Camping and climbing in Joshua Tree


Third National Park of 2016 - check! (Although I was absent-minded and totally forgot to bring my annual National Park pass. Fail!) My best friend Yena had a dental research conference in LA, so I decided to fly down and meet her so we could go to Joshua Tree! And even better, my friend Emily and friend/colleague Chloe came along too.

Only a 1 hour flight and 3 hour drive away, it was a fairly easy long weekend getaway. Honestly, it was SO refreshing to completely unplug for a weekend -- with no service, we were forced to be present, without social media, work emails, and text messages to distract us from enjoying the moment. And with so much to do--hiking, climbing, and camping--it would have been a shame to be on our phones anyway!

The golden hour

The golden hour

All but two of the nine or so campsites in the park are first come first serve, but all of them were full when we arrived, which was a bit worrying. However, we were saved by the kindness and welcoming attitude of our fellow campers; we ended up with a lovely site in the Jumbo Rocks campground after asking a few people to share their campsite.


A few basics and quick tips (find more on the NPS site):

  • Campsites are $15 per night
  • Either get a spot at the two reserve-able campsites (Black Rock and Indian Cove) way in advance, or just ask someone to share their campsite when you arrive. I have no doubt that you'll find someone!
  • Bring all your water in (about 1-2 gallons per person per day); only a couple campgrounds have water, mostly along the edges of the park
  • Hidden Valley campground was probably the coolest (and very convenient, located closer to the park entrance), and there were lots of bouldering opportunities in the vicinity

Anyway, while Joshua Park was by no means the most jaw-dropping place you'll ever see, its uniqueness and vastness made it amazing. The park is HUGE; it would take about 2 hours through the entire park, and it took us 30 minutes to get from our Jumbo Rocks campground to the park entrance. 

As for the uniqueness--those rocks are truly out of this world! It really looks like someone (an ALIEN?!) just plopped them down on earth. We read that they were formed when magma flowed up and enlarged the small cracks in granite, and then erosion (over a lot of time) unearthed the rocks. The rocks were rough (great traction for climbing but kind of ouchy) and very tempting to climb, as we did below, but BE CAREFUL!

Human or cactus?

Human or cactus?

Yena and Chloe imitating the asymmetrical Skull Rock

Yena and Chloe imitating the asymmetrical Skull Rock

While the rocks definitely stole the show, the cactus put up a fair fight! I mean, we had to see some cacti in the desert, right? We went to Cholla Cactus Garden (thanks to a co-worker's recommendation) and were not disappointed. The cholla (choy-ya) cacti were the cutest things I've ever seen! It looked like a large village made up of little cactus families.


There were also some other cool cacti around the park; and, because it was springtime, some of the cacti had flowers blooming!


The park was begging to be in photos; I totally get why I see a ton of Joshua Tree posts on Instagram now! We actually ran into a couple who had a professional photographer with them to shoot their engagement photos. 


I mean, if Yena and I were getting engaged, I think this photo would be the winning shot, right?:

Chloe, our pro-climber, had a fun time scrambling up all the rocks. Big rocks, small Chlo-Chlo!


I was super excited to bring my real DSLR camera to try some long exposure pictures to capture the stars. It was great for a dusk shot (moon in the upper left!) and I also got a decent night-time one, capturing some of the star-filled sky, using a rock as a tripod!



I don't have any quick tips for you, other than that the park is notorious for its grippy, but sharp rock and for its "old school" ratings, meaning everything is supposedly harder than you'd expect from its rating. I just highly recommend bringing a guidebook (thank God for Chloe's) to find the right places to boulder and such!

Day 2 was climbing day. My dad supplied us with a bouldering mat, and Chloe brought her climbing expertise and a J-Tree bouldering guidebook so we could find some doable routes. We ended up spending 2 hours at Crystal Skull (off one of the backroads) on some v0 and v1 routes. 


Also, on day 3, Chloe and I scrambled up to the Space Station, a little cave on the top of a pile of rocks that is known for its awesome view and precarious route up. Apparently, people have been signing a log book up there since the 1920s (the log book we found was only 2015, but maybe someone out there has the older ones?). Chloe and I definitely faced our fears but it was very worth it. It probably was a bit risky, but in retrospect, none of the sections were extremely challenging; I think it wasn't as risky as long as your fear led you to be overly careful. (And, what Mom and Dad don't know doesn't hurt them, right? Until they read this, I suppose :P) 


Hikes and walks

Emily really made sure we saw all the cool sights (most of which you could drive to and just walk like 0.5 miles to see) and go on some hikes, which were pretty awesome.

  • Arch Rock - a short 0.5 mile loop starting from the White Tank campground, where there were lots of fun rocks to scramble up. It looked like another planet!
  • Cholla Cactus Garden - a short walk around the cacti families!
  • Keys View - great panoramic views of the valley (you can see Bear Mountain, Palm Springs and Indio on a good day)
  • Ryan Ranch Trail - short walk to an adobo (very cool and photogenic :D), from the Ryan campground
  • Wonderland of Rocks - which you could explore freely or go on a trail, but be careful not to get lost! 
  • Skull Rock - a few steps off the road, or a 2 mile loop from the Jumbo Rocks campground
  • Lost Horse Mine Trail (4 mile round trip, out and back) - took us to a replica (what they called a "reasonably preserved example") of a mine that used to be located on a hill
A lizard on the trail to Lost Horse Mine!

A lizard on the trail to Lost Horse Mine!

Emily at Keys View


It was really such a good weekend and we really did everything we wanted to do. We even drove to Pioneertown to Pappy and Harriet's, a bar recommended by many of our friends. I highly recommend for some great margaritas, BBQ, and live music. Just make sure to have a designated driver, as it was a good 30 minutes from the park entrance (1 hour from our campsite) and took us on some windy roads up the mountains!

To conclude this recap of my wonderful weekend, I'll share this photo of an RV we saw on our way out - we found it very funny! Plus, I think I posted very few photos of the Joshua Trees themselves. Scattered across the desert and along the roads, Yena said they looked like members of a welcoming committee, waving "hello" and "goodbye!" to us as we drove along!