Joshua Tree Bouldering

Joshua Tree is an incredible, otherworldly landscape, with amazing views, creatures, and climbs; so who wouldn’t want to visit? These features draw huge flocks of climbers and tourists alike making it both a rewarding and sometimes frustrating experience. I’ve traveled across the continent now two winters in a row to get on the ultra-sharp, high friction granite of Joshua Tree, so the positives definitely outweighs the negatives, but there’s still a lot of information that’s good to know before you decide to take a trip to the dessert.

The Split Boulder, Joshua Tree. Climber: Andrew Serack

QUICK DETAILS

Style: boulder, trad, some sport
Approach: 1-60 minutes (more close than far)
Gear: two or more crash pads, double rack with wide gear
Season: Best in late winter to early Spring but can climb year round if you can tolerate extreme heat

CLIMB

For all of the frustrations that come along with visiting a busy National Park, the quality of the climbing tips the scales.  Over four thousand routes of high quality, high friction granite, in such an amazing setting is worth going back to over and over.

The first trip I took to JTree, I was not a solid trad leader, the second trip I was afraid of having my bag lost with all of my gear in it, as per the previous climbing trip to Tennessee, so both of my JTree trips were exclusively bouldering, but watching the trad climbers from the boulders below left something to desire; a third trip is required.

The boulders in Joshua Tree sit like sculptures in an arid landscape, with perfect, inspiring lines; the type of pebbles that you look at and can’t help but feel the urge to stand on top of.  The high friction of the porous granite will make you feel good about your slopper game, as you seem to stick to holds that aren’t really there.  There is a stark contrast between the micro crimps and slopers to the unique patina jugs, from low overhanging roof climbs to massive rounded highballs, and from boulders right in the parking lots to secluded 1 hour long approaches; there’s something here for everyone.  There are well over a thousand boulder problems in Joshua Tree, most of which are considered in the moderate range of V0-V6.  Although there are plenty of test-pieces in the harder grades, the bouldering at Joshua Tree is the ideal place for novice to intermediate boulderer.

Climbing Pinto (V0) in Joshua Tree. Climber: Krysten Lafond.

BOULDERING CLASSICS

  • False Up 20 V0
  • ​White Rastafarian V2
  • Slashface V3
  • Yabo Roof V3 (possibly the first sit-start in the world)
  • Stem Gem V4
  • JBFMP V5
  • Planet X V6
  • All Washed Up V6
  • Pumping Monzonite V7
  • Caveman V7
Climbing Lunge For It (V3) in Joshua Tree. Climber: Andrew Serack.

GETTING THERE

The park is about 2.5 hours from Los Angeles and 3 hours from Las Vegas; these are the two most affordable, major airports to travel in to from around the country or internationally.  I’ve travelled from both, and either option has lots of affordable car rentals, and a scenic, easy to navigate path to Joshua Tree.  Our first trip started in Las Vegas, where we climbed at Red Rocks, another world-class climbing area and a great two-stop trip, and ended in Los Angeles.  When we spoke to some seasoned climbers in LA, they said that doing Red Rocks first is the way to go because the soft sandstone won’t wreck your skin quite like the sharp granite of JTree. The second trip, we flew into and left from Los Angeles, which cut out a bit of driving and, at the time, allowed us more travel options and prices. It’s worth playing around with the departure and destination cities for both airlines and rental cars.  You’ll find some surprising bargains coming from or leaving a certain city on a certain date.  Particularly with the rental cars, we found several hundred dollar discounts to take a car out of Vegas; presumably lots of people are driving rental cars in to Vegas and then flying out.

Another flying option is Palm Springs International Airport, which occasionally has good deals, particularly for flights within the US.  This is the closest major city to Joshua Tree, sitting about 30 minutes from either the North West or South entrances to the park.

Joshua Tree is a large, sprawling area with boulders, towers, and crags very dispersed around the park; a car is necessary.  From the North West entrance of the park to the closest climbing area is about a 10 minute drive.  Climbing areas are spotted along the way to the hub of bouldering in the park around the Hidden Valley Campground, about 20 minutes in to the park.  Climbs continue for up to an hour drive from the entrance.

