Hiking to Barker Dam and Wonderland Ranch in Joshua Tree NP

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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.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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. People sat around the eating snacks and taking photos. One guy even had an easel set up and appeared to be painting.

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

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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