Without a trained eye and a proper reverence for desert solitude and its hauntingly empty beauty, one might pass through Pinto Basin in Joshua Tree National Park and find herself terribly underwhelmed. As one Trip Advisor complainer put it, “The Pinto Basin was boring compared to the west end of the park. The flora and formations are few and far between.”
Indeed, there aren’t many tourist-wooing attractions along the long, slow, paved road from the Oasis Visitor Center in the north to Palm Springs. But the slow transition from high Mojave Desert to low Colorado Desert is full of the kind of arid loneliness and unfriendly, prickly flora that made greats like Edward Abbey and John Muir swoon.
Contained within the vast Pinto Basin are gems like the Cholla Cactus Garden, through which morning sunlight streams and ignites sharp needles in golden hues. The Ocotillo Patch just beyond is an explosion of color after even the slightest rain. The red-tipped succulent bursts into bloom upon receiving moisture, and it is a beautiful sight to behold. To get there from the Oasis Visitor Center, take a left at the fork 5 miles south and continue on for 9 miles.
Another of the most important desert treasures are the Pinto Basin Sand Dunes. Though there is no maintained trail that gains access to the dunes, the ridge is visible from Turkey Flats. Shooting across the desert directly north by northeast brings you to the site. Though these are not traditional sand dunes, a modest layer of fine sand covers an elevated ridge. It marks the line between two opposing faults that have been slowly forced apart over millions of years, causing mountainous uplifts on either side and establishing most of the topography that can be seen from this vantage point.
The Pinto Basin is home to a wealth of rare desert fauna including the sidewinder rattlesnake, the jackrabbit, and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, which is only found in the immediate dune vicinity. This habitat also hosts desert tortoises that burrow in the sand beneath the scrub brush.
Most motorized travel on unpaved roads such as Black Eagle Mine Road and Old Dale Road requires an all-terrain vehicle. Any off-trail travel, motorized or otherwise, should be accompanied by careful and savvy navigation involving GPS coordinates.