There are three main entrances to the park: North West, North East, and South. The North West Entrance, accessed through the town of Yucca Valley, will get you closest to the majority of the climbing the fastest.  Areas quickly accessed from this entrance include the Western Territories, Central Joshua Tree, including Hidden Valley, South Central Joshua Tree, and Eastern Territories. The North East Entrance, accessed through the town of 29 Palms, has fewer climbing areas within a short drive from the gate, but connects with main roads from the North West and South near Loveland and Split Rock climbing areas, and is a good option if you’re driving in from the East, or if you want to access some of the more “out there” climbs in the park. The South entrance, accessed through the town of Cottonwood, is not typically used for climbing access. This road takes a long winding drive, through beautiful scenery, as it gains elevation towards the climbing areas.  The drive from Geology Tour road, in the Eastern Territories, is about 45 minutes and 32 miles.  It’s worth it for a nice side trip, and can access some of the better full day hikes, if that interests you, but won’t be worth driving on a shorter trip.

The Split Boulder, Joshua Tree. Climber: Krysten Lafond.

STAY

If you’re climbing in Joshua Tree, odds are your planning on camping in Joshua Tree, as you should be. Sleeping outdoors is part of the whole experience (along with saving money for gear) and doing it in the dessert can be an amazing experience; cool nights with the Milky Way illuminating the sky, fire crackling, and not a man made light in site. OR, it can be a stressful process of trying to find the last available non-reservable site in the entire park, spending hours driving and searching, only to end up in an over flow parking lot that’s preparing for an all-night rave. This is not a one-time statement out of spite, either, this happened to us on both trips! More on this below.

There are nine campgrounds within the national park.  Black Rock Campground and Indian Cove Campground are accessed from the 29 Palms Hwy, north of, and outside the park.  These sites are both reservable at $20/site per night.  These tend to be the family campgrounds, with fewer climbers, though Indian Cove has many good trad climbs that draw some of the climbing scene. The reservable family lots tend to be more active, read noisy, from 6:00am – 9:00pm and are much stricter on noise after hours than inside the park. Depending on your plans for your trip, this can be a good or a bad thing.

As of the week before my second visit in February, 2018, the Jumbo Rocks Campground is also now reservable. It is likely that this will also be more of a family area and people planning well ahead, but it is in close proximity to many bouldering and trad climbing areas.

The rest of the campgrounds are first come first serve, with a maximum stay of 15 days at $15/night per site. Before we left the first time, we read a few warnings that these sites will fill up for the duration of the busy season from late Fall to early Spring. This is not an over exaggeration. To get one of these sites during peak season, you have be circling around the campgrounds as people are packing up to leave. This means you will not get a site on a Friday or Saturday. In my experience, by 11:00am Friday, all sites are full and stay full until people start packing on Sunday. Plan to arrive between 7:00-8:00am to start looking for sites. Ask people, who look to be packing up, if they’re leaving. This is possibly the only way you’ll get a site without a whole lot of luck.

On two trips, we arrived on a week day, one late morning, and one early afternoon, and were not able to get a campsite after spending 2-3 hours driving to every site in the park. The unwritten rule of Joshua Tree is that, when the park is full, you should share your site (and fees) with another small group. However, most of the sites aren’t big, and privacy can often feel limited. The cars touring looking for spots come across as hungry sharks, and campers at their sites tend to look away or even hide when they see them coming.
If you’re so lucky as to find an empty park, here’s the beta I’ve collected on the different campgrounds:
Hidden Valley: the climbers’ campground. Centrally located in both the park and the highest concentration of climbs. There are enough boulder problems, in volume, grade range, and variety, right within the campsites, to last a couple of days. There are over 100 campsite available here, some slightly more private than others. Because of the volume of (young) people staying here it can get a bit rowdy.
Ryan Campground is also mostly a climbers campground, but with only about 30 sites, and is a bit quieter.
Indian Cove, Black Rock, and Jumbo Rocks are the reservable, mainly family campgrounds.  Indian Cove seems to have a small population of trad climbers.
Sheep Pass is a large, reservation only group site.
White Tank and Belle Campgrounds are smaller and seem to attract the larger RV’s.
Cottonwood is way too far, at almost an hour drive from the hub of climbing, to be a decent campground for climbers.

