Have you ever been lost? I’m not talking about wandering away from your parents in the department store lost. Although that was a pretty terrifying experience! No, I mean lost in the wilderness, a long way from home, with no one else around providing moral support. Well that was me. Lost. At night. On the Boy Scout Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.
And that’s the interesting thing about this. I hiked on a very well-marked, actively traveled trail. But I got lost. Mind you, it was night time. I was all by myself. I had a water bottle, I was dressed in shorts, a tee shirt and a light windbreaker. All while being hunted by a ravenous beast.
I should back up a bit here. As usual, getting way ahead of myself.
Every spring, near the end of another cold, damp winter in coastal British Columbia, I am ready for a road trip to somewhere warmer than home. And so I spent 6 days exploring the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park on one spring solo road trip, returning to my favourite American National Park for the fifth time. I combined car camping with a few backpacking excursions. This is a National Park that invites both.
After spending a couple of days camped in Jumbo Rocks Campground, it was time to strap on the pack and head out into the desert. Much of this park is designated “Wilderness”, which means no road access, no campgrounds, no water, and no cell service. Be ready for every eventuality. Carry all your water. Bring all your food. Pack out your garbage. You get the picture?
The Boy Scout Trail
My trail of choice for an overnight backpack was the Boy Scout Trail, an 8 mile (13 Km) out and back trail filled with stunning desert scenery. Going out and back is a 16 mile (26 Km) round trip, so it’s very important to be prepared. This trail is for experienced hikers. However, pretty much anyone can do small sections of the trail without much difficulty. My plan was simple; hike in with my gear for about 2-3 miles, and set up camp. From there I would explore the area.
I am, by any account, a desert rat. My favourite landscape is desert. I love the desert sounds. The smell of creosote bush in spring is heavenly. Wildflowers carpeting a gravel basin is divine. And the nighttime sky is unrivalled in the desert. I counted over 40 shooting stars one clear evening in Joshua Tree. But above all, the silence. If you have not experienced desert silence, you owe yourself. Ironically, it was pursuing that desert silence that led me astray in the wilderness.
I said my plan was simple. It was. The execution was flawed. You see, I am guilty (sometimes) of not thinking things through. I get impatient and ignore the details. What can I say? I’m an impulsive guy!
I hiked out the Boy Scout Trail from the south end, from the small parking lot on the Park Road. It was late morning, the sun was high and warm on my face. Small lizards darted across the trail, searching for shade. On this part of the trail shade is hard to come by. The trail is level, smooth and sandy, but not too difficult underfoot.
The Perfect Campsite
After an hour or so I spotted some rock outcrops in the distance. They looked to be about a mile or so off the trail. A great spot for a campsite, I thought. I looked around at the landscape, taking in the features and committing them to memory. If I was turning from the trail here, I’d need to be able to find the spot again. A large, gnarled Joshua Tree stood bent beside the trail. A perfect marker! And I turned off the trail and started toward the distant rock outcrop.
25 minutes later I reached the small outcrop of monzogranite. This distinctive rock is what makes Joshua Tree National Park such an excellent and popular rock climbing destination. It’s fun to scramble on these formations. Hiking boots find an easy purchase on the coarse surface. Even on a relatively steep incline, one’s boots stay locked to the rock, rarely losing traction.
I found a level spot next to the rocks. Early afternoon meant my tent was pretty much exposed to the sun, but morning would bring shade. I wouldn’t be chased from my tent by the heat. Once again I patted myself on the back for being so smart.
When my site was set up, I grabbed some water and a windbreaker and started back to the Boy Scout Trail. I had decided to climb Ryan Mountain to watch the sunset that evening. Ryan Mountain is 5456 feet high, offering some of the best views of Joshua Tree National Park. I’ve hiked the trail before, and the last time I figured I would come back some day to watch the sunset. Today was the day.
Speed Hiking on Ryan Mountain
Once back at the trailhead, I jumped in my car and headed to the Ryan Mountain parking lot, just a few miles back. The lot was surprisingly busy, with lots of folks coming down. It was getting on in the afternoon, so most people were ending their hiking day.
Ryan Mountain trail is a 3 mile, out and back trail that gains elevation quickly. You’ll gain a thousand feet from the parking lot to the top. The hike is exposed for pretty much the entire length, and it can get quite windy. Your reward is a 360 degree, unobstructed view of the Park. I planned on taking my time up, and running back down to finish. After all, I was going up to watch the sunset. That meant high-tailing it back to the car so it wouldn’t be too dark on the Boy Scout Trail and back to my campsite.
Half way up the trail and I stopped passing people on the way down. Looks like I’d have the mountain to myself. I was looking forward to the views. But what excited me the most was the wind had died. The air was warm, almost completely still, and the sky was a steely blue. Heavenly!
Puffing and blowing I reached the summit, completely alone. The sky was beginning to glow a dusky pink. The San Jacinto Mountains to the southwest stood out in sharp relief against the sky. I sat on the rocks and enjoyed the view, content as could be. The slightest wisp of a breeze cooled my face. The temperature had already dropped significantly while I sat there. The sun dropped out of site, and the pink deepened to red-orange.
The Race To The Boy Scout Trail
Given that it was already cooling down, I decided to head back down. I wanted to be in my car in 30 minutes, which meant running down as quick as was safe. There is something incredibly invigorating about trail running in the desert. Jumping down the worn rock stairs and speeding around the curves of the trail felt amazing. As long as I didn’t slip.
I reached the parking lot with time to spare, but it was already quite dark. Unfortunately it was full dark when I pulled in to the trailhead for the Boy Scout Trail. I was a little nervous, but reasonably sure I’d find my campsite. After all, I had memorized the spot where I’d turned off the trail. Besides, I had a flashlight, a full bottle of water, and a positive mindset. Surely everything would work out!
Boy Scout Trail? What Trail?
I set out straightaway down the wide trail, my flashlight playing off the rocks. I would periodically turn off the light so I could enjoy the stars. Needless to say, they were stunning. Now that I was on the trail, my nervousness soon eased. The air was cool and still, but I was warm in my windbreaker.
After an hour or so I began to keep a watch for the distinctive Joshua Tree that would clearly alert me to my turnoff. Unfortunately every tree I passed looked remarkably like the one I was searching for. Meanwhile I had now been walking for much longer than I should have. And now my nervousness had returned. At this point I had to decide if I should retrace my steps. Despite my unease, I chose to carry on a bit further. Maybe the tree was just up ahead.
The tree was not just up ahead. In fact, the damn tree was nowhere to be found.
Hello There, Fella!
I stood quietly, pondering my predicament. Time for an assessment. Presently standing in the middle of the desert. And it’s night. That means it’s dark. Oh yeah, and the temperature is dropping, while I’m dressed in shorts and a windbreaker. However, I have water. Maybe half a bottle. And I’m pretty sure I’m only about 3 miles from the road. I could just walk back down the trail from where I came from and be at my car. See, no problem!
Now that my assessment was complete, I turned on my flashlight and carried on. And just like that, my tree appeared before me! At least I was 82 percent sure it was my tree… So off I went, following a rough path that had been trodden by other feet. Hopefully some of those prints were from my boots!
I moved slowly, not wanting to lose the faint trail. Presently I noticed I was shivering. Was that nervousness or cold? I stopped and turned off my light, listening. The silence was thick. No air moved, no creature stirred. I could hear my blood flowing through my veins. Slowly I turned, my eyes following the beam of my light. As it passed a boulder, something glinted. I moved the light back, straining to peer into the faint darkness. It glinted again, and then disappeared. Probably a mouse, I thought. If a creature was stirring, it would probably be a mouse.
Nevertheless, the hairs were standing on the back of my neck as I turned and continued on the faint path. And after only 20 meters or so, I turned around and turned on my light. The glint was back. On the very edge of my light’s beam stood a desert coyote! Crap! That ain’t no mouse!
Run Or Walk?
The coyote turned away, and moved out of my light. It was like he had just melted into the darkness. My breathing quickened but my shivering increased. I’m sure he’s not interested in me, I reasoned. After all, I’m a lot bigger. He’s after mice and jackrabbits. After a long moment of shivering, I turned and carried on. I resisted the urge to break into a run. But every minute or so I would swing my light around, just to be sure he wasn’t in mid leap.
Needless to say, my steps were a bit quicker, and my flashlight stayed on. I carried on in this fashion for some time. And I began to realize that I was cold. I was no longer shivering, but I was definitely getting cold.
The temperature falls quickly at night in the desert. With clear, dry skies, there’s no moisture or cloud cover to hold in the day’s heat, so after the sun goes down, the air gets cold. At this time in Spring, the temperature can easily drop to freezing. I really wanted my sleeping bag!
I moved up against a large rock and felt the heat of the day still radiating. Laying back against the rock felt reassuring. The heat came through my light windbreaker and warmed me. For ten minutes I lay there, turning around periodically to warm my belly. At one point, I spun on my Maglite. On the edge of the light, the coyote stood.
