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Hiking the Barker Dam Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

If you are looking for a fun short hike to do when you visit Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, consider the Barker Dam Nature Trail!

Featuring the enormous boulders for which the park is known, plus the historic dam and a little cave with petroglyphs, the Barker Dam Trail definitely deserves a top spot on your list of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.

Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree National Park California
Rock masses seen from the Barker Dam Trail

The short and scenic Barker Dam hike is one of the most popular hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, since it’s suitable for most skill levels and fun for both kids and adults.

Considering the Barker Dam hike in Joshua Tree? Read on to learn what to expect on the beautiful Barker Dam Nature Trail, plus tips for hiking it!

What Can You Expect on the Barker Dam Trail at Joshua Tree National Park?
Essential Facts About the Barker Dam Nature Trail at Joshua Tree
How to Get to the Trailhead for the Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree
How Long Does It Take to Hike the Barker Dam Trail?
What to Bring on the Barker Dam Hike
Tips for Hiking the Barker Dam Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

What Can You Expect on the Barker Dam Trail at Joshua Tree National Park?

Well, you’ll hike to the dam, of course!

Barker Dam was built in 1900, by the early cattlemen that settled the area. The dam was named after C. O. Barker, one of these cattlemen. When you walk this trail, you’ll be exploring some of Joshua Tree National Park’s history!

Also known as Big Horn Dam, the water storage facility was later raised and improved by Bill Keys, a prominent area rancher. Barker Dam is on the National Register of Historic Places and a cool place to explore.

If you visit in the late winter or spring, you will likely see water at Barker Dam, and on a good weather day the reflections of the surrounding boulders in the still water make for great photos.

Barker Dam with Water Joshua Tree National Park
Barker Dam with some water in it in late February

But in the summer and fall, and even in part of the winter, the dam may be dry, unless you are lucky enough to visit right after a thunderstorm. While the dam is still fun to visit when dry, it is much more spectacular when there is water in the reservoir.

Walk around the dam, and look for the old cattle trough, that is still in pretty good shape. Also look for the inscription placed in the rocks by the Keys brothers stating they had improved the dam.

While the historic dam is definitely the star attraction on the Barker Dam Nature Trail, there are several other cool things to see and do along the way.

You’ll come across many beautiful boulder formations along the route, and if you have the time, you may want to get in some rock scrambling as you do this trail! Many of the boulders are right by the trail, making it easy to do some bouldering en route.

Boulders on Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree NP
Boulders piled up along the Barker Dam Trail

Flora, Fauna, and Petroglyphs!

As one of the few places in Joshua Tree National Park with water, even if seasonal, Barker Dam is a magnet for birds. You may see American coots, Western grebes, ducks and herons, as well as land birds in the foliage around the water.

Especially early or late in the day, you may be lucky enough to spot wildlife at Barker Dam: bighorn sheep, rabbits, squirrels, or even a fox or coyote. Bring your binoculars and keep your eyes peeled!

Observe the desert flora as you walk: from creosote and desert willow to pinyons, oaks, and of course the strange-looking Joshua trees, you’ll come across many interesting species on this route. You’ll see lots of varieties of succulents as well.

Flora along Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree
Flora along the route in late winter

Visit in the spring to see wildflowers. Cacti and other succulents bloom in spring as well. In other seasons, even though you may not see colorful blooms, the shapes and textures of the flora offer interesting views along the trail.

And finally, after the dam on the loop, look for the sign that says “Petroglyphs.” You’ll see a cave, with cool ancient drawings. Reportedly, the drawings have been redone recently, reducing the coolness factor, but on the flip side, they are now clearer and easier to see.

Essential Facts About the Barker Dam Nature Trail at Joshua Tree

The Barker Dam Nature Trail is a loop 1.1 miles long. Most visitors hike the loop in a counter clockwise direction, where the dam comes first and then the petroglyphs.

The trail is relatively flat, with a minimal elevation gain of about 50 feet. It is a little narrow in parts, with boulders on both sides, but an easy walk. When we visited in the late winter, there was actually a little stream of water along the route!

The trail is soft sand in parts and packed sand in others, and you’ll have to navigate your way over a few boulders en route.

Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree NP in California
The trail is pretty flat

The Barker Dam Nature Trail is classified as easy to low moderate, and suitable for most visitors to the park. The trail can be hiked year round, although it’s way more fun in the winter or spring, when there is water in the dam.

Bikes are not permitted on the Barker Dam Nature Trail. Pets are not allowed.

How to Get to the Trailhead for the Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree

The trailhead for the Barker Dam Nature Trail is located by the Barker Dam parking area along Park Boulevard, in the northern part of Joshua Tree National Park. You will see signs for Barker Dam on Park Boulevard, no matter which direction you are driving.

Pull into the parking lot: it’s a large parking area and one where we had no trouble finding vacant spots even during the day in season. From the parking area, walk to the roped pathway that leads to the start of the Barker Dam Trail.

Roped pathway leading to Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree
Walk along the roped pathway to the start of the trail

The parking area is shared by the Barker Dam Trail and the Wall Street Mill Trail, but there is signage so you should not have any trouble finding the correct trailhead.

How Long Does It Take to Hike the Barker Dam Trail?

