"Dic" Dowen Nature Trail

This self guided nature trail is a one-half mile, handicap accessible walk, which will take about 30 minutes to complete. The information below will introduce you to the geology, plants and animals of Saddleback Butte State Park. Learn how the strange-looking Joshua tree provides habitat for animals in this challenging environment, and walk among one of the oldest living plants on earth, the creosote bush.

The desert is a fragile place. A delicate balance must be preserved among its natural elements for the survival of all. Accordingly, please observe the following rules:

  • All animals, plants, and rocks within the State Park boundaries are protected by law and are not to be removed or disturbed.
  • Dogs are not permitted on the trail.
  • Please stay on the trail at all times. Certain resident species of snakes are venomous. In the unlikely event that you encounter a snake on your walk, simply stop and let it go its own way.

There are a total of 17 posts along the trail. The numbers below correspond with the numbers on each post.

Richard "Dic" Dowen

Local activist, environmentalist and teacher Richard "Dic" Dowen hiked the trails of Saddleback Butte State Park frequently. He found the solitude and beauty of the desert inspirational, and led many others to share in this love.

A science teacher in local schools for 23 years, Richard also served on the neighboring Wilsona School Board. He always pushed toward the establishment of curricula that developed an appreciation of the desert.

Richard was a driving force behind several of the valley's environmental and community groups. His energies, visions, and financial committment were evident in the many projects he launched.

If Richard were here to guide you personally, he would want you to be aware not only of the individual plant and animal adaptations to the land, but also to appreciate the environment as a whole ecological picture: how the valley's soil and shape are a result of the mountains which border it. He would further ask that you protect its fragile nature by making every day Earth Day.

This trail is dedicated to Richard and his labor to help appreciate the desert's unique qualities.

1. High Desert

You are now standing at 2,668 feet above sea level in the "high desert," which endures both extreme heat and sub-freezing temperatures. Local wildflowers and animals have adapted to survive in the region's challenging climatic conditions.

2. Saddleback Butte

From this perch, you can see Saddleback Butte towering 1,000 feet over broad alluvial fans of sand and gravel that have washed down over thousands or years.

Saddleback is a prime example of Antelope Valley's characteristic granite buttes, rocky outcrops that formed 70 million years ago deep below the earth's surface as molten (melted) rock cooled slowly and crystallized into granite. Gradually, wind and rain eroded the surrounding soil away.

Look closely at the blend of crystals and colored minerals in the rocks.

3. Blow Sand

Strong winds deposit on the lee (wind-protected) sides of mountains and buttes. Can you tell from which direction the wind predominantly blows to deposit sand on this side.

4. Desert Varnish

The dark outer coating on the south-facing rock surfaces is a type of oxidation referred to as "desert varnish."

Early humans typically chose south-facing caves in cliffs and mountains for shelter, because it is warmed by the low winter sun and shaded from the high summer sun. Who do you think might live in these crevices now?

5. Pleistocene Animals

10,000 years ago, a prehistoric lake covered the valley and animals such as mammoth-like Gomphotheres, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves roamed the area. Can you find their tracks on the trail?

Gaze across the Joshua tree forest and imagine a giant Ground Sloth slowly eating the seed pods, as prehistoric camels and miniature horses ambled by.

6. Creosote Bushes

Creosote bushes, like the one in front of you, have been widespread in American deserts since prehistoric times. Notice how these bushes form part of a ring; the original plant grew in the middle and generations of clones sprouted outwards from its roots. Some creosote clone rings have been dated at almost 12,000 years old, making them among the oldest living things on earth. Look for other rings as you continue on the trail.

7. Joshua Trees

The majestic Joshua tree grows only in the Mojave Desert area. Not a true tree but an Agave plant, the fibrous trunks do not have annual growth rings that trees do, so there is no easy way to determine their age. They may live for only a couple hundred years. Creamy-white blossoms cover branch ends in spring, but only if winter rains have been adequate.

The valley's Mormon pioneers have been credited with the naming of the Joshua tree, likening it to the uplifted arms of the bearded prophet Joshua.

8. Cycle of the Desert

Renewal is all around you. Look for ant mounds with their rings of ejected seed husks, mixed with darker nutrient-rich soil cycled up from below ground.

