Steering up Park Boulevard during last light from the town of Joshua Tree to the west entrance of California’s Joshua Tree National Park (J-Tree), the glow of town fading in the rearview mirror, a feeling of calmness overtakes you. Stepping out of your car once there, a warm desert wind washes over your body.
“When I’m on top of one of the huge boulders late in the day, I feel like I’m on an island overlooking a shallow sea,” local climbing guide Roddy McCalley says of the arid, fragile landscape.
Scattered rocks are everywhere, and thousands of yucca trees — 10- to 70-foot vertical stalks with outstretched spiny arms and bushy green ends like something out of a Dr. Seuss book — pepper the immense 1,235-square-mile park. (It’s these trees that the park is named after.)
While many parts of California are thawing out after receiving record snowfall this winter, the deserts in the southern part of the state remain unchanged. The high desert of Joshua Tree National Park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, is famous for its world-class rock climbing, camping and hiking. It also offers incredible road cycling (mountain biking is prohibited at nearly all areas within the park).
For three seasons out of the year, the park’s daytime average temperatures are in the balmy 60s to 80s with moderate to strong winds. At night, when temperatures drop to the 30s, many campers can be found huddled around campfires, wrapped in blankets to keep warm.
“The winds are something to mindful of. Be sure you stake your tent securely down,” Seth Zaharias, owner of local climbing guide service Cliffhanger Guides, says.
Summers are too hot for most people, as temperatures creep over the 100s.
Until 20 years ago, before J-Tree was upgraded from a national monument to a national park, 50 percent of the visitors were climbers. Since then, “the LA Times and San Diego papers [have said] it’s the ultimate retreat for artists and musicians,” Kevin Walker, a mechanic at the Joshua Tree Bicycle Shop, says.
Today the park is estimated to draw two million more visitors a year than it did in the late ’90s, superintendent David Smith tells GrindTV, drawing eccentrics, athletes and tourists. “The challenge is that our park operating budget has remained relatively stagnate,” he explains.
J-Tree contains an astounding 8,000 granite routes from 30 to several hundred feet tall — plus an endless number of boulders — played out on rough cracks and turtle-shell plates on routes rated 5.1 to 5.14. The rock is incredibly rough on the skin, so taping hands and wearing long pants and a long-sleeve shirt is recommended.
This area was a frequent hangout for the ’70s “Stonemasters,” including world-famous climber Lynn Hill, who would make frequent trips to the park to climb first ascents.
Hiking, backpacking & camping
The park contains hundreds of miles of trails, from short nature hikes all the way up to overnighters, with elevations varying from 900 to 5,000 feet that bring visitors to panoramic views and past hundreds of different plants, including prickly pear cactus and blooming wildflowers.
It also contains nine campgrounds, plus there are many additional options (including lodging) outside of the park.
Of note, “sometimes Joshua Tree’s popularity outgrows its carrying capacity and, as is often the case, overnight camping can become very scarce, very fast,” according to climbing-info resource Mountain Project.
Road cycling and mountain biking
Many of the roads in the park’s lower elevations have semi-fresh, smooth pavement, perfect for all-day road biking. However, it’s the high-country roads that can be lethal on delicate bike tires, with rough pavement and goat’s head abundant.
With its sandy washes and wide-open, expansive desert, this area may feel like the Wild West, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. Biking is allowed only where cars can go, which includes unpleasant washboard roads, though there are many mountain biking options right outside the park’s gates.
“Over the past 10 to 15 years, locals have been redeveloping the old mining trails and horse trails that are right outside the park on BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land,” says Walker, who recommends using fat bikes to get around. “You don’t need suspension at all; it’s all nice cross-country [riding] on sand or gravel-grinders.”
Be advised: Visitors need to bring their own water and are recommended to drink at least a gallon per day.