When you can’t find an established camp site within Joshua Tree National Park, you have a few options:

  1. Joshua Tree backcountry camping is permitted where you aren’t in a day use area, are 1 mile from any road, and 500 feet from any trail or water source.  However, your car must be parked and registered in one of thirteen lots. I’d hate for you to find out the hard way, as I did, that these backcountry spots are severely limited by the small parking lots.
  2. Overflow camping is available, one to the North and one to the South. The South overflow is easy to find at the end of the park road entrance to Cottonwood. The North overflow is about a 20 minute drive from either of the North Entrances, and involves driving on some really poor condition dirt roads (be careful with this and your rental car agreement). The overflow is a wide open, flat, dirt/sand area belonging to the Bureau of Land Management. We ended up here on our first weekend in the park. We went to sleep around 9:00pm after a long day of climbing, and at 9:30pm pulsing bass of the shittiest techno started.  Screams, volume getting louder, ear plugs useless, dirt bikes, miserable. Fortunately, the satisfying pain of the sharp granite took my mind off of this enough to come back a second time, just so that, a second time, I could experience the same thing. Which leads to option number…
  3. Walmart parking lot. Far from a romantic backcountry campsite in the dessert, but the noise stopped after 10:00pm, unlike the overflow, and there was all-night security driving the parking lot.  Location here.
  4. Hotels and motels are scattered along the Twentynine Palms Hwy. None are particularly nice, and some look outright questionable. On busy holiday weekends, expect to pay up to $200 for a 2 star motel; the same motel that goes for $60/night on a Tuesday. I have stayed at the Motel 6 in Twentynine Palms and the Travellodge in Yucca Valley. Motel 6 was fine for the price, Travellodge, a bit more expensive, but has a pool and hot tub, which is nice after a day of climbing. For a day or two of rest, the Coachella Valley, to the South, has many hotel options. I stayed in Desert Hot Springs a couple of nights where, the right hotels, have natural spring water feeding their pools and hot tubs. Hyundae hotel is not a place I would recommend; the rooms smelled so heavily of cleaning products that I could tell they were covering something up and the restaurant had been permanently closed by the Health Inspector. The Aqua Soleil Hotel, however, was quite a bit nicer. I got a great deal on a room with a private 10’x6’ hot tub the day after a long weekend.
  5. AirBnB is another possibility, for those with cash strapped pockets and a closet full of the newest and greatest climbing gear and no need to buy more, or for those travelling in groups. The Yucca Valley – Joshua Tree – Twentynine Palms area has created a bit of a dessert hipster niche where highly decorated Airstreams and tiny eclectic bungalows are worth $100-$200 night. They look like a bit more of a novelty than a comfortable place to stay, but it’s an option if you’re in to that sort of thing.
Climbing Swinging Richard (V4) in Joshua Tree. Climber: Andrew Serack.

REST DAYS

If you’re about that active rest day, there’s some pretty inspiring hiking in the park.  As most of the climbers come to the park from one of the northern entrances, it’s really hard to see the massive elevation change through the park.  Check out some of the hikes and scenery towards Cottonwood for a completely different view of the park.  Or join the flocks of tourists on a leisurely stroll to Barker Dam or one of the other short, popular walks in the park.

Near the northern entrances to the park, there a few restaurants, such as the Crossroads Café with great food and craft beer.  There are some kitschy art galleries/displays in the Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley area if you need to kill a few minutes. Or take a drive to Palm Springs where you can find the usual amentities of a larger town; decent restaurants, bowling, golf, spas including the natural hot springs of the valley, botanical garden, shopping, and more.

If you’re not afraid of a drive, LA and Vegas are achievable in a day or two and offer anything you can imagine.  Better yet, take a completely unique trip through the ghost town of Bombay Beach, drive by the Salton Sea, and end in Slab City, where you can walk up Salvation Mountain and discover what too much California sun does to a person’s mind. Another worthy trip is to Death Valley, where you can visit the home of both the lowest elevation point (-279ft) and the hottest recorded temperature (131.4F) in the US.  The salt flats, mountains, and sand dunes (bring your sandboard) are incredible.

Salvation Mountain – one rest day trip
Mesquite Sand Dunes. Death Valley – multi rest day trip.

Bottom Line

I feel that a lot of what I wrote above was pretty negative.  The hordes of tourists, the difficult camping and overpriced alternatives are pretty major deterrents, but I write these only as a warning, so that you can hopefully avoid some of the mistakes I made and lessons learned.  Even after all of this, even if I had to go through the same nonsense again, I would do it to get back on that granite.