Mountain Biking at Joshua Tree? Exploring the Desert View Conservation Area

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_ Jeff Bartlett
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I’m not a fan of the phrase “hidden gem.” Beyond its rampant overuse, it’s not often all that accurate; most trails, peaks, or swimming holes either aren’t really that hidden or aren’t really gems. There’s no shortage of hyperbole on the internet these days, it would seem.

But hidden in plain sight, just outside Joshua Tree National Park, is a small cluster of mountain bike trails with no signs, no parking lot, no crowds, no trailhead kiosk with a map, almost no trace that they exist at all. Pedal into the rocks and sand here, though, and you’ll stumble upon a place that truly qualifies for that tired old saying.

Lurking just off-trail are pointy things that want to hurt you. Trust me, I checked.
    Jeff Bartlett
Lurking just off-trail are pointy things that want to hurt you. Trust me, I checked. Jeff Bartlett

Like most U.S. National Parks, Joshua Tree doesn’t allow mountain biking on singletrack (IMBA maintains a list of exceptions). Neither does the nearby Sand to Snow National Monument, nor the Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness, nor the Sheephorn Valley Wilderness, nor… well, you get the idea. Mountain bikers who find themselves at this fascinating transition between the Mojave and Colorado deserts also find a notable lack of locations to mountain bike.

Enter Jima Reed and the Joshua Tree Bike Shop, who have invested their time to maintain and improve an existing network of faint trails in a place the local BLM office calls “Section 6,” or (perhaps more poetically) the Desert View Conservation Area.

Just two miles from the town of Joshua Tree and literally adjoining the national park itself, Desert View features a network of dusty roads popular with off-roaders, a smattering of dispersed campsites, and the aforementioned offering of nearly-indiscernible MTB trails.

I showed up at the bike shop on a Wednesday afternoon, introduced myself and asked where to go ride. I didn’t expect much of an answer; many folks would rather their backyard trails stay secret, and I don’t blame them. Unexpectedly, not only was Jima happy to talk about which I’d likely enjoy, he had a map for me to take along.

These trails feel natural and suit the landscape well. 
    Jeff Bartlett
These trails feel natural and suit the landscape well. Jeff Bartlett

The first time I tried to follow that map, my 2.3” tires bogged down in a series of sand traps, I hiked back to the road across a sand wash and managed to step directly on a cactus. I loved it immediately. There are only 5 or 6 miles of singletrack here, but most of the trails ride well in both directions, and the doubletrack criss-crossing throughout the area creates plenty of opportunities for different loops and link-ups.

It’s rare to find this much adventure in a trail system with so little total mileage. Mountain bike trails are often confined to sterile-feeling “bike parks” full of sculpted berms and roller coaster trails churned out by machine, but Desert View is a tiny slice of raw, backcountry riding.

Intermediate trails like Bad Manor, Southridge, and Long May You Run serve up a surprising amount of flow while snaking pleasantly through rocky outcrops. But the advanced trails, including Sidewinder and the blissfully-jagged Django, deliver a kind of gritty, occasionally-awkward technical riding that rewards precise front wheel placement and the ability to bend your bike around corners. I bonked my way around on a steel hardtail and felt right at home.

Most of the riding here is rocky, but not overly technical. 
    Jeff Bartlett
Most of the riding here is rocky, but not overly technical. Jeff Bartlett

Most of the beginner trails, including the enticing-sounding Luge Trail, and many of the roads (especially on the north side), are too sandy to attempt unless you have a fatbike or 27.5+ tires. I don’t, and I found the intermittent sand traps to be the most challenging part of riding here, so I tried to stick with the rockier options.

Likewise, in lieu of signage of any kind, don’t ride here unless you’re comfortable with navigation. MTB Project and Trailforks are a good start, but many of these trails are easy to ride right past without even seeing them.

I spent a month working remotely from Indian Cove while trying to prepare for a 60-mile mountain bike race, which means I had the chance to log quite a few miles at Section 6. I came away with a genuine affection for the place, despite having the tip of a hedgehog cactus spine still lodged in the arch of my right foot. It’s a unique style of riding amid a unique landscape.

You can't ride trails in the National Park, but Desert View features similar landscapes. 
    Jeff Bartlett
You can't ride trails in the National Park, but Desert View features similar landscapes. Jeff Bartlett

I’d love to see the California BLM work with local mountain bikers to develop this system further, giving area cyclists somewhere to ride in what’s otherwise a blank spot on the map. As Jima told me, “those trails keep on giving as you ride.”

Editor’s Note

Joshua Tree National Park’s official site says the following in regard to mountain biking: “The park’s Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan designates approximately 29 miles of trails for non-motorized bike use, however, the new trails cannot be used until Congress gives its approval.” This article is NOT about riding mountain bikes in the National Park. RootsRated Media does NOT condone illegal riding on trails which are not open to bikes!

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