Joshua Tree National Park is one of those “perfect places”. Sunshine, world class climbing (who doesn’t love some granite), some of the wonkiest rocks on Earth, and of course the ever-so-beautiful Yucca Brevifolia (Joshua Trees!). It seems like just about every parking lot or pull off has a vintage airstream or Westfalia pop-top campervan. Driving down the Park Blvd (the main road through JTNP) you get the feeling that just about every 100 yards or so you’re going to see another group of crash-pad toting, rack-carrying climbers giddy with some sort of ecstasy over their last ascent. Spotify is blaring a pleasantly endless playlist of Johnny Cash and The Lumineers.
I’m one of those crash-pad toting, van-loving, desert-admiring individuals. So this place pretty much seems like a dream.
An outdoor lifestyle photographer by trade, six months earlier Chelsea and I had met while I was doing some freelance work for a production company that happened to take me on a cross-country road trip. It was in August, nearing the National Park Service’s centennial celebrations, and I was hired to do a national parks hopping trip in a big RV, with two women that I hadn’t met until I pulled up to the storage facility. I didn’t know what to expect, but when Chelsea hopped out of a massive lime green RV, sporting a tie-dye tank top, and the biggest smile I’d ever seen on another human being, I knew we were going to hit it off. For the next 10 days we spent countless hours talking about future adventures. mostly climbing excursions. So when we said our goodbyes, we promised each other that Joshua Tree would be the place of our reunion. And plans for a girls climbing weekend were born.
Tucked between Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in Southern California, Joshua Tree is home to a lot of weird landscape. The hulking smooth edged granite formations that make up the land, peppered with spiny Joshua Trees, gives the impression that you’re on another planet rather than the California desert. But with more than 400 formations, and more than 8,000 climbing routes all a mixture of canyons, washes, cliffs, and boulders, pretty much anyone can find something to climb. On our first day in the park we headed up to the Barker Dam area, an easy 1.5 mile hike that lead into one of the classic bouldering areas, where we spent most of the day working on the classic V3, Gunsmoke.
After a full day of shredding our gym soft hands, we decided to set up camp. Places like Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan Mountain, and White Tanks Campgrounds are beautiful, close to climbing and hiking, but are sites are available on a first come first serve basis and are often very crowded, so we opted to take the 30 min drive out to the edge of Twenty-Nine Palms to stay at one of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) overflow campsites. BLM sites are free, however they do not have the luxury of bathrooms, garbage collection, or a sauna, making it a significantly less sexy campsite, but we revelled in the peace and quiet of setting up camp in the dried of bed of Joshua Tree Lake to watch our first desert sunset of the trip.
Morning came, we hit the road, and headed back into the park for a day packed with
more climbs (this time in the Outback Bouldering area), rock scrambling, much snacking, and of course more beautiful sunsets.
As the evening rolled around, we found ourselves moseying towards the Cholla Cactus Garden, a place that I had heard was downright magical when the sun was dipping behind the California mountains. The rumors could not have been more accurate. The sprawling field of cholla cactus, sun washing the desert in a rainbow of pastels, and mountains tinted a golden orange by the last bits of daylight.
But as the chilly night encroached (which we would later discover would turn into a COLD 34 degrees), we set off slowly down the winding road, enjoying the Joshua Trees silhouetted by the glow of sunset and moonrise.
Arriving at our, this time pre-reserved campsite at the Indian Cove Campground, we
quickly erected our tent in the dark, tucked behind a large rock formation, just as the stars came into view. Far from the light pollution of big cities, Joshua Tree is a prime spot for star-gazers, especially in late winter when constellations like Orion, Sirius, Gemini, and Taurus still grace the skies. With beers in hand, we curled up, promised each other we wouldn’t fall asleep in our chairs, and promptly passed out where we sat.
Our weekend had been short, but when Chelsea and I packed up camp at sunrise, the happy feeling of time well spent kept up smiling for the whole drive home.