On a recent Saturday in April, a friend and I pitched our tent between two boulders in Joshua Tree National Park.
In this part of the park, a lone Joshua tree kept watch over the tent town of backcountry campers.
If you go, I suggest you register for backcountry camping. If you’re even slightly adventurous, the experience of parking your car and scouting for a location is part of the fun. In our case, we happened upon the backcountry experience by mistake because many of the regular camp spots were gone by 9 a.m. that Saturday. Most of the designated campgrounds are first-come, first-served and because we went during one of the peak times, the sites filled up quickly. Campgrounds are busiest on weekends from October to May, as well as holiday weeks, according to the National Park Service.
If camping is not your style, there are hotels just outside of the park as well as Airbnb options.
It took us a little more than three hours to reach the California park from Las Vegas, taking Interstate 15 South to several roads through the mountain pass. The roads were easy enough to navigate, but the way back was sprinkled with potholes.
The backcountry campsites were free and required us only to fill out a small ticket and display it on our car’s dashboard. We didn’t want a bathroom or running water anyway. One downside of backcountry camping, though, is that fires aren’t allowed.
There are 13 sites at Joshua Tree where you can park your car and go camping in the backcountry as long as you register at the on-site boards and park in the lots. Cars that are not parked in the lots are subject to citation and towing, so do register.
On Saturday morning, we hiked the steep Ryan Mountain for a spectacular view of the valley from 5,456 feet.
Next we drove by Skull Rock, which was packed with men, women, children and selfie sticks. It’s a popular destination because it’s viewable from the road, but compared with other sites we found, this one wasn’t as memorable.
Our next stop was the Chollas Cactus Garden, where we took a stroll through a garden of small colorful cactuses. This was pleasant, until we encountered a man flying his loud, buzzing drone around the site.
Afterward, we cruised back toward the north side of the park, looking for a site unspoiled by crowds of people or unwanted aerial vehicles. My companion and desert guide spotted two old buildings sticking out of the desert landscape. We pulled over and saw that it was a mine. Two miles later, we were staring down into old wooden structures at Silver Bell Mine. We kept the old mine company for about an hour, gazing down at the cars rolling by on the road.
There are several forgotten heritage sites in the park that aren’t advertised. On our trip, we were determined to find Samuelson’s Rocks, a set of rocks inscribed with philosophical and political sayings by a Swedish homesteader. A park ranger told me that they don’t tell people where these sites are for fear of vandalism.
We didn’t find the rocks, but we saw lots of wildlife: two snakes, a desert tortoise, a jackrabbit and several lizards.
I was most fascinated by the Joshua trees. They are interesting to look at during the day, but at night, they’re transformed into grotesque figures, intent on frightening moonlight motorists.
On Sunday morning, we hiked the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, which is near the south entrance of the park. A roughly 3.4-mile hike leads down to a line of palm trees in the middle of the desert. After a long, hot hike in open space, hikers are rewarded with an unlikely view of palm trees — and shade.
After the Oasis Trail, we took off for Wall Street Mill. The old stamp mill was one of several business endeavors of rancher-prospector Bill Keys. In the same area as the mill are abandoned 1930s-era cars.
On the drive back to Las Vegas, we were lucky enough to see a desert tortoise. A man was helping the creature across the road. The National Park Service recommends that you not touch these tortoises unless you’re moving them out of the road.
Though situated in a desert, Joshua Tree National Park offers surprisingly diverse environments if you fully explore it. The park is also a rock climber’s paradise with no shortage of enormous boulders.
In all, it was a fantastic trip, though being a desert dweller, I plan to go somewhere greener for my next trip.
Contact Alexander S. Corey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0270. Find him on Twitter: @acoreynews
If You Go
Directions: The North Entrance Station to Joshua Tree National Park is 187 miles away, or just more than a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. Take Interstate 15 South and exit left onto Nipton road. Turn right on Ivanpah Road, then right onto Morning Star Mine Road, continue onto Kelso Cima Road, then turn left onto Kelbaker Road. Next, turn right onto National Trails Highway and then left onto North Amboy Road. Turn left onto Godwin Road, right onto California Route 62 West, left onto Utah Trail, then continue onto Park Boulevard.
Services: The north entrance of the park borders the city of Twentynine Palms, California, which has gas, food, groceries and lodging. The West entrance is 20 miles down the road from Twentynine Palms near the community of Joshua Tree, California, which also offers amenities. The south entrance of the park does not have as many amenities nearby.
Fees: The park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle, and is good for seven days. Motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian entrance fees are $10. Designated campsite fees range from $15 to $20 per night. Camping at designated backcountry areas is free.
Attractions, activities: Great hiking, rock-climbing, camping and historical sites to visit.
More information: Joshua Tree National Park, call 760-367-5500 or visit www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm