It’s tough determining where to start with Joshua Tree.
- Start with its peculiar history?
- It’s alien-esque rock formations?
- It’s unique and interesting fauna?
- The beauty of two different deserts colliding?
- It’s state-like size and the diversity of the landscape?
- The eclectic people it attracts?
I suppose Joshua Tree, or JTree as its friends call it, is one of those parks that is just there, a blank canvass for a thousand different experiences. And you can start wherever you like. You’re still going to love it.
I arrived in JTree from the western side where mountains dominate the landscape and sparsely spaced joshua trees cover the flat land between them. On our short drive from the park border to Hidden Valley campground the diversity of the rock shapes was boggling. By the time we had reached Hidden Valley the mountains had faded into the distance and the landscape was covered in inselbergs. Inselbergs, or island mountains, are large stacks of boulders on top of boulders making odd shapes; I never knew simple rock could look so alive and have such vivid personality.
These gigantic piles of boulders were like the world’s largest playground. We wandered around our campground, hopped up on one rock then another. We scampered up some more boulders and suddenly realized we were over 200 ft off the ground looking out over an entire landscape of more formations like the one we just climbed. Our only questions were “where to next?” and “how do we get down?”. As easily as we elevated hundreds of feet though we found a way back down to the ground.
On our last night of camping our campsite began gathering more and more dirtbags – a friendly term for those who embrace the hiker/climber life. Stories of extreme climbs, month long hikes, and far out nature experiences were flying faster than the sparks off the fire. Pretty soon the party of 15 people or more began moving towards the “Chasm of Doom”, a JTree local’s tradition. The only rules: it must be done at night and you cannot use any lights. Under a new moon this meant in utter complete pitch blackness. We started scampering up some tough big boulders and soon entered a tunnel. There truly was no light at all now. I tried to hold onto the person in front of me but fell behind. People were calling out the rocks, where you had to turn sideways to fit through, where there were 4 foot drops and always people were howling the ominous “Chasm of DOoOooOM” After what seemed like half a mile there was finally a hole above I could see the stars through and me and someone was yelling, “just pull yourself up!”. We were halfway. After another 30 minutes of slowly slithering through crevices and climbing up boulders we were at the top, 400 or 500 ft maybe looking out on a gorgeous view of the big sky and big rocks of Joshua Tree. Now we just had to get back down…
The next morning my friends and I woke early and saw the sunrise over the crags of Joshua Tree. They got in their car to drive home and I mounted my bike to ride to the southern end of the park. I passed more cool boulder formations along Park Blvd including Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock, and Hall of Horrors before turning south. The odd shaped inselbergs became more sparse and a gigantic mountain range loomed in the East. I rounded a corner and froze. Here I was, on the edge of the Mojave Desert staring into a gigantic basin over 1000 ft below that was the Colorado Desert. The plant life changed in dramatic fashion. First there was an entire mile of Cholla cacti, then in the next mile an entire field of Ocotillo Cacti, then a field of smoke trees. By the time I got to the bottom of the basin the three plants were intermingled amongst each other and I felt like I had travelled to an entirely different park altogether. This went on for miles and I felt like 4 days was not enough to see all of Joshua Tree.
Leaving Joshua Tree was sad for me and I wish I had more time. I wanted to explore the mountain range in the east and the ghost town tucked into it. I wanted to hike away from the road and into the northern part of the park, which I knew would be different from everything else I’d seen. I wanted to see the Integratron, funded by Howard Hughes, originally for some purpose related to UFOs, rejuvenation, time-travel but now used as a spa and “sonic baths” due to its perfect acoustics. I couldn’t do it all and you probably won’t be able to either. Regardless, you’ll love your time in this bit of Mother Nature’s playground.
Things to know:
- Joshua Tree offers plenty of primitive camping. There’s very few places to get water in the park, so bring your own! There’s also no firewood gathering so bring your own wood and always follow park guidelines on fire safety.
- Reservations can be made but the majority of sites are first come first serve. Get there early to ensure you get a spot.
- It is the desert and gets very hot in the summer. Spring & Fall are most temperate and some of the best times to visit. Always wear sunscreen and stay hydrated!
- If you don’t have time to stay for a few days, pinto basin road which runs north to south from 29 palms to I-10 through the park is worth the drive and will give you a great taste of the variety of landscapes in JTree. The drive will take you just over an hour.
- There is a variety of lodging and restaurants along 29 Palms if you can’t find a place in the park or want a restaurant meal.
- Joshua Tree contains plenty of wildlife, so keep your food safe and be aware that there are several species of rattlesnakes in the park.
Garrett Miller | Ambassador
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