Unlike any other places in Joshua Tree National Park, a visit to Barker Dam requires precise timing. Convenient location and a short trail indeed guarantee easy access. Lack of water, though, if you arrive at the wrong time, can ruin your entire visit to Barker Dam.
Visit Barker Dam: Introduction
Barker Dam, or else known as the Big Horn Dam, is a small reservoir in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. The unique landmark looks so strange and foreign in this harsh desert terrain. Yet the hostile location doesn’t bother Barker Dam that has stirred up interest in thousands of visitors for more than a hundred years.
Travelers all over the world visit Barker Dam in hopes of finding a small oasis in the center of usually dry Joshua Tree National Park. In spring and fall, the place welcomes enthusiastic hikers, mountaineers that take a break from their more tedious endeavors, and families with kids that can get enough of lush vegetation along a trail.
Even desert animals, in particularly bighorn sheep and different species of birds, can’t resist the water storage reservoir. Consequently, more nature-loving travelers visit Barker Dam and feast their eyes on these locals. Sadly, though, the irresistible destination transforms into a lovely oasis infrequently. We’ll go back to it later. As for now, let’s start our visit to Barker Dam with a short introduction to its intriguing history.
Visit Barker Dam: History in a Nutshell
Located between Queen Valley and the Wonderland of Rocks, Barker Dam dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, cattle ranching thrived in the area. Interestingly enough, raising cattle turned out to be a profitable business. Even the deserts with their rather limited resources seemed to alight with the early cattlemen’ ambitions, providing enough food for the domesticated animals.
Yet the harshness of the desert region with its scorching heat and limited water supplies was real. The first ranchers and miners didn’t have any other choices but fight it and look for ways to preserve this vital resource. A dam that could hold rain water sounded like a good idea.
There is little information available why the early cattlemen chose this particular location for the reservoir. Convenient location and easy access that would allow both humans and animals to visit Barker Dam probably played not the last role in the final decision.
Eventually, the dam was constructed in 1902. The Barker & Shay Cattle Company took responsibility of building the lower portion of the water-holding reservoir. Consequently, the dam was named after one of its fathers, C.O. Barker.
Half a century later, in 1949-1950, the Keys family improved the dam. The successful cattlemen and miners raised the Barker Dam. An additional six feet of concrete was added to the structure. The functions of the place, however, didn’t change a bit. The wild animals as well as cattle continued going to Barker Dam to fulfill their needs for drinking water.
While the livestock hardly make it to the reservoir today, many hikers still visit Baker Dam, hoping to find a charming oasis in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park.
Location and how to Visit Barker Dam
Arriving from the Northwest
The odd-looking reservoir nestles within the Wonderland of Rocks near the Wall Street Mill in Joshua Tree National Park. To get to Barker Dam from the northwest, follow Park Boulevard until you reach Barker Dam Road. Turn left and continue driving along Barker Dam Road for approximately 1.5 miles, passing by Hidden Valley campground along the way. A rather big parking lot with restrooms and a map marks the end of your driving adventure and the beginning of the hiking part of your visit to Barker Dam.
Arriving from the South
When planning your visit to Barker Dam from the south, enter Joshua Tree National Park from the South Entrance near Cottonwood Spring. Follow Cottonwood Spring Road. The road changes to Pinto Basin Road at the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Drive along Pinto Basin Road for approximately 30 miles until it reaches the turnoff for Park Boulevard. Turn left and drive along this road for nearly 12 miles. Take a right upon reaching Barker Dam Road and continue along it for 1.5 miles until you stumble upon the Barker Dam parking lot.
TIP: During peak season from September to May, the parking lot is usually full. You can either drive around waiting for a parking spot to open up or park in Echo T parking lot. The place sits just to the west of the Barker Dam parking area. Parking in this lot, however, extends your visit to Barker Dam. The Echo T Connector Trail adds extra 0.6 miles to the Barker Dam Trail loop, making it nearly 2-mile long.
The Best Time to Visit Barker Dam
Similar to the majority of the places in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park welcomes outdoor enthusiasts all year round. Consequently, a visit to Barker Dam can enhance your hiking adventures at any season.
Summer, however, adds some challenges to your outdoor pursuits. The excruciating heat shortens the time you can safely enjoy the area. Thus, plan you visit to Barker Dam early in the morning before the heat becomes unbearable or later in the afternoon. Furthermore, make a large bottle of water your indispensable companion while you visit the Barker Dam at this time of the year.
Winter in Joshua Tree National Park might be windy. Yet it barely interferes with your outdoor adventures, including the visit to Barker Dam.
Spring and fall are by far the most enjoyable times to visit the historic Barker Dam. Along with the pleasant weather, fewer crowds flock to the area. It’s quite possible to have the whole reservoir to yourself at this time, especially if you hike early in the morning.
When to Visit Barker Dam to Find Water in It
The merciless sun and high summer temperatures, however, are not the biggest hurdles when it comes to your visit to Barker Dam. A lack of water in the lake disappoints even more than the unbearable conditions. Indisputably, the summer heat dries up the reservoir right away. Furthermore, any precipitation is a rare appearance during the dry season. While visiting Barker Dam in summer can still be a rewarding experience, hardly any water remains in the reservoir.
The liquid accumulates in the dam after a rainy season, which is usually winter and spring. So plan you visit to Barker Dam the day after rains to increase your chances of finding the man-made oasis.
Yet even the rainy season doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find the dam filled with water. We visited Barker Dam at the end of March, and the place was as dry as the rest of the desert. A true desert environment doesn’t hold on to its water for long, constantly loosing it to the scorching sun and thirsty wild animals.
