Drinkin’ from the Devil's Punchbowl

Hiking through and learning the history of a relatively hidden alien landscape on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

By: Masa Kato + Save to a List

We Have Landed on Mars

Unsettling. That is the one word I often use to describe the Devil's Punchbowl. It's a landscape that seems like it shouldn't be where it is, reminiscent of extra-terrestrial terrain, and paradoxically both in the desert and in the mountains. Oh, and it's named Devil's Punchbowl.

Misconceptions aside, the Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area is a deep canyon that was cut by water from the San Gabriel Mountains. Layers formed as sediment was deposited, and eventually the Punchbowl, Pinyon, and San Andreas Faults pushed the striated sandstone up into diagonal outcroppings. Curiously, despite being located at the western tip of the Mojave, the Punchbowl predominantly features Pinyon pines and other alpine flora. Its unusual combination of geography and flora makes this one hell of a place to explore and hike through. Sure beats yoga-pants Runyon, Angelenos.

The Changing Landscape 

Once you reach flatlands at the northern base of the San Gabriels, you'll drive down a maze of small roads south of Pearblossom Highway towards the park. The terrain quickly changes from dirt, dirt and more dirt; to dirt and the occasional Joshua tree; and then to Joshua trees and Juniper shrubs. The Joshua trees are then replaced altogether by Whipple Yuccas, Beavertail cactus, and other chaparral bushes. All of this within a 10-mile drive.

Upon approaching the entrance of the park, you'll notice oddly tilted stone formations to your left, pictured above. Those are the beginnings of the Punchbowl formations. It took over a million years to form these reliefs!

Hiking the Bowl

You can get a closer look at the impressive rock faces and surrounding wildlife by exploring some of the park's many trails. My go-to hike is a moderate one-mile loop trail that leads you down into the canyon through a series of narrow walkways filled with switchbacks. This route will take you down 300 feet into the deepest pit of the canyon and back up to the Nature Center.

For a more challenging trek, try the trail to the Devil's Chair. It's an 8-mile out-and-back journey to a promontory that overlooks the valley floor and the surrounding mountains. Be careful, as this trail gets very narrow at times and can be steep and slippery.

If you're hiking in the summer or fall, don't forget to dip your toes in the small stream beds along the way or scramble up the massive vertical formations for 360-degree views of the park. For winter and early spring hiking, be sure to bring layers and be on the lookout for snow. Whatever season you choose to visit, bring water and lots of it. It's a no-brainer but I am saying it anyway: hiking in the desert makes you thirsty.

Bonus: during full moons, the rangers and local hikers often host group night hikes to explore the buzzing nocturnal critter scene.

Mountains, Meet Desert

I think the Punchbowl is especially noteworthy because of its proximity to the baseline of the mountains behind it. Driving from my casa in northeast Los Angeles, the easiest way to get to the Punchbowl is up into San Gabriel Mountains and through the Angeles National Forest. Full disclosure, to be fair: I love going to the mountains and am open to use any excuse to do so. Crisp mountain air, the smell of wild sagebrush and pine trees, a view of the city and beyond. Add that to the promise of funky desert scenery and I'm hightailin' it out.

Should you go my way, it takes about an hour and a half to cross the mountains and drive down through the desert into the park. Joshua Trees lead the way to yuccas in the canyon, which lead to Pinyon Pines in the low woodlands, which turn into to Coulter and Pinyon Pines up into the mountainside, and then the peaks are topped off with bristly White Firs. Where else can you see this type of geographical and ecological mishmash?

The Devil's Punchbowl is a true Southern California gem.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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