It goes without saying that water is important in the desert and in Joshua Tree that is no different. A dam was built here by early pioneers to improve a natural tank in the granite outcrops.
A rancher by the name of C.O. Barker built it around 1902 to water his cattle. Along with the nearby Cow Camp reservoir, it was an important watering hole for cattle and miners alike, who competed with each other for the water.
Barker and a man named Shay set up camp at Cow Camp in direct competition with Keys for use of the Barker Reservoir. In 1917, Keys added on to the dam in an effort to claim it from the cattlemen. Bill Keys and family built the unusual double-ring water trough below the dam and added six feet to the top of the dam in 1949-50, renamed it the “Big Horn Dam”.
These days, the trail tends to be well-visited and it is unlikely you will be alone. However, Barker Dam is a wonderfully unique place, and the trail is a great one to bring children along and introduce them to quintessential Joshua Tree.
Park at the graded dirt Barker Dam parking lot in Joshua Tree National Park. It is about a mile north of the Hidden Valley Campground. It is easy to find, just follow the signs.
|Hike Distance||1.3 miles (2.1km) Loop|
|Elevation Gain, Loss||120 ft (37m) gain round trip|
|Hike Time||30 minutes|
From the restroom at the parking lot, follow the trail that heads northwest into the amazing giant granite (White Tank monzogranite) boulder wilderness of the Wonderland of Rocks. You quickly come to a trail junction in a sandy wash where the trail begins its loop. I prefer to continue straight to Barker Dam, but you can just as easily make a left here and follow the loop the other way around. The remarkably straight trail continues through an ancient joint in the bedrock that has been eroded away into this small canyon. There are some small steps and boulders to scramble over but nothing difficult.
Early in the season or after a big rain, there will be water in the pond behind Barker Dam, sometimes quite a bit. It is an important watering hole for wildlife in this area with few other sources of available water. If things are quiet, bighorn sheep will occasionally come down for a twilight drink. Surprisingly, I have seen frogs here too. Shortly after a rain, they will sprout up seemingly out of thin air. Their lifespan is short in this harsh environment. Then they must mate quickly to continue their cycle of life. The pond is a great place to sit quietly at sunset.
The trail can be a little tricky to find around the pond. It skirts wide of the pond to the south (on the left-hand side) and scrambles over bedrock and boulders. If you head over the top of the dam, you are on the right course. Climb down to the bottom of the dam on the other side. Below the dam are the remains of a double rim cattle watering trough built by Keys in 1939.
From there, head west and down onto flat ground. The trail is easy to follow from here on out. Small informational signs of plants and history line the trail as it makes its way across the flat. This area is known as Piano Flat and out in the middle stands an outcrop of granite called Piano Rock, so called because it looks like a piano from some angles. After 0.3 miles, you will have crossed the flat and come to another large outcrop of boulders. One of them has a large alcove overhang. Tucked inside the alcove are a set of artificially painted pictographs known locally as the “Disney Pictographs.” Legend has it these were once a set of authentic pictographs. A film crew, contracted by Disney for work on a film project, painted over the original faint pictographs to be able to see them better and added some of their own for effect. The damage, of course, is irreversible. Still, it is an interesting site to visit and marvel at once was.
From the pictographs, turn left (east) and follow along the boulder wall until the trail enters a short canyon and meets up at the trail junction. Turn right here and head back to the parking lot.
This trail tends to be well-visited, and it is unlikely you will be alone. However, Barker Dam is a wonderfully unique place, and the trail is a great one to bring children along and introduce them to quintessential Joshua Tree.