A few years ago while on vacation in Palm Desert, we made the decision to go for a drive and explore the surrounding area outside of the somewhat busy city. We had viewed photos of a mysterious place situated about 30 minutes north of Palm Springs, a place that is reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss books we had read as children. It had mysterious boulder like mountain formations, strange looking trees and an almost cartoon like desert landscape. That place was Joshua Tree National Park. We only had the day and so drove from the north end of the park directly down the center to the south, stopping along the way to take in the beautiful scenery and walk among the Joshua Trees and cactus. We were so taken back by the park that we had promised ourselves that the next trip we would spend a few day camping and really become immersed into the park. That trip was this past January.
Joshua Tree National Park was declared a National Park in 1994. It is situated in South central California, where the higher Majave meets the lower Colorado Desert, covering an area of 790,636 acres (Map Here). The area is deep in history, some of which remains today in the deserted mines and ranches. Original inhabitants were the Pinto Indians in what is now called the Pinto Basin. In the 1800’s the cattlemen moved in establishing vast range lands and setting up the areas first ranches. Soon afterwards the gold rush enticed men of fortune to come and exploit the area for gold. Many of these mines and equipment remain today and make for very interesting areas to explore. The book “Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide” by James Keiser, is a great reference tool for anyone looking for more information on the park and its history.
The two deserts offer a unique ecosystem distinguished by the different elevations. The higher elevation of the Majave desert in the western portion of the park has an interesting landscape with large Dolomite hills of bare rock broken up into smaller boulders. It is also home to the Joshua tree which gets its name from Mormon settlers who traveled through the area in the mid 1900’s. This is a very popular part of the park for hiking and climbing as the geology provides for a very unique experience for both. The lower Colorado Desert is situated below 3,000 feet at the eastern portion of the park. Its geology is much more desert like with an abundance of Cactus and Yucca plants. None the less, both parts of the park provide very different experiences.
We arrived in Joshua Tree National Park in mid January prepped and ready for a camping experience. The park has three main entrances. The south entrance off Interstate 10 is where you will find the Cottonwood Visitor Center and the two north entrances off Highway 62. One is called the West Entrance Station and other is the North Entrance Station but both are located in the northern area of the park. Each has its own visitor centers prior to getting to the park. At the entrance you can purchase a 7-day park pass for $20 or depending on your desired length of stay, an annual pass for $30. Joshua Tree National Park has nine camp grounds in total. Some require reservations and others are first come first serve (see Joshua Tree National Park Campgrounds). It’s best to do a little research before you go and decide which camp ground best suits your needs, as some camp grounds do not have available fresh water or showers. We had the rental car loaded up with all of our gear and made the decision that the Jumbo Rocks Camp Ground would be the best place to pitch our REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent, for the next two nights.
The Jumbo Rocks Camp Ground is first come first serve for $15.00 a night. It has outhouse style washrooms and no running water or drinking water. You need to bring your own water. For two of us over two days we brought a five-gallon water container that served us well. We arrived at the camp ground a little after 11am on a Wednesday and had no problem finding the perfect camping spot. However, if you are planning a weekend trip it may not be so easy. Jumbo Rocks Camp Ground fills up fast so you need to arrive early on a Friday in order to get a spot. At first we thought we may be the only people staying in the camp ground, but by 4 pm it began to fill up with other tents, larger motor homes and vans. All the camp spots are nestled in among the Boulders and have picnic tables and fire pits. You are not permitted to burn the deadfall in the park so you need to stop in Hidden River and pick up a few bundles of fire wood if your planning to have a fire.
By the time the sun sets you will be glad you have a fire burning. The temperature drops fast in the winter months with mid day highs of around 60 degrees to night time lows of 16. Temperatures are much more comfortable in the spring and fall with high/lows averages of 85 and 50. The summer months can be scorching with mid day highs of 100 degrees to early morning lows of 75. Understandable the best time to camp and be active in Joshua Tree Park is the spring and fall. However, if you can stand the cold nights, winter isn’t so bad at all.
There are a number of very interesting and scenic hikes available within the park. In total there are some eighteen hiking trails ranging from over night backpacking trails to short one-hour nature trails. To experience the Park, you need to get away from the main Highway and immerse yourself into to terrain. We recommend Skull Rock trail which is right next to the Jumbo Rocks Camp Ground, Lost Horse Mine Trail and 49 Palms Oasis Trail (Hiking trails in Joshua Tree Park) . One advantage to hiking in the winter months is you don’t have to worry about snakes. However, you still need to bring plenty of water and snacks. The sun at that altitude is strong and you can dehydrate very quickly. Added precautions should be observed in the spring and summer months due to the higher temperatures.
For those interested in a little rock climbing or bouldering, Joshua Tree has more than 400 climbing formations with some 8,000 climbing routes. Known as a monzogranite climbing mecca, it offers a variety of pitches for every level of climber. Go to Mountain Project for information and details on climbing routes.
Joshua Tree National Park offers a unique outdoor adventure experience for people of all ages. Whether your just driving though the park as we did on our first trip or spending a few nights camping. Its landscape is like no where else on Earth and makes you feel the peacefulness of the desert.
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