The Pinto Mountains Wilderness is a twenty-five thousand acre BLM property in southern California. The stark terrain is a combination of sparsely vegetated alluvial plain and the dark, sweeping peaks of the thirty-mile-long Pinto Mountain Range, half of which lies within the boundaries of the wilderness. The wilderness is bordered to the south by the Joshua Tree National Park and to the north by the BLM lands of the Sheep Valley Wilderness and the Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness. It's a reasonably accessible wilderness that is just a short distance from the cultured and historically rich desert oasis city of Twentynine Palms.
The Pinto Mountains Wilderness and the surrounding areas are great for both outback hiking and trekking along defined trails. It's a region of the US renowned for its dark skies, unpolluted atmosphere and incredible sunrises and sunsets that are stunning enough to spark the creative muse in any photographer. Wildlife is abundant and varied, so you could see anything from a roadrunner racing across the plains to bighorn sheep scaling the lower slopes of the mountains. While vehicle access to the wilderness is prohibited and camping is limited to dispersed tent camping only, there are good campgrounds suitable for RV camping close to the wilderness in the Joshua Tree National Park.
Once you've had enough of the wild country, you'll find there are some interesting things to do in Twentynine Palms itself. There you could find yourself strolling around the city's extensive mural exhibition, learning what it was like to survive in bygone days with a visit to Keys Ranch or just relaxing with a bucket of popcorn at the local drive-in movie.
The Pinto Mountains Wilderness is, for a BLM wilderness property, exceptionally easy to get to. The CA 92, or Twentynine Palms Highway, runs right along the northern border of the wilderness from east to west, or vice versa, so you won't even need to get out of your rig to get your first glimpse of the mountain-backed desert plains. Don't turn off onto the Old Dale Mine Road which runs off the CA 92 and into the wilderness. It might be an interesting drive full of old mines worthy of exploring, but it's a single-lane dirt track suitable for four by fours or OHVs only.
If you've been over to the east RV camping in the Prescott National Forest in Arizona, you'll have around a four and a half hour drive in front of you which will take you through the rugged, but scenic lands of the Colorado River Reservation before you cross the state border into California. If you've been camping out in your RV in the San Bernardino National Forest south of Palm Springs, you'll be in for an easy run along the CA 62 that will take under an hour and a half. If you hired your RV and picked it up in Los Angeles after flying in from out of state, you'll have just over three hours on the Californian highways to get used to being behind the wheel of the rig before you need to start thinking about how to go about pitching camp.
There are eight campgrounds in the Joshua Tree National Park with the closest to the Pinto Mountains Wilderness being the Belle Campground and the Jumbo Rocks Campground. Both campgrounds close during the peak summer months from the beginning of June through to the end of August because of the intense heat. Generator use is permitted at both campgrounds, but the hours are restricted to three two-hour slots a day. There is no cell phone coverage in either campground. The maximum length of RV that can be catered for at both sites is thirty-five feet.
The Belle Campground is reached via a fifteen-minute drive from Twentynine Palms down Park Boulevard. It's a primitive campground with just eighteen pitches that operates on a first-come-first-served basis. There are no on-site amenities other than one block of vault toilets, no hookups, and no drinking water although each campsite is furnished with a picnic table and grill.
The Jumbo Rocks Campground has one-hundred and twenty-four campsites which are allocated on a reservation system from October through to May. The campground can be accessed by driving along Park Boulevard for about twenty minutes. While fire pits and a picnic table are provided at each pitch there are no hook-ups or water on-site.
Hiking in the Pinto Mountain Wilderness is best done during the cooler months of the year as temperatures on the desert plains can be extreme in mid-summer. If you're not into outback hiking, try the California Hiking and Biking Trail which runs adjacent to the western border of the wilderness and into the Joshua Tree National Park for a total of thirty-seven miles. The trailhead is a short distance south of Twentynine Palms on Park Boulevard.
Next to it is the trailhead for the Contact Mine Trail which is a four-mile out and back trek over a desert wash to an old mine. If you're not averse to scrambling, try the Pinto Mountain Trail. It's a difficult ten-mile loop with an elevation gain of two and a half thousand feet with fantastic views from the high points, but not a hike for the unfit or novice hiker.
Although you'll need to spend the night under canvas to see it at its clearest, the dark skies of the Pinto Mountain Wilderness are one of the best places in the US for stargazing. Summertime is when you can see various meteor showers and the Milky Way.
In the fall, the Great Square of Pegasus makes an appearance, as does Orion during the winter. If you're heading to the wilderness in September, you might want to attend the Night Sky Festival in Joshua Tree National Park. If your visit doesn't coincide but you'd like to know more about the night skies you're observing, make a visit to the Sky's The Limit Nature Center and Observatory outside the park's north entrance.
Once you've seen and explored some of the Pinto Mountain Wilderness, you'll probably begin to imagine just how difficult an environment it would be to live in.
You can see what it was truly like for one family by heading over to the historic Keys Ranch. Access to the ranch, where there are original buildings still standing as well as lots of farming and mining equipment, is by pre-booked ranger-lead tours only. You can make a reservation at the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms or via the recreation.gov website.
The Pinto Mountains Wilderness offers keen photographers some amazing opportunities for different types of shots that even professional snappers would be proud to add to their collection. The sunrises over the desert plains are incredible, though you'll need to be an early bird to catch the stunning display of artist palette hues.
If you're not an early riser, wait for the afternoons and catch shots of the amazing sunsets instead. As the sun sinks lower in the sky, the diminishing rays turn the mountains purple. That's a photo worth spending the night in a tent for.
If you want to combine your visit to the Pinto Mountains Wilderness with a great fun activity, go in April when the Coachella Festival is on. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is a ten-day event held at the beginning of April in Indio, which is around a one hour drive from the wilderness.
One of the largest music festivals held anywhere in the US, the event showcases live bands of all genres from the moment it opens until it closes. As well as live music on the multiple stages, there are massive art displays and DJs plus food stalls and the odd beer tent or two.
When you're visiting the Pinto Mountains Wilderness, take time out to head back to Twentynine Palms to see the Oasis of Murals. Pick up a brochure and map from the Oasis Visitor Center then hit the streets ready to be awe-inspired by the amazing artwork that decorates the city's walls. Each one of the twenty-six different murals depicts either life in the city, its history or the area's wildlife and environment. They are truly incredible.