) so we set off after only a momentary stop. I shot some great pictures in this area though, and I’m really glad that I took a couple extra seconds to get them right!

Looking South From the Third Boulder Field

Looking South Over Victory Palms Oasis From the Third Boulder Field

After some more difficult bouldering I finally caught sight of another set of Fan Palms that turned out to be Munsen Oasis itself. This spot is every bit as beautiful as it is difficult to reach. Secluded, serene, and absolutely splendid. An oasis in the very heart of an unforgiving desert, it is a true gem to behold. There’s nothing quite like the rush that comes after wandering through the desert for hours and climbing your way through gigantic boulder fields before finally finding a welcoming grove of Desert Fan Palms. Sitting in their shade, listening to the sounds of the trickling stream, it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of such a hostile environment. It was quite the trip, and entirely worth the extra effort.

This entry was posted in Backpacking, California, Featured Posts, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks, South West, Southern California, Trip Reports, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Backpacking to Munsen Oasis – Joshua Tree National Park, CA

  1. Maria says:

    Hello,
    Thank you for sharing your personal experience in Joshua Tree. It is truly a beautiful destination to have on your bucket list. You have great pictures as well. At Fox Rent A Car Blog we try to help travelers with their trip planing and hope to inspire them. We offer travel tips about different locations, and we also wrote about Joshua Tree.
    Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Backpacking Point Mugu – Camping La Jolla Canyon | Chayacitra

  3. Andrew says:

    Two friendly reminders:

    1) Lost Palms Canyon and most of Munsen Canyon (roughly, from the mouth north two miles) are in a day-use zone. No camping is allowed.
    See:
    http://www.nps.gov/jotr/parkmgmt/upload/dayuse.pdf

    2) All vegetation, alive or not, within the park is protected. Campfires are allowed, but only with material brought in from outside the park, not collected. There simply is not enough wood in a desert to support the campfires of everyone who wants one, and dead/decaying wood is an important part of the ecosystem (many organisms use dead wood/vegetation).
    See:
    http://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/camping.htm

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks for the reminders Andrew!

  5. Seferina says:

    Hi. Trying to get some info about this trail but can’t find an email address for you. I’m doing this trail next week (flying from Maryland!) … if you’re available, email me at sefsefsef[at]excite.com. Thanks! Seferina

  6. Chayacitra says:

    Sorry this took so long to respond – I’m not really aware of any trail maps for the area. It was a pain in the ass to find the actual Oasis and we got lost on the first go-around. I don’t have a GPS or anything so I can’t provide you with data points, but all I can say is make sure that you’re watching your left-hand side and try to follow the broken old pipes! They’ll point you straight to the water source =)

  7. Seferina Kim says:

    The old pipes were awesome! I have to admit total cop-out though. We carried all of our gear and water when we approached that boulder field before Munsen Oasis… took me all of about 15 minutes to reach a part I just simply could not pass. We wanted to camp up there but I wussed out. I couldn’t get past one section – and I’m not little either! (5’9″ – apparently, I’m just weak.)

    Still amazing time though! We saw bighorn sheep (they were judging me from above – laughing at my inability to climb rocks!), squirrels, lots of little lizards, butterflies, hummingbirds… far from any idea of barren landscape!

    Thanks for your blog. Honestly, I don’t think we would known about this awesome trail if it hadn’t been for this post.

    -s.

  8. Tim says:

    Seferina,

    At least you tried! That’s not an easy trip by any means – as I wrote in my post we had to stop more than a few times to take the packs off and pass them one by one through some pretty difficult parts. Those three boulder fields are no joke!

    That’s awesome that you got to see some Sheep! There wasn’t a whole lot of life when we were out there, but with all the rain we’ve had this year there’s likely more water than the area has received in years.

    Glad you enjoyed the post and that you were able to get out to Joshua Tree and so close to Munsen Oasis! It’s been there for years, and it will remain, you can always go back!!! Happy trails to you!!

  9. Fixed Gear Revolution says:

    Wow,  I was a little surprised while reading this.  You guys are the types that ruin the national parks for everyone else.  How about obeying the rules the next time you go to a national park so it can still be there for me to enjoy when I want to go.

  10. Guest says:

     Now everyone that sees your fire scar for the next 20 years will know who to thank. Being that you mention other desert trips in National Parks leads me to believe that you know better than to collect downed vegetation or have fires in these desert parks.

  11. Sassy Deelish says:

    Camping and building fires in protected areas where camping and fires are prohibited. Then blogging about it. Hopefully you left a big pile of plastic bottles and tin cans out there as well.

    The NPS should allow helicopter hunting of d-bags like you.

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