After spending three nights in Yosemite, I was very much looking forward to warming up under the desert sun of Joshua Tree. The drive from Yosemite to Joshua Tree was long. We woke up early the morning of the drive to catch the sunrise at Yosemite Tunnel View before packing up our things and hitting the road.

After breakfast and packing, and were on the open road once again. The drive through Yosemite park was very nice. The roads were winding, the scenery was beautiful, and the weather was calm. Eventually, we arrived at the Yosemite Park boundary and the road began to speed up and become less windy. By the time we hit highway 5, the major artery that connects Northern and Southern California there was no scenery to enjoy. Although highway 5 provided no scenic features, it was the quickest way to get to our destination.

As the afternoon crept up on us Allie and both began to become hungry. We decided to have a “traditional American: meal and googled to find the closest Olive Garden. Google directed us to Bakersfield. By the time we arrived we were both starving. We devoured our Olive Garden meal, which was not as good as it looks in the commercials. But after three nights of camping any food from a restaurant hit the spot.

The scenery gradually transitioned into a desert landscape. Soon we were in San Bernardino county and it felt like we were getting close to our destination. Just as the sun was beginning to set we finally arrived at the gates of Joshua Tree park. With excitement, we hopped out of our car and snapped a few pics of the sun setting in the beautiful desert landscape. The gate attendant had already left for the day so we entered the park to search for our perfect campsite. After reading several blog posts, and on the advice of our neighbor at Camp 4, we had decided our first choice of camp site was Hidden Valley. Check out this blog post for lots of useful information if it is your first time going to Joshua Tree.

Entering from the western gates of the park Hidden Valley was the first campsite we drove by. As we entered the campsite our excitement quickly turned to disappointment as a sign posted at the entrance informed us the campsite was full. Optimistically hoping this was just an error, we drove around the campsite in search of an empty space. From the reading I had done online I was under the impression that although we were arriving late in the day, we would likely have no trouble finding a spot since it was only Monday. We drove around the beautiful campsites of hidden valley, but they were all full.

Disappointed, we drove back onto the main road in search of the next campsite. Hidden Valley is a popular choice, after all, so we were confident the next camp site would have plenty of space. Just down the road was Ryan campground. There was no signage this time warning us the campsite was full, but a slow drive through the campsite revealed we were once again out of luck.

By now it was pitch black and I was starting to get worried. We checked out Jumbo Rocks, and it too was full. I cannot remember at this point if we decided to check Belle and White Tank, but it was clear that the whole park was full (full list of Joshua Tree campsites). Disappointed, we continued to drive until we eventually reached the North entrance station. After hours of unsuccessfully searching for a campsite, we realized we would not be camping tonight and decided to find a room in Twentynine Palms.

Although we had hoped to be camping, it was a nice break to sleep in a real bed and have access to much-needed amenities such a shower, laundry, ice, and of course pizza. The next morning we drove back to the western entrance gates where we were met with a line of cars. A sign was posted on the ticket booth informing us that all campsites were full! Very disappointed, we accepted that we would not be camping in Joshua Tree this time around.

We were not going to let a lack of sleeping quarters stop us from enjoying our time in the park though. We decided to start our day at Ryan Mountain Trail (full list of Joshua Tree hikes). Listed as one of the parks challenging hikes, the trail was 4.8 km round trip, with over 300 m (or 1000 ft) in elevation gain. Compared to our Yosemite Falls hike several days ago the hike was a cake walk. The main challenge of the hike was the hot desert sun. I imagine on an extremely hot day it would be very challenging.

The hike was very enjoyable. As we slowly gained elevation we were treated to beautiful views of Joshua Tree. Near the top of the mountain, we also encountered a small family of mountain goats who appeared to also be enjoying the beautiful day. Most would probably agree that Joshua Tree’s most impressive feature is the many boulders stacked on top of each other. The boulders look like they have been placed there by a toddler, precariously balancing on top of each other. It is these unique rock formations that make Joshua Tree one of America’s premier climbing and bouldering destinations.

After completing Ryan Mountain Trail we needed to figure out a place to sleep. Since there was no reliable cell reception in the park, and we needed groceries, we drove back into the town of Joshua Tree. From our quick drive through Joshua Tree the day before it had seemed very small and quaint. As we drove through the area in search a grocery store I was surprised to see many big box stores like Walmart, and fast food chains like McDonald’s. Joshua Tree was not the secluded desert town I had imagined it would be.

We filled up our cooler at the grocery store and continued to search for camping options online. We had two options at this point: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows camping for free in some designated areas, or we could choose a private campground. Although the BLM option sounded fun and free, we were not quite prepared to camp with no amenities, so we decided to choose a private campground. While googling we came across a website I had never heard of before called Hipcamp.com. It is basically like Airbnb, but for campgrounds. People post their properties on the website, and for a fee, you can reserve a space to camp on their property. After reviewing all of the options close to Joshua Tree we decided on a site called “Desert Mountain Majesty” that was just north of Joshua Tree. It was not the cheapest option at $50 USD/night (compared to $15 USD/night to camp in the park), but the pictures looked beautiful, and it included many luxurious amenities for camping.

