Borrowed Time in Joshua Tree

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In the autumn of 2019, Craig and I decided that instead of doing one or two international trips in 2020, that we would make it The Year of the US Road Trip and take the time to see more of the National Parks and our friends that live nearby. Then, of course, COVID-19 cropped up in the winter and by the time we got to the middle of March, things were starting to shut down. We had booked our campsite a month in advance when there weren’t any travel restrictions, and left on Wednesday, March 18th, and by that Saturday morning the governor had issued the stay at home order and we came back a day early. We didn’t see any crowds and I can’t see anything a more socially distant vacation than camping with all your own gear.

Our trip ended up being two full days in the park and three nights at two different campsites. We would have liked it to be three and a half days with four nights, but better safe than sorry! Joshua Tree is only a two hour drive from our home in Orange County. If you’re coming from out of state, you can fly into one of the Los Angeles airports (ONT would maybe be best if you can get a deal and wanted to skip LA traffic altogether), or couple it with a trip to Palm Springs (SW side of the park). When you’re planning your trip, beware of festivals like Coachella or Stage Coach – it will make it way more crowded.

Joshua Tree is in the desert, so if you go when it’s nice out in LA, you’re probably going to be really, really hot. Since we went in March, it was really, really cold. I think I was wearing seven layers at one point. Be sure to check the forecast and bring plenty of water.

With the virus panic starting to ramp up and everyone scrambling for contingency plans, we knew that getting out to nature and away from cell phone service and bad distractions would be probably the healthiest thing we could have done! It was still great, but felt a little difficult since there’s mostly no cell coverage in the park. If you need it you’ll have to drive to town. (My best friend was due the week we were gone. She had the baby before we left, but I would have been freaking out waiting for news!)

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The town of Joshua Tree is super cute and to the North of the park

Honestly, this trip ended up being a total comedy of errors, corona virus aside. As we were pulling out of the driveway on Wednesday, my manpanion Craig jinxed us by saying “Well! Wonder what we forgot?!” He left the box of non-cooler food: everything shelf stable for camping like rice, beans, veggies, tortillas, aluminium foil, a few utensils… basically 75% of what we needed to survive off the grid. Luckily we weren’t backpacking and were able to drive into 29 Palms to get the essentials. Knowing there was a run on the grocery stores by toilet paper hoarders, we were worried we’d have to abort the trip altogether, but we were fine. Then there was a huge wind storm our first night that demolished our easy-up canopy. We had to get out of bed at midnight and fight to get it out of a tree. (The second night the wind was so bad that we couldn’t light a fire.) I am a total klutz on the best of days – I should probably wear a helmet to the grocery store. But then you add trying to be outdoorsy to the mix and you get a bad combination. I tripped and fell face-first into a granite boulder while trying to use the restroom. It gave me a nasty scrape and a light black eye. Craig either had a stomach bug (or more likely a hangover in the high desert, but he swears it wasn’t) and was sick and light headed. Honestly, we thought about coming home early often, but I’m glad we persevered and saw the park. Even with all that, I still think of this trip as lovely and a huge success, so that will tell you how great the park was!

Camp Site #1 – Indian Cove

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My hybrid in front of our camp site at Indian Cove

Most of the camp sites inside the actual park are first-come, first-served. If you want to camp in Joshua Tree you have to get really lucky or get there really early. I didn’t want to take any chances, so we decided to book Indian Cove a month out. We were only able to get Wednesday and Thursday nights – if you want a weekend you’re going to have to be really early! We kept checking back for more sites to open up, and weren’t able to get it, but we got a site elsewhere for Friday and Saturday. (More on that later!) It’s located North East of the main gate, and has fairly good proximity to Joshua Tree town if you need anything.

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Sunset walk around Indian Cove Campground

Driving up to the camp ground was really amazing. It looks like what I imagine parts of Mars looks like. Really big monolithic boulders and piles of boulders the size of buses and cars stacked on top of each other in these weird lone piles that look impossible – how does gravity work like that and they don’t all tumble over? Our camp site was pretty nice, but not the best. Close but not too close to the trash and the toilet. There was no running water at all in the camp ground, and the toilets were pit toilets – super smelly with no flush, but at least we had toilet paper! We scoped out some of the other sites that might have been better against the wind than ours was. Our site was backed up to a giant monolith, and there were rock climbers both days. There are hiking trails that are really convenient to the campground, but we mostly walked around inside the campground to explore. There was a little amphitheater, but the standard Thursday night entertainment was cancelled because nobody wanted a large gathering. Would be a good venue for a wedding though!

