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.
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 day trip itinerary in Joshua Tree National Park.
If you travel counterclockwise on the loop trail, the hike can be broken down into three basic parts. Here’s what you can expect to see on the Barker Dam Trail and the short side hike to Wonderland Ranch!
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.
There are numerous different kinds of cacti here. It’s cool to see the variation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. There are a lot of abandoned ranches in Joshua Tree from the early 1900s, some of which can be visited by park guests.
Wonderland Ranch is 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.
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.
Logistics of Visiting Barker Dam and Wonderland Ranch
The Barker Dam hike is one of the more popular hikes in Joshua Tree, so you will definitely be surrounded by other tourists when you visit. Wonderland Ranch tends to be less popular, since a lot of people don’t even know about it.
The 1.3-mile roundtrip length of the Barker Dam hike makes it easily doable for folks of any fitness level. Assuming that it’s not too hot, of course. When temperatures exceed 90 F, even a short hike like this can cause problems.
There is very little elevation gain on either of these hikes. The Barker Dam trail has about 60 feet of elevation gain. The Wonderland Ranch trail is essentially flat. Dogs are not permitted on the trails.
The parking lot at Barker Dam is pretty large, but it can still fill up on busy days. I always suggest doing hikes this this very early in the day when it’s hot and the park is crowded.
The Barker Dam and Wonderland Ranch trailhead is 15.5 miles (about a 25-minute drive) from the Visitor Center in the town of Joshua Tree itself.
While you’re in Joshua Tree, make sure to also visit the Hall of Horrors slot canyon!