Hunted On The Boy Scout Trail
Fear dropped in the pit of my stomach. He’s hunting me! I wondered if there were others nearby. I let out a low growl from the base of my throat. Maybe that will scare him. The coyote looked at me and sat down. Okay, that didn’t work. I shouted at the coyote and waved my arms. Nothing. Well then, I’ll start walking and see if he follows. Slowly I eased myself from the boulder and began shuffling sideways. When I moved the light back to the coyote, he was gone. I moved the light back and forth, but the coyote was nowhere to be seen. And so I carried on, in search of my campsite.
I had gone on the faint path for almost an hour without any success. I tried zig-zagging, still no luck. Eventually I decided to find my way back to the Boy Scout Trail. Maybe I could work my way back and find my path. At some point I should stumble onto my campsite, right? I mean, how big can this desert be?
After almost 2 hours of walking, I had not found the main trail. I was now completely lost. And cold. I found a group of rocks and wedged between two tall ones. I was able to take the weight off my feet, and the rocks surrounded me. So warm!
After a moment I turned on my light. No coyote. I slowly swung the beam one way then the other. He wasn’t there. I swung it back again and something flashed. Holding the light steady, I aimed it toward where I’d seen the flash. There was nothing. But then I saw it again. Just the briefest of flashes. And suddenly, two lights were blinking at me.
As the night wore on, I stumbled about, still half believing I’d find my campsite. By now I was cold, tired, and resigned to my fate. Someday someone would find my bleached bones, scattered across the ground and picked clean by buzzards and my friend out there. Okay, I didn’t really believe that. I wasn’t going to freeze to death, and I had become convinced that Mr. Coyote wasn’t going to eat me.
All through that night, the coyote was there, always just off at the edge of my flashlight. He never moved closer, never made any threatening movements. Nevertheless I was on my guard. As the night wore on I began talking to him. Nothing too deep or philosophical mind you, but enough to make him more amiable to me. Maybe he’d get used to my voice. Then he wouldn’t see me as a threat. Or food.
Periodically through the night I would hear the sound of a car somewhere on the road. It sounded so close! But I couldn’t discern which direction it had come from. This became somewhat maddening. I had no idea which direction I should go to find the road, or my campsite, or the trail. I asked my friend the coyote which way was the road. Needless to say he kept that information to himself.
Sometime before dawn I stumbled across a road. I stood on it and looked up at the stars. When I looked back down I noticed a line running down the middle of the road. This had to be the Park Road! If I walked along this road, eventually I would find my car. “Ha! How ’bout that, Mr. Coyote” I shouted. But he wasn’t there. I realized I hadn’t seen him in a while. Was he still around?
My Car At Last
A pale glow silhouetted the mountains to the east. The day was coming. And so Mr. Coyote had probably headed back to his den, or in search of breakfast. Now it was just me and the road. As long as I went in the right direction, everything would work out. And I was pretty sure which direction to go in. I reasoned that I had crossed the Boy Scout Trail at some point in my meanderings with Mr. Coyote. So turning west on the road should lead me to my car. About 20 minutes later my car came into view, parked by its lonesome at the trailhead. Hurray!
I climbed in the back and lay across the seats, wrapped in a blanket. God, I was tired. I don’t think I stayed awake for more than 5 minutes before I became unconscious. Nothing disturbed my sleep for the next three hours or so. Then I awoke to bright sun and a hot car. Time to go find and pack up my unused campsite! Yes, I had decided I would head back to the Jumbo Rocks campground and find a site there. My chastened self was not prepared for the possibility of getting lost again.
Later that morning I enjoyed a large breakfast burrito and a fresh mug of coffee at the Hidden Valley picnic area. Best food I had eaten in about 18 hours! I sat on a large boulder in the morning sun and sipped my coffee. The previous night’s adventure played back in my brain.
My Spirit Guide
Not having a compass with me was an obvious mistake, given that I was relying entirely on memory and visual reckoning that failed completely in the darkness. Rookie! Leaving a sweater at my campsite was another glaring error. Silly man!
But the coyote had me perplexed. Why was he there? What was he following me for? I obviously didn’t seem a threat to him, and he never behaved aggressively toward me. Was it just curiosity on his part? Not a lot of experience with humans? But then a light went on in my head. Of course! He was looking out for me. It sounds a bit woo-woo, but I kind of think he was there for me, taking car of me, guiding me. A spirit guide, if you will.
And as I mulled that thought over my cup of coffee, my body warmed. I felt light, refreshed, and alive. It was a feeling of electrical energy coursing through me. Everything felt right. I silently thanked my coyote friend and stood up. It was time to get on with my day.