Visit Barker Dam: Hike
The only way to visit Barker Dam is by hiking the Barker Dam Nature Trail. A 1-mile loop trail starts at the parking lot and takes from 40 to 60 minutes to complete. The trailhead is well-marked. Yet if you visit the Barker Dam during the peak season, you don’t need any signs or even maps. Crowds of hikers head in the same direction, completely eliminating any possibilities of getting lost or taking a wrong turn.
The trail is easy and suits all skill levels. Furthermore, festooned with denser vegetation along the way, it’s considered one of the favorite hikes in Joshua Tree National Park. Spoiled by extra moisture distributed from the lake, Joshua trees, creosote, Mojave yucca, and piñon pines add some green color to the barren land.
The popular hike hardly experiences any elevation gain, allowing the majority of the Joshua Tree National Park’s guests to hit the trail and visit Barker Dam. Some areas, though, require little rock scrambling. Yet it’s so insignificant that even a child can do it.
To make your visit to Barker Dam even more impactful, park’s rangers have installed interpretive signs along the trail with interesting facts from the dam’s history and its use. Overall, the trail works for hiking, walking, or simply stretching your legs after a long drive.
As the loop advances to its end, another remarkable site enhances your outdoor pursuits. You can hardly imagine that a visit to Barker Dam can unveil a small portion of the ancient history of Joshua Tree National Park.
As you get closer to the parking lot, a large rock comes into view. It would look like any other boulders spread across the park if not for its vivid petroglyphs. The drawings made by Native Americans centuries ago give an unparalleled glimpse at human history of the Joshua Tree National Park area.
While the encryptions remain mostly unspoiled, their colors were enhanced for an old Hollywood movie. This was the only modification allowed at the site. Today, you can admire the petroglyphs from a distance. No climbing or disrupting the rock in any other ways is tolerated. Joshua Tree National Park and its rangers strive to preserve this unique historical artifact for many other visitors to enjoy.
Can You Swim in Barker Dam?
A visit to Barker Dam never raises any concern. Swimming in the lake, however, is out of question. The dam was built to preserve the scarce desert water, not to use it foolishly. Apart from it, the water level is usually too low to plunge into the water and enjoy a swim. Moreover, as we mentioned before, you have more chances of visiting Barker Dam when it’s dry than overflowed with the rain water.
Must-Visit Places Near Barker Dam
Wall Street Mill
Barker Dam, however, was just one area where the progressive cattleman and miner, Bill Keys, saw an opportunity to prosper. During the Great Depression, mining regions in Southern California, including the Joshua Tree National Park area, experienced the second gold rush.
Considering the situation, Keys anticipated an urgent need for gold processing mill. Luckily, the place near Baker Dam already had an existing well. The cattleman only had to acquire stamp mill and other machinery that could be used for processing ore for small mine operators.
History: The Mall Street Mill finally joined the gold processing family in 1930. Keys operated the site as the need was arising, charging fee for his services. When the gold dried up in the area, the mill slowly ceased its functions. The Wall Street Mill hasn’t been in operation since 1966.
Trail: Yet the historic structure remains quite an attraction, alluring numerous history buffs. To the delight of the outdoor enthusiasts, a well-marked trail to the Mall Street Mill sits a short walk away from the Barker Dam Nature Trail’s trailhead. Heading northeast, the round trip path runs for 2.2 miles and takes on average 1 hour to complete.
Similar to the visit to Barker Dam, hiking to the Mall Street Mill doesn’t require any specific skills. The trail in relatively flat and easy. Although only a two-stamp mill, a building that covers it, the well, and a well pump remind of the former duties of the area, the site still gathers a myriad of adventurous travelers of all hiking skill levels and ages.
Pioneertown is another historic place you must visit after exploring Barker Dam. Located about 26.5 miles (48 minutes) away, the place keeps the Old West’s legacy alive. Although none of the structures of the fake town lived through those remarkable days, the area serves as the most entertaining western settlement and film set up to this day.
The place was built in the 1940’s for the sole purpose of reviving the former glory of the Wild West. As in his early days, Pioneertown still brims with a handful of small shops, a few eateries, and ample examples of the era of cowboys.
When exploring the places Bill Keys had a direct or indirect connection with, you absolutely must add an early businessman’s abode to your visit to Barker Dam. The Keys Ranch nestles 2 miles (7 minutes) from the reservoir and serves as the greatest example of the early settlement in the area.
The complex includes several buildings, constructed between 1910 and 1969. The ranch hasn’t seen any changes since Keys’s death. Today, it’s regarded as one of the main historic landmarks in the area.
Tours: Unlike the spontaneous adventures at Barker Dam, a visit to the Keys Ranch requires proper planning. In fact, you must book a ranger-guided tour in advance. In order to preserve the property in its untouched conditions, no self-guided visits are allowed. On average, the tour lasts 90 minutes. The best time to visit the Keys Ranch before or after you hike to Barker Dam is from October though May. The property remains closed in summer and at the beginning of fall.
Admission: Adults: $10, children (6-11): $5.
Things to Know Before You Visit Barker Dam
- Pets are not allowed on the hiking trails.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Don’t push yourself to the limit and return immediately if you went through half of your water supplies.
- Bikes and any other transports are not allowed on neither the Barker Dam Nature Trail nor on the Wall Street Mill Trail.
- Restrain from staying overnight near the Barker Dam area. Camping in Joshua Tree National Park is allowed only by permit and only in designated areas.
- Leave no trace. Don’t disturb the historic artwork, structures, trees, or desert wildlife while visiting Barker Dam.
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