We pulled the trigger and decided to book. It may sound crazy to pay $50/night for a camping spot, but it was worth it. The campsite was beautiful and very private. It included a covered cooking area with BBQ and wood stove, flush toilet, a unique outdoor shower, fire pit, picnic tables, and a large trailer with a bench inside (I suppose it was an option to take shelter in if the weather was really bad). For the three nights that we camped at Desert Mountain Majesty, we were the only people which were a nice contrast after the close quarters camping of Camp 4 in Yosemite.

From the western gates of Joshua Tree park to our campsite was about a 30 min drive, some of which was “off road” on bumpy unpaved desert roads. we were able to make it with little worry in our Mustang, so the site is suitable for most vehicles to access. For the first time in our California trip so far we were able to set up our tent and camp before night fall, allowing us to enjoy the sun setting across the vast desert landscape. From our campsite, we had an elevated view that looked north. During the day it did not look like much was out there, but as it grew dark the landscape was dotted with the many lights of our neighbors that we could not see during the day. We were still in nature though. As it was dark we could hear coyotes howling to each other from across the desert.

After the sun set, we started a fire in the outdoor “furnace” and worked on our night photography skills. As we were getting ready for bed we heard what sounded like a large gun shot or explosion. We never identified the source of the sound, but it was on my mind as we crawled into our tent.

I had read online that the wind at Joshua Tree can be very strong, this the bloggers were correct about. While eating dinner we were worried the tent may blow away so we reinforced our stakes with heavy rocks inside the tent. While sleeping at night the wind was so strong the canvas of the tent would bend in the so far that was almost touching my face.

We woke up the next day to the sun filling our tent with light. We made breakfast surround by the peacefulness of the morning desert. After breakfast, sunscreen, and packing our day bags we began the drive back to Joshua Tree entrance. It was a little bit inconvenient camping off site since we had to drive into the park everyday, but it was an easy drive. It is also not every day I get to see a desert landscape.

Our intention for the morning was to hike Lost Horse Mine, but by the time we got there the parking lot was full. Parking on the long narrow dirt road that lead to the trailhead was not an option either, so we were forced to turn around for the morning. Disappointed we drove back to the main road, and decided to follow the signs to Keys View. A few minutes later we were at the end of the road, and easily found a parking place at the popular look out location. No hiking is required to enjoy the view, so it is perfect for those who are in a hurry or do not want to walk. From Keys View you can see the Coachella Valley where the famous Coachella music festival is held every Spring. Luckily for us it was a very clear day so we had a beautiful view of the surrounding vista. An information sign at the lookout informed us that often there is so much smog viewers cannot even see the mountains in the background.

After enjoying the view we consulted our guide to find a suitable hike. We decided to give Pine City a try. The parking lot was again small, but fortunately this time we were able to find a parking spot. Compared to Ryan Mountain this trail was very flat. We walked slowly through the quiet desert landscape enjoying the sights and sounds. We came across several interesting boulder formations and species of cacti. Eventually the trail reached a valley, where a posted sign indicated the end of the official trial. We walked a little bit further hoping to see remnants of an old mining operation, but soon turned around to connect back to the main trail. There and back is a 6.4km hike, with very little elevation. It is great hike for those looking to relax in slow and quiet setting. The only real challenge is the desert heat.

After completing Pine City the day was drawing to a close. We headed back to our campsite where we were able to enjoy a peaceful evening in the desert. It was nice feeling to arrive back at camp with no setting up or work to be done. We prepared a meal, built another fire in the outdoor furnace, and enjoyed beer and wine while chatting and listening to the sounds of the desert.

For our final day in Joshua Tree we decided to start the day with bouldering. We had checked out a few boulders after hiking on the previous days, but I always found myself too tired after spending all day in the desert sun to boulder for too long. We drove to the Hall of Horrors which is a popular rock climbing and bouldering destination. It is basically a pile of rocks that look like they were placed there by hand, surrounded by a flat desert landscape. I’m not sure where the name comes from, but there is a Reddit thread where people speculate on possible ideas.

There were many options for bouldering and climbing in the hall of horrors. We spent some time working on several boulders and explored the surrounding area.While I don’t have very much experience climbing outdoors, I found the rock at Joshua Tree to be very rough. It was almost like climbing on sand paper. My hands quickly became tired and sore.

After we finished climbing we decided to give Lost Horse Mine a second try. This time we were able to find a parking spot! We enjoyed our last walk through the dessert as we walked through the heat. Eventually we came upon the old mine site that is now fenced off and has been kept in good condition. As most of the trails we had seen in Joshua Tree the hike was quite moderate, with the only challenge being the constant sun and heat. Lost Horse Mine is 6.4 KM round trip with an option to extend the hike by connecting to other trails.

On our way out of the park, we stopped at the Joshua Tree Saloon for a cold beer and to enjoy our last afternoon in the desert. That night back at camp we made another fire and ate what was left of our camping food supply.

Overall I really enjoyed our Joshua Tree camping experience. I was disappointed we did not get to camp in the actual park, but we ended up with a unique camping experience in the end. If I were to go again I would try and arrive early on a Monday for a better shot at finding a campsite. Also, if time and money permitted it would have been fun to do a guided climbing tour as well.