Day #1 in the Park

With Craig feeling sick and a lack of food and coffee at the campsite, we got moving a little later than planned. We had to drive through the town anyway to get to the gate – we hit up Joshua Tree Coffee Company (near the popular Pie for the People pizza place), and Natural Sisters Cafe for breakfast. Both were awesome and Natural Sisters has a great mural on the side of the building. If you’re not camping or sick of cooking, I’d recommend all of them! Also, we stopped at Sam’s Market to get firewood on our way in – when you’re camping you should get your firewood locally to help stop the spread of non-native baddies. Good beer supply too!

We finally drove up to the park at around 11am and had our first bit of luck – while the park was still open, they didn’t want to have the park rangers touching cash and interacting with people so the entrance fee was waived. It would normally be $30/vehicle and you’d get a pass good for a week.

How did we figure out a plan and what to do? It was a combination of Google Maps, All Trails, and looking up a few blogs on Pinterest! You can put any of the bolded names below into Google Maps on your trip to find them for your trip!

Our first stop was the incredibly photogenic Skull Rock. You’ll see it in all the blogs and all over Instagram because it’s literally JUST off the main road and very easy to get to. We stopped and got some photos. There’s a small trail and we decided to walk over to see one of the campgrounds in the park – Jumbo Rocks! It was really cool and super similar to our campground at Indian Cove. The hike was easy, and had all sorts of educational signs about the flora and fauna.

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Freezing at Skull Rock with seven layers on!

Next stop was Split Rock Loop Trail, which I really enjoyed. From the parking area the split rock is really easy to see, and there’s a picnic table nearby. We started at the trailhead to the left of the rock, and walked away from it. Since it’s a loop, you could go either direction, but I liked this way because you came up to the backside of the rock at the end and there’s a cool cave on the underside. It felt like an awesome discovery. The loop is less than two miles and is mostly flat, easy for families and all levels.

Since we had a late breakfast, we only ate snacks on day one, but remember that there are no restaurants in the park – you need to bring all your own food and drinks!

The Cholla Cactus Garden was maybe the easiest hike we did the whole trip. I wouldn’t even call it a hike – it’s an easy amble on a raised wooden walkway to keep you away from the danger plants. They’re all very surreal looking. The cactus look very soft and fluffy but I am confident that they are not. It’s a bit of a drive and is the farthest south in the park that we went.

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Cholla Cactus

Since we had forgotten most of our food, we left the park before three and went back into 29 Palms and stopped at Stater Bros to resupply. We bought and ironically drank a six pack of Corona. It was so windy and cold, we couldn’t start a fire, so we spent time hanging out in the car, we saw the people at the campsite next to us doing the same . Since it was still winter, dusk came pretty early, and we went to sleep early too.

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Trying out the night settings on my new iPhone

Day #2 in the Park

This was our big day where we fit a lot of stuff in. It was Friday, so we had to swap campsites since Indian Cove was full up for the weekend. We had breakfast with a very quick and hungry thieving squirrel, then packed up the car and like a turtle took our home with us.

Our first hike of the day was Barker Dam, and dam we had a lot of fun there! It was a really pretty hike, and nice to see a water feature. Nice and flat and easy, good for all skill levels. There’s an out-and-back, but we kept hiking around on the loop. We followed the signage to the petroglyps and they were really cool to see. I took a second to contemplate the hundreds upon hundreds of years of different people that had come by the same spot.

Next up we did part of the Wall Street Mill trail – you can use the same parking lot and do both this hike and Barker Dam. We didn’t end up hiking all the way to the Mill because we were hungry and it was time for lunch. Some really cool faux-tunnels that you can go through where the giant rocks are leaning up against each other, and I found my favorite of the Joshua Trees to do my obligatory tree pose underneath. The most people we came across the entire trip was at the bunkhouse on this hike, but it was by no means crowded, and we were able to stay far apart. There’s a super awesome old rusted out abandoned car along the way, which is what we were really looking for. I wish I knew the make or model, but it looks like something out of the 1930s if I had to guess. We only went as far as the windmill, which is just over half a mile in to the hike, so we missed the actual mill and apparently two more old cars. The entire hike is 2.4 miles out-and-back, according to All Trails – which I definitely recommend! (You would have to sign up for the premium version to access it offline, which you will be most of the time at Joshua Tree. But I took some screenshots and was fine.)

