Swaddled in the San Bernardino Mountains southeast of Los Angeles, more than 1,200 square miles of arresting geologic anomalies and humdingers settle placidly. The convergence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts emphasizes millions of years of Earth’s erosion and evolution. Joshua Tree National Park is both humbling and enigmatic with its leggy, spiky yucca trees silhouetted at sunset and implausibly large scrambling boulders.
It’s not surprising the name “Joshua Tree” is awe-inspired, reminding 19th-century Mormon settlers of biblical figure Joshua lifting his arms in prayer. The desert can be unforgiving, however, especially for a midwestern visitor with limited perspective and experience such as myself.
Here are some hard-learned tips for anyone planning a camping trip in Joshua Tree this season, and a spotlight on the most rewarding hikes the park offers.
Limiting Sun Exposure
Consider the time of year; summer temperatures in the high desert usually spill over into triple digits during the day, while fall and spring temperatures are more moderate, but cooler at night. Bring a variety of clothing as, regardless of the year, desert temperatures can be unpredictable. Besides essentials such as a sun-protected tent and other necessary camping gear, remember to bring a bandana or hat for sun protection and high SPF sunscreen.
This will limit both skin damage and heat exhaustion. Be sure to educate yourself and your companions on dehydration and heat exhaustion symptoms. Wear light, loose clothing that covers sensitive areas and include a pop-up shelter to prevent an emergency. Proper footwear is non-negotiable; besides withstanding long, rigorous hikes, it can aerate your feet and protect them from cacti and wildlife. Plan early morning hikes when temperatures are cooler and always carry a park map or equivalent because your cell phone will most likely be inoperable.
Food and Water
If you’re flying into LAX or Palm Springs, you’ll need to make a pit stop at a nearby grocery store to pick up some essential items, like food and water. While some campsites have water spigots, bring several gallons of water for personal use. Water is especially important during desert hikes due to dry heat that often evaporates sweat so quickly you may not know you’re dehydrating. Even if you’re not thirsty, make sure you’re hydrating every 15-20 minutes.
Each hiker should be drinking a minimum of a gallon of water a day, so wear a comfortable backpack. Salty, protein-packed snacks such as nuts and trail mixes are ideal hiking food, replacing minerals lost during perspiration. Pack more food than you’ll need.
Campground Tips and Suggestions
Joshua Tree offers three campgrounds with water on site: Black Rock, Cottonwood and Indian Cove. These sites are great for beginners and families. Each of the nine campgrounds provide different amenities for various experience levels, so call ahead to confirm. For astronomy buffs, keep in mind that campgrounds bordering the park, such as Black Rock, may not offer the same stargazing opportunities as deeper ones. General rules for desert camping include keeping your tent completely zipped at all times to keep out wildlife (think snakes, scorpions and spiders), leave no trace of food for the same reason and bring a tent pad for comfort — you’ll thank me after a long day of hiking.
Featured Hikes and Attractions
49 Palms Oasis
This moderately strenuous three-mile-round-trip hike winds along a ridgeline of barrel cacti and boulders, rendering stunning views of the valley as you begin a 300-foot elevation gain. Descending into the narrow canyon below, you’ll be greeted with dozens of prolific fan palms and plenty of shade. Massive boulders provide the perfect haven for a long rest and salty lunch.
Don’t be fooled by its size — this three-mile hike is much more strenuous than it lets on. Reaching the 5,500 foot peak requires exclusively ascending a series of steps carved into the ridgeline, which can wreak havoc on your calves if you’re unprepared. The summit rewards your effort with views of the Lost Horse, Queen, and Pleasant Valley summits.
Lost Palms Oasis
While officially listed as moderately strenuous, this hike is a burly 7.2 miles roundtrip in the relentless desert heat, so bring plenty of extra water and take your time. This will probably be your only hike for the day, but you won’t be disappointed by the captivating display of fan palms ahead.
Adjacent to Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock is a scrambler’s paradise. A result of granite erosion, this spectacle allows visitors to climb into the skull’s “eye socket” for photos. Massive, narrow rocks provide exemplary conditions for bouldering. There’s also a 1.7-mile nature trail for those with a fear of heights.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Pronounced “Choya,” and often referred to as the “teddy bear” cactus, Cholla cacti are extremely sensitive to touch and release spines easily as a defensive mechanism. This short trail is home to a dense concentration of the spiny guys, so make sure to wear protective shoes as the trail is littered with needles.