As a habitat for human beings, Pinto Basin is, to say the least, forbidding: a barren lowland surrounded by austere mountains and punctuated by trackless sand dunes. Nevertheless, about 2,000 to 9,000 years ago, native people lived here. Environmental conditions were friendlier then. Creeks flowed across the center of the basin and a forest cloaked the mountainsides.
Still, even in those better times, the people who lived here made some successful adaptations to desert living and forged some specialized tools; anthropologists named these unique ancients Pinto Man. Elizabeth Crozier, an amateur archeologist from Twentynine Palms, began recovering artifacts from the Pinto Basin in the 1930s. Since then evidence of Pinto Man culture has been found in other widely scattered parts of the California desert.
While today's visitor has a difficult time imagining how even the most adaptive hunter-gatherers could have survived in the harsh environs of the Pinto Basin, real estate developers of the 1920s were not at all discouraged by the forbidding land, and began selling parcels for homes and ranches. The Lake County Development Syndicate promised would-be buyers that an investment in Pinto Basin real estate would pay off big--as soon a water source was developed. The water never came, and the Depression of the 1930s ended the developers' scheme.
The hike to Pinto Basin's sand dunes begins at Turkey Flat, the site of an unsuccessful poultry farm in the 1920s. An exploration of the low dunes is one (often overlooked) adventure to be enjoyed in Joshua Tree National Park.
For experienced, well-conditioned hikers, Turkey Flat is the departure point for the climb of 3,983-foot Pinto Mountain, which lords it over the north side of the basin. Three routes, nine to 13 miles round trip, ascend washes, then tackle the shoulders of the peak.
The mellow ramble to the sand dunes, bedecked by lilies and other wildflowers in spring, is one for the whole family. From the parking area, head northeast to the low sandy ridge. Frolic in the sand until tired and return the same way.
While you're traveling through the Pinto Basin region of the park, don't miss the Cholla Cactus Garden just off Pinto Basin Road near mile 10. A quarter-mile-long loop trail, accompanied by an interpretive pamphlet, introduces visitors to desert flora. The highlight of this path is a dense concentration of Bigelow cholla, often called "teddy bear" cactus because of the deceptively soft, even fluffy appearance of its sharp spines. Don't touch, or you'll be sorry.
Directions to trail head: From Joshua Tree National Park's northern boundary at Oasis Visitor Center, head south on the park road into the park. At the first major fork in the road, head left (southwest) on Pinto Basin Road. The trail is located 12 miles west of the junction with Old Dale Road, and five miles east of Ocotillo Patch.
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Pinto Basin Trail
WHERE: Joshua Tree National Park.
DISTANCE: To sand dunes is 2 miles or so round trip.
TERRAIN: Stark, creosote-dotted basin, low sand dunes.
HIGHLIGHTS: An emptiness that inspires; early human occupation of area.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277, tel. (619) 367-7511.