This dead Joshua tree is still an important element in the cycle of the desert. It provides a home and protection for many creatures as it slowly decomposes and returns vital nutrients to the soil.

Insects are helping in the decomposition process, and feeding on the insects is the yucca night lizard, which makes its home under fallen branches. In turn, the lizard is prey for snakes, which are then stalked by roadrunners and other predators. The dead Joshua tree begins this food chain.

9. Rainfall

About 100 feet to the south you can see a wash, where floodwaters carved the land as they rushed down from the buttes during the desert's periodic downpours.

After a wet winter, spring flowers grow quickly and scatter their seeds before the summer heat can destroy them. Seeds may lie dormant for decades until just the right conditions occur for germination.

10. Tree of Life

Walk around this Joshua, a "tree of life." Look for empty seed pods on the ground, discarded after birds and rodents ate or collected the seeds. Spy animal tracks and burrows around the base of the tree. Can you see bare branches where birds, such as owls, have perched? Numerous small holes in the trunk were probably made by a flicker or a ladder-backed woodpecker searching for insects. Look for chewed off leaves that rodents, such as the Desert Woodrat, used for food and building material. Listen for hidden creatures scampering around, and the wind whistling through the protective leaves.

Joshuas were also part of life for the local Indians. The fibrous leaves were pounded and woven into rope. The red roots were highly valued for weaving colorful patterns into their basketry. Blossoms could be eaten, and in the summer, seeds were ground into flour and cooked as mush.

11. Desert Plants and Animals

Desert plants and animals have developed many adaptation to survive in this sometimes harsh environment. Animals often only emerge from thier burrows in the cooler hours of the evening or morning to avoid the hot sun. Some get all the water they need from the plant they eat. The Silver Cholla (CHOY-uh) is beautiful, but not to be touched. Hooked spines help to protect the plant from the drying sun and wind, and cactus wrens sometimes build their nests in the cholla for safety.

Notice the many dead or declining Joshua trees. Climate change has reduced the reproduction rates of Joshua trees in much of their range, and they are slow to spread into new areas where their population will be able to thrive.

12. Creosote Bushes

Creosote bushes have tiny leaves and a hard outer skin to help retain moisture. Deep roots help to draw water from far below, and surface roots spread wide to absorb every drop of rainwater.

Pinch and smell the leaves. After rain storms, the creosote exudes this distinctive, pungent odor that fills the desert air. Local Indians used the leaves of this plant for healing cuts.

Look for signs of animal life in the sandy soil beneath the bush. Many animals such as the threatened Desert Tortoise dig burrows here for their homes. Please, do not tease or disturb animals that you might see, as this is their home.

13. Joshua Seeds

This lone Joshua is an example of reproduction by seeds, perhaps carried to this spot by the desert wind, or a bird, or possibly even a small rodent while burying its store of seeds. The clumps of Joshuas nearby are sprouted from older trees' roots, which is more commonly found on the west side of the valley.

14. Fallen Joshua Tree

Looking closely at the fallen Joshua; you can see the fibrous nature of the "wood". Early pioneers used it as a clean-burning fuel for heating and cooking. But remember, do not pick up or disturb downed Joshua branches in the park as they are a part of the ecosystem.

Do you see an unusual accumulation of bark and wood? This is a Desert Woodrat (or packrat) "midden", or home, which may be occupied for many generations.

15. Indian Trade Corridor

Look southward to Lovejoy Butte, in Lake Los Angeles. Several flowing springs and easy access from all directions made the Antelope Valley a major Indian trade corridor for items from the Southwest, California coast, and Great Basin Desert culture regions.

16. Desert Rocks

Lichen attached to the rock is slowly breaking it down with its acid. Notice, too, the plants growing in cracks in the rock. As the roots grow, they enlarge the crack and break great boulders apart, as does the desert's extreme cycles of heating and freezing.

17. Animal Tracks

Look for footprints in the trail of once-common Antelope Valley animals such as the Mojave Ground Squirrel and the Kit Fox, whose populations are declining due to urban sprawl and habitat loss.

Parks are created to ensure that plants and creatures have a home where they are not threatened by development. Your support and respect is critical for their survival! Please make your voice heard in support of our parks, and bring others so that they too may connect with this unique place.


Thank you for exploring the "Dic" Dowen Nature Trail. We hope you have gained a new appreciation for suvival in this challenging environment.