Arriving in Joshua Tree National Park feels a bit like entering a Dr. Seuss story, and not just because of the bulbous boulders and whimsical yucca trees. Joshua Tree is like a fantasyland for rock climbers thanks to an endless number of world-class routes. And if you aren’t into climbing? There’s still plenty of scrambles, hikes, and all-around rad adventures to be had in the massive desert park.
Read on for your weekend guide to it all by Dirtbag Darling Blogger, Johnie
GETTING THERE: Fly into Vegas or Palm Springs for cheap and rent a car large enough to sleep in—I suggest a mini van so you have plenty of storage (getting a $30 Costco membership can lower your car rental rate, too). The trip is about three hours depending where you leave from. There are three entrances to the park: five miles south of the the Highway 62/Park Boulevard junction; three miles south of Highway 62 and Utah Trail junction; 25 miles east of Indio at Cottonwood Spring. Check out the National Park System Map for exact locations.
WHEN TO GO: Summer in the desert is hot. Really hot. As in, you’ll spend more time hiding in the shade than actually enjoying your experience. Fall and winter cool off enough to allow for some rigorous activity, just get ready for the big chill when the sun goes down.
WHERE TO CAMP: Pay the $15 seven-day vehicle permit or use your Golden Eagle parks pass to enter the park for free. If you plan on doing some camping in the backcountry, it’s free but you must register at the backcountry registration board. There are nine campgrounds in the park, and they operate on a first come, first serve basis. You can reserve a spot for up to 14 days—just park in your spot and walk to the entrance to leave cash (most sites cost $10 a night) in the drop box. Fill out a reservation slip and clip it to a post on your campsite. You can make reservations for sites at Black Rock and Indian Cove from October through May by calling 1-877-444-6777.
-A climbing guidebook (we used Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park)
-Firewood (you aren’t allowed to use any vegetation in the park to build your fire with)
-Food, camp stove, pots, pans, sporks and bowls
-LOTS of water (a gallon per person per day)
-Sweat-wicking clothing, including wool socks
-Camp shoes or sandals
-Hat and gloves
-A down jacket
-A rain jacket/pants
-A hat and sunglasses
-Sleeping bag and sleeping pad
-Trekking poles (optional)
-Tent (optional, sleeping in the car saves time) and tarp
-Climbing equipment, sport and trad, including a helmet.
WHAT TO KNOW: The desert is notorious for drastic changes in temperature, so plan on being really hot and really cold all in the same day and pack for it. Bees can be an issue at the park—avoid them and don’t swat at them if they are around you. Only build a fire if there is no ban.
HOW WE DID IT: We only gave ourselves two days in Joshua Tree this trip (we booked it to Red Rocks for some more world-class climbing). This is how we packed a lot into our short time there:
9pm: Arrive at a Walmart parking lot outside of Joshua Tree. Walmart is friendly to people sleeping in their parking lots, so we nap until sunrise. Buy supplies and head for the park.
8am: Enter the park and fill up water bottles at the visitor center and check out the vintage shop across the street, which also sells firewood. Ranger says there should be plenty of spots open.
8:30am: First campsite is full—bummer. Head to Ryan Mountain campground, which is full, but we make friend with two climbers who are heading out and they give us their spot. Pay for a night and drive to Hidden Valley campground to explore.
10am: Find a few trad routes (traditional climbing routes, where you have to bring your own gear because there are no bolts in the wall) to climb on—our hands are so raw from the rough rock already. Spot two six-year-old girls teaching each other climbing moves. You grow up out here, you’re an amazing climber by middle school.
12pm: Break for lunch, peanut butter and jelly and apples. The sun is warming up the desert, which means more climbing! Head to some crag routes we heard about this morning and spend the afternoon there.
3pm: The down climb on that last route was harder than the actual climb! Drive to Ryan Mountain parking lot so we can hike to the highest point in the park for sunset but we have to hurry.
4:45pm: Watch the sunset dip below the mountains on top of Ryan Mountain—it was an easier hike than we expected but the trekking poles are nice on the hike down. Glad we brought hats, gloves and down jackets—the cold sent everyone else down before sunset so we had the peak to ourselves.
6pm: Build a fire and make friends with fellow campers. Eat quesadillas, listen to them play guitar and practice night photography until we hit the hay.
7am: Wake up to blazing sun and the coolest clouds ever. Eat a quick breakfast so we can explore the campground.
8am: Behind our campsite is Ryan Ranch Trail, a short hike that takes us to the ruins of an old ranch. We explore the ranch and spot old farming equipment and tin cans before scrambling up the rocks behind it (watch out for goat poop).
10am: Drive to Barker Dam and take a detour off the trail to do some bouldering and scrambling around in the canyons there. Our hands are almost bleeding from the rock but we’re having the best time and no one else is around.
12pm: Another break for lunch as we check out some old cave paintings on the tail end of the Barker Dam trail.
2pm: Pop in at Skull Rock, Jumbo Rocks and finally park in the campgrounds near Arch Rock. Arch rock is a super easy and short maintained trail and you can’t miss the arch—we spend the rest of the day scrambling around on the rocks and taking shadow pictures before settling down on a boulder to watch the sunset. We spot other campers perched on boulders around the campsite and as the sun goes down, we all start howling like wolves. How’s that for comradery?
6pm: Make a quick meal in the parking lot of Arch Rock and pack up everything for the long drive back to Vegas, leaving from the North Entrance of the park. Commence planning our next trip here!
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