Camping Joshua Tree, California: Here’s Your 5-Step Guide To High-Desert Greatness
The perfect escape from LA.
The mystical boulders of the Mojave Desert have long lured free-spirited city slickers from LA, but if it’s your first trip in Joshua Tree, it helps to plan a little ahead. Here’s a never-fail guide from CITIZENS OF THE WORLD for finding the best spots among the stars and timing things right for the ultimate get-back-to-nature escape.
Approximately three hours from Los Angeles but seemingly a universe away from reality, Joshua Tree has long been the the high-desert town with the lo-fi antidote to the frenetic, hyper-commercial muscle that powers the city.
It’s a place that fuses adventure with soul-stirring scenery. Where you can stand on a ridge at Keys View and tempt fate, staring right into the clashing plates of the San Andreas fault. Or play guitar by the fire hugged by ancient granite formations while coyotes sing backup in the distance as they howl at the stars.
But like any date with a desert you’ve got to have your wits about you. Treat her with respect and she’ll reward you with sights, sounds and sunsets that’ll render you speechless. Take her for granted and you’ll find yourself by the side of Interstate 10 with no fuel, very little phone reception, squinting into the horizon wondering where it all went wrong.
Here’s how to camp Joshua Tree right.
Camping can be competitive
Once you enter its dusty borders, Joshua Tree National Park is a place that actively encourages fending for yourself.
Want to climb the Flintstone-like clusters of prehistoric boulders? Go and knock yourself out. Feel like a night hike with only a headlamp and a sense of bravado? Go for it (but you should probably bring water and a compass).
This egalitarian approach also extends to the campsites – it’s first come, first served all the way, with a 14 day maximum stay limit. The result is a park that’s shrewdly protected from long-termers taking up all the room, but it means you’re going to have to get laser focused on where you’re planning to sleep and when you’re going to get there.
A common rookie error is to decide to head to Joshua Tree on a whim, do a rough Google search of the main campgrounds on the drive up, pick one that looks pretty, ring the ranger station and ask ‘is there any room?’ You’ll most likely be told the park is full and to not bother. Which may be the case, but more often than not the answer is they don’t really know how full the park is until nightfall when they drive around and collect the fees (more on that later).
At this point the journey becomes a fun little mystery game called ‘Where will I sleep tonight?’, where the winner finds themselves overlooking a private martian-like quarry of stones after lucking into a spot at Jumbo Rocks campsite. And losing? Well, that could mean parking your RV beneath the cold glow of a street lamp in a Walmart carpark because you didn’t realise it’s Memorial Day tomorrow and the park is busier than Jurassic World with a blackout.
So that’s why….
Weekends are your enemy
Simon and Garfunkel weren’t kidding; the sound of silence is seriously something to sing about. But if you’re dreaming of a Thursday to Sunday vision-quest under the moonlight then we hate to be the bearers of bad news – weekends in Joshua Tree are full of families. Along with all the humming RV generators that go with them. And especially in summer.
If you truly want to revel in the Mojave’s frontier-esque fun then head in mid-week. Not only will it afford you practically first pick of campsites, there’s also a tranquility that feels positively supernatural, especially once the sun lowers at 7pm. Feel free to get nude.
You don’t need a lot of money to enjoy Joshua Tree’s mystical beauty, usually only about $US15 ($20AUD) per night. You do, however, need to have it on hand in old school greenbacks and shrapnel. Park rangers don’t do IOUs, use EFTPOS machines, or take any excuses, so not doing so will most likely mean a buzz-kill of a nighttime drive back to town for the ATM.
At the entrance of each campsite you’ll spy a noticeboard where they keep the mini-envelopes. Insert the cash for your stay, write your name and chosen campsite on the front and place the package in the lock box provided.
Like we said, it’s ‘old school’ but there’s something charming about the low-tech process.
Don’t forget firewood… and water… and gas… but definitely firewood
Each campsite in Joshua Tree comes armed with a fire pit, a picnic table…and that’s about it. Prepare to feel positively like Bear Grylls because you’re going to get a good handle on ‘dry camping’.
This means there are no RV hook ups for water, no flush toilets (with the exceptions of Black Rock and Cottonwood campsites) and definitely no electricity. Park rules also only permit generators between 7-9am, 12-2pm and 5-7pm. The overall gist is you’re going to have a heck of a lot of down time at your disposal.
Here’s why we emphasise the firewood so much. Half the magic of Joshua Tree is sitting by the flames watching the light reflect onto the rocks and telling old war tales from battling the paperwork at your cubicle (actually forget that, no work talk allowed).
There’s nowhere to buy wood once you enter the park so stock up in town and buy enough for a few nights.
Have a Plan B
So what if date restrictions mean you’ve found yourself stuck in the desert, knee-deep in screaming families on some major US public holiday? Never fear.
Even though you might not find a spot within the park proper, there’s an abundance of privately run RV parks, such as Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground, which has everything (including a kitchen sink, if required) as well as being near by one of the most unique experiences you can have while in town; The Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theatre.
This way you get to capitalise on the majesty of the Californian desert while still revelling in the wonder of electricity and a hot shower. You can think of it as Joshua Tree Lite.
A quick guide to Joshua Tree campsites
Jumbo Rocks Campground
Arguably the most famous of all the Joshua Tree National Park campsites, Jumbo has the most sites in the park (124 glorious spots to be exact) but still feels private thanks to the huge boulders that line the road.
White Tank Campground
Intimate and dark, White Tank is for romantics and star-spotters. With only 15 sites competition here can be fierce, largely due to its super close proximity to the iconic Arch Rock.
Belle by name, belle by nature. There are 18 sites here, each affording the classic boulder views but more of the quirky Joshua Trees giving off nostalgic wild west vibes.
Black Rock Campground
One of the first campsites you’ll pass if you enter from Interstate 10 (from Los Angeles). There’s lots of desert flora here and it’s very close to some of the best hiking around.
If you like your boulders charismatically huge and your Joshua Trees tall and quirky, then you’ll love Ryan. There are only 31 places here so arrive early to snag a spot.
Flush toilets and running water makes any of Cottonwood’s 30 sites hot property for families.
Sheep Pass Campground
Reservable group sites only. If you like your campsites to resemble something out of a Lana Del Rey music video then you’re in luck, because this is where you come for those Valencia-filtered-outlaw-inspired-guitar-by-the-fire-flanked-by-cacti-and-boulder-style nights.
(All images: Dominic Loneragan)