Hiking to Wonderland Ranch and Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park

In 1900, Barker Dam was built in the California desert to collect water for cattle and mining operations. Today, it’s the midpoint of the Barker Dam Hike in Joshua Tree National Park, a popular hike that also takes visitors to the abandoned Wonderland Ranch.

I went on this hike on a February morning, which was the perfect time to go. You don’t want to be hiking around the park in the middle of summer – it’s way too hot.

joshua tree hike - wonderland ranch

As a 1.3-mile loop hike, the Barker Dam Trail is a moderately easy excursion that allows visitors to get a good sense of the park. That makes it part of our suggested one-day itinerary in Joshua Tree National Park. The hike can be broken down into three basic parts, as follows.

Part 1: Stroll past cacti and other plant life

The beginning of the trail takes hikers across a flat dirt trail and through some large rocks. You won’t see a lot of color here. But that just means that when color does appear, it tends to pop, standing out against the grays and browns.

yellow flower - wonderland and ohlson hike

red bush

There are numerous different kinds of cacti here. It’s cool to see the variation.

cacti on trail

cactus sun

Wildlife was sparse, with a few small lizards here and there. A couple dozen other hikers shared the trail with me – just the right amount to not feel isolated but not feel overcrowded.

barker dam trail rocks

Part 2: Barker Dam

The dam was built by ranchers who lived here in the late 1800s. They needed water for their cattle, and a dam sounded like a good idea since it only rained 10 inches a year here. (Unfortunate truth: Today it only rains 2-5 inches a year.)

Miners also needed water, so the Barker & Shay Cattle Company set up the dam which remains in place today. During my visit, there wasn’t a ton of water, but it still served as a popular rest point. One guy set up an easel and spent the day painting. Other folks sat around eating lunch and taking photos. Bring some hiking snacks and relax here for a while!

Supposedly bighorn sheep sometimes stop by here, but all I saw were a few birds.

barker dam rest

barker dam lake

Part 3: Joshua Trees and open trail

Past the dam is a more open path with lots of joshua trees everywhere. This is the most exposed part of the hike, with little shade from the bright sun.

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trail path joshua tree

hikers joshua

trees up close

One of the coolest contrasting sights is seeing the joshua trees in the hot desert up close and the snow-capped mountain in the distance.

joshua tree mountain snow

Most unusual sight: A bike rack! I guess mountain bikers might want to make use of it. But it’s still strange to see a bike rack in the middle of a trail in the middle of the desert.

bike rack joshua tree

Side Trip: Wonderland Ranch and Ohlson House

Walk to the right of the trailhead for the Barker Dam Trail, and before long you’ll reach Wonderland Ranch, an abandoned ranch from decades ago. It’s also known as Ohlson House, after the Ohlson family, who apparently moved here in the early 1900s in search of gold.

Today, the ruins consist of a couple of partial buildings, one of which is bright pink, standing out in the desert landscape. This was a popular spot with visitors, who took lots of Instagram selfies amid the ruins.

wonderland ranch hike - exterior

ohlson house joshua tree

house with fireplace

wonderland ranch

The desert usually doesn’t offer such a quirky piece of history, so if you have the time, head over to the ranch ruins to check it out.

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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