If you are visiting Joshua Tree National Park just for the day, you can do the Barker Dam Trail in about an hour, with stops for photos and to view the dam and the petroglyphs.

Boulders and Cactus Barker Dam Trail Joshua Tree NP
There is a lot to observe on the Barker Dam Trail

If you have more time, we would suggest allowing 2-3 hours, especially if you want to try some bouldering along the way, or you want to do some birding.

We’ve hiked the Barker Dam Trail twice so far, and we spent about two hours each time.

What to Bring on the Barker Dam Hike

Water

There is no access to food or water within Joshua Tree National Park, so stock up on drinking water before you arrive.

Carry adequate drinking water on the Barker Dam hike, even if it is relatively short. Remember to load a cooler with ice packs into the trunk of your car, so you can keep your food and water cool all day long.

Snacks

The Barker Dam Trail is not very long, so you don’t really need food, but we always carry protein bars, trail mix, and some fruit on our hikes.

Digital camera with Zoom Lens

If you are a serious bird photographer, you might find it worthwhile bringing your gear on this hike, since it’s one of the prime birding locations within the park.

We don’t enjoy lugging the large camera and lens on hikes, so we use our little Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70. It has a 30X zoom and Leica lens, and takes decent shots of birds and small animals.

Binoculars

If you love birding, you will definitely want to bring your binoculars along on the Barker Dam hike. I love my Celestron Trailseeker compact binoculars: they are not too heavy, and they perform great in low light.

Sun Hat

Sun protection is a must in the desert. There were some shaded areas on the Barker Dam Trail, but also open sections, so wear a wide-brimmed sun hat to be safe.

View from Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree
Sun protection is crucial in the desert!

Sun Protective Clothing

We wear sun protective shirts and pants when we know we are going to be in the sun for much of the day. Our SPF clothes are lightweight and comfortable even when it’s hot out.

Sunscreen, SPF Lip Balm and Sunglasses

Don’t underestimate the desert sun. Remember to wear sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm with SPF.

Good Walking Shoes

We wore our sneakers for the Barker Dam Trail. Sturdy closed-toed walking shoes, or hiking boots, would also work. Shoes with good grip are essential if you want to scramble up slippery rocks, and closed-toed footwear will protect you from spiky plants.

Bug Spray

We used a natural bug spray when we hiked the Barker Dam Trail. On parts of the trail you will be pretty close to foliage, plus if you visit in the winter or spring, you will be close to standing water. Use bug spray to be safe.

Tips for Hiking the Barker Dam Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Visit in the Late Winter or Spring

Although you can never be certain, your best shot at seeing water in Barker Dam is in the later part of winter or the spring. So if you can time your visit for one of these periods, you’ll have the best experience, especially if you want to see birds or photograph the reflections.

Barker Dam in Late Winter
Barker Dam on a sunny day in late winter

Of course, the dam is interesting even without water, so you can still enjoy the desert scenery and plants, and enjoy the historical aspect of this corner of Joshua Tree National Park, no matter when you visit.

If you only want to go on the hike if there is water in Barker Dam, make sure you check with rangers at the Visitor Center on the day you visit!

Hike the Barker Dam Trail Early or Late in the Day

Barker Dam Trail is super popular and you will run into many other hikers during the day, especially in season. For more solitude and the opportunity to see birds and wildlife, hike the trail early in the day, or late.

We hiked the Barker Dam Trail close to sunset on one occasion, and seeing the rocks glow golden in the mellow light as we emerged from the dam was very beautiful!

Barker Dam at Sunset
Boulders on the Barker Dam trail at sunset

If you visit in the summer, you will anyway want to hike only in the early morning or evening, when temperatures are not super high. Always check with park rangers to make sure it’s safe to hike before you venture on any desert trail in high summer.

Hiking early or late in the day means you will likely get a parking spot without problems. The Barker Dam Trail is very popular and in season it does get busy during the day and on weekends.

Allow More Time Than You Think You Will Need

The trail is just over one mile long, but there’s a lot to see and do along the way. Allow more time than you think you’ll need to just walk the distance, so you have the chance to stop and do some scrambling and observe the plants and any birds or animals you see without the pressure of time.

Flora at Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park
Admire the plants and the trees on the route!

Join a Ranger-Led Hike to Barker Dam

If you want to learn a lot about the dam and the area as you walk, join a ranger-led hike to Barker Dam, if one if being offered when you visit.

For us, ranger-led hikes exponentially enhance our appreciation of the local geology, flora and fauna. In this case, you’ll also learn a bit about the cattle ranching history of the area and the colorful cattlemen that braved the harsh elements to live and earn a living here.

Dress for the Season

Joshua Tree National park can get very cold in the winter, and sometimes in late fall and early spring as well. It has been known to snow here, and cold snaps are common.

So if you plan to visit between fall and spring, dress in layers, and bring a warm jacket and a beanie for early morning and late evening hikes.

In summer, dress in loose, light colored clothing. I would still suggest long-sleeved shirts and pants, for sun protection and protection from spiky plants.

*****

If you enjoy short scenic trails, also check out the super scenic one-mile Hidden Valley Trail in Joshua Tree National Park: it’s not too far from the Barker Dam, and another fun hike for all ages and skill levels.

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Discover what to expect on the short and scenic Barker Dam Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Plus tips for hiking the popular trail!

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

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