Up next was my favorite hike of the trip – Hidden Valley Nature Trail. It was a mile and super easy, but had my favorite aesthetics with the coolest rock formations. The cowboys and ranchers used to hide their stolen herds here, and I really loved imagining what it was like back in the day. Absolutely easy for all. And bonus, there’s a giant rock formation called The Great Burrito, which I thought was pretty cool. The rocks were more reddish here – it reminded me of Great Thunder Mountain Railroad from Disneyland. We had our lunch after the hike – there’s a big area with a lot of picnic tables under more giant rocks across the parking lot, and also pit toilets… We watched some climbers with no fear conquer a rock the size of a tall office building, and we were totally amazed and entertained. 

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Hidden Valley Nature Trail – my favorite part of the park!

Another super popular spot that you’ll see on a lot of blogs and on Instagram is the Hall of Horrors. It is beyond easy to explore from walking around at ground level, and it’s very accessible because it’s just off the main road. There are all sorts of cool crevices and tunnels by the way the rocks settled in, so that must be how it got its name. It seems absolutely giant from the ground.

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Hall of Horrors – If you’re too chicken to climb it (like me!) walking around is still cool!

Our big hike of the trip we saved for last – We hiked Ryan Mountain because my new nephew Ryan was born as we left for the trip, and we thought that would be a rock star thing to do. It was a really beautiful and neat hike, but it was the only thing we did that wasn’t easy. You can do it if you’re not in killer shape, but your legs may be screaming. Take breaks, it’s cool, the view at the top is worth it.  We could look back to the Hall of Horrors and it was a little shocking how something so huge from the ground could look so diminutive.

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Hall of Horrors from the top of Ryan Mountain

Also wanted to add that every campsite we saw driving around had “full” signs up. So if you think you can roll up on a Friday afternoon and get a spot to camp for the weekend, you may be out of luck.

Camp Site #2 – Black Rock Canyon

After not having any running water since Wednesday and needing to do more thorough hand washing due to COVID-19, we were thrilled to roll into Black Rock Canyon on Friday night. This campsite was a little closer to civilization and was full of Joshua Trees and on a nice ridge line – but more importantly had running water and flush toilets! Amazing! It felt luxurious by comparison. By this time my hair had reached a level of poof usually only known by male lions, and I was feeling pretty grimy. It was a nice place to settle into. If you’re a newer camper and need some creature comforts, I’d say Black Rock would be the place for you. If you’re more into the aesthetics, I’d say Indian Cove is better. This place was still beautiful, it was just different. The only thing I would do to improve upon this campground was that the campsite numbering wasn’t exactly linear, we had a hard time finding our site the first time. Especially since we couldn’t stop and check in ask for directions with physical distancing. Adding a few signs would be helpful! (Also – if you’re there in the summer, note there’s not much shade!)

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Campsite view from Black Rock Canyon

We set up camp and were cooking dinner as the sun set. We used my friend’s recipe for foil packet dinners and it was great! We enjoyed a few beers after our eight+ miles of hikes and they tasted so much better for it. The three camp sites around us were pretty close-in, but they were all empty, though we had expected them to be full.

Saturday morning we were making breakfast and getting ready to go back to the park, and at about 9am the Hosts came around to share the news since there’s no cell coverage – they had decided to close the park at 11pm the night before and that they would be closing the campsite. We needed to be out by noon. It was a bummer, but we had felt like we were on a bit of borrowed time from the real world anyway. It was a perfect in that we were able to safely unplug and get away from the real world when the amount that was unknown about the virus was particularly new and terrifying. The hosts ended up refunding us both nights for our stay, which was a great deal for us. The only thing that sucked was they locked the bathrooms right away – would have been nice to be able to use them before we hit the road.

Next time

A day trip to the park is the first thing on our list once the restrictions are lifted. We had saved some of the things we were looking forward to the most (The Arch and Key’s View) for the last day because the weather was forecast to be the best. We can drive the two hours each way and see them in a day no problem! My best friend’s birthday is coming up in October, so we may be going back to celebrate her then, fingers crossed!

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