Summary: The Barker Dam trail is a relatively short and easy loop hike that goes to the Barker Dam (Big Horn Dam), which was built in 1900 to provide water for cattle.

Although the hike to Ryan Mountain gives you the best views in Joshua Tree National Park, the easier Barker Dam loop provides access to interesting rock formations, a variety of desert vegetation and one of the only sources of water in the park. The very obvious trail heads from the carpark towards a large cluster of rocks, at the southern end of the Wonderland of Rocks

The loop trail passes between two large clusters of monzogranite boulders and a variety of desert flora, including the iconic Joshua Tree.

Many of the plants are signposted, such as the Calififornia Juniper, which is found at elevations above 4000 feet (coyotes and small animals eat the berries for moisture, and they were consumed raw or roasted by the native American people).

The trail soon reaches Barker Dam, or the Big Horn Dam, which was built by early cattlemen in the area (including C. O. Barker after whom the dam was named) in 1900. The dam wall was raised an additional six feet with concrete in 1949-1950 by rancher William F. Keys. Although the dam may have no water in the driest months (March to July), it contained a reasonable amount of precious water on my visit (in late September).

Just below Barker Dam is an odd, unnatural rock formation – I later discover it’s a “catch basin”, designed to catch the water that escapes from the dam. 

The trail then passes the dam via a series of stones steps through more boulders, before becoming a sandy trail again that passes more Joshua Trees.

One particularly impressive Joshua Tree has an enormous root system just above the ground: the trees have a fibrous root system, with thin roots that grow out in a radial pattern from the base of the plant. Joshua Trees have hundreds of roots, which can be so dense that neighbouring plants won’t survive, and which reach as as deep as 10-30ft / 3-9m underground in search of water.

A trail marker points out a native American petroglyph site (it’s most obvious when doing the Barker Dam loop in a clockwise direction, as I do). The petroglyphs are surprisingly visible and colourful – which I later learn is because the colours enhanced by a film crew filming a Hollywood movie.

After a few more Joshua Tree, the Barker Dam trail converges again with the main trail, to close the loop.

Getting to Barker Dam trail

The trailhead for the the Barker Dam Trail is located on Barker Dam Road which is off Park Boulevarde – the main road running through Joshua Tree National Park. Turn left at the sign reading “Hidden Valley Campground, Key’s Ranch, Barker Dam, Ranch Tours.” Joshua Tree National Park is 140 miles (225km) east of Los Angeles.

When to hike?

The short return walk can be done for most of the year – but it’s best to avoid the middle of the day in summer, when high temperatures can make the hike very unpleasant or even dangerous. There is no shade along the trail. Go after rain or in the (relatively) wetter months of December-March for the best chance to see the dam full of water.

image A short and varied loop to Barker Dam in Joshua Tree
Source: Joshua Tree Visitors Guide

More information

This is one of four short hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, during a 3-week road-trip though south-west USA.

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