A quick adventure Joshua Tree, Southern California’s Climbing Mecca.
As we drove up from Yucca Valley into the main entrance of the park, we excitedly watched as the brown rocks that baked under the sideways sun passed out the windows. Only a few miles into the park, past the gate marked Joshua Tree National Park in vintage type, the landscape began to proudly grow into formidable stacks of boulders worthy of our weekend attack. We pulled up to Hidden Valley Campground just as the setting sun boasted a spectrum of bright colors before it finally landed into a dull, fading, purple. We were to make a quick, strike-mission to a few iconic routes in the park. Unpacking gear and prepping dinner under the stars, we talked specifically of our plans for the next day. We would spend the day climbing The Assylum, a cluster of rocks on the south side of the park only a 15 minute scramble hike from Park Blvd and Ryan Campground. Following a full day on a few challenging single pitches, we would head back to The Asteroid Belt, a forgiving bunch of bouldering problems just outside our campground. The night faded, the vibes were undeniably strong, the excitement palpable, it is amazing how a friendly atmosphere is amplified by the light of a camp fire. Sleep would be difficult that night.
There are few places in Southern California, let alone the United States, that offer access to hiking, scrambling, bouldering and climbing at the level of Joshua Tree National Park. J Tree has been steadily growing as a west coast climbing mecca for the last fifty years. With over 4,000 individual rock climbing routes, and miles of park to hike between them, there are world class climbs to challenge all levels. It is an expansive park, covering just under 800,000 acres of desert. Comprised of the highly elevated Mojave Desert and low elevated Colorado Desert. The contrast in climates join in subtle harmony while the differences in topography can be uniquely startling. The higher Mojave side of the park is home to weirdly majestic rock structures protruding from the ground in lifelike piles of boulders. Formed 100 million years ago; the monzogranite stone was penetrated over time by rain water to form precarious balances of massive boulders. Teetering on each other like a giant naturally formed cairns, Joshua Tree makes up one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. The eeriness is undeniable, many structures seeming as if they were assembled by giant hands and brought to life under the stark desert sunlight.
Surrounding the mystic rocks structures is the equally unique plant life. The Yucca Palm or Joshua Tree is a wildly interesting plant that dominates the desert landscape. In the Biblical story of Joshua, it is said he reaches to the skies, arms open wide to the heavens in prayer. Upon this reference, the Mormons applied the moniker aptly by the upward sprawling shape of the foreign looking tree.
With only one full day of climbing in the park, we packed all our aspirations into a short period of time. The relatively easy order to our climbing attack would begin late morning in The Assylum. Continuing on Park Blvd about a mile past Hidden Valley Campground, you will come upon Ryan Campground. A hundred, or so, yards past the entrance for Ryan is a day use area and direct approach to this rock cluster. It is a pretty straight-forward, 15 minute hike to the entrance of the cluster. We circled the large mass of boulders a few times to figure out the best way to enter. To get into The Assylum, a westerly approach seems best. There is still a good amount of scrambling; however, it becomes meditative, finding the right path and bouncing between sturdy boulders. Inside this arena would be a number of climbs; Dog Day Afternoon 5.10b, Hall of Horrors 5.11c - an iconic crack climb, always shaded by the sun, and Split Personality 5.11d - a challenging arete at the crown of The Assylum. Following this friendzy of routes, we made way back toward Hidden Valley Camp Ground. Only a short stroll from the campsite, and out past Manx Boulder, we found the tip of the Asteroid Belt. It is a series of pretty easy problems, mostly V1-V3. A few pretty easy boulder problems would be the perfect, confidence boosting, cap on a full day. Heckling each other and cracking a few drinks we attacked these rocks until we squinted in the fading light to see, forcing us to wander a little loser on our feet back to our sleeping bags.
Joshua Tree in the spring is an amazing place to be. The desert has not yet reached its brutal temperatures and the crowds are still slightly manageable, by that, I mean avoidable. Typically the seasons on the shoulder of the summer, and debatably the winter is the best time in the park. The heat in the summer can reach over 100º and the winter can get well below freezing. The spring and fall months experience more moderate temperatures, much more friendly for hiking and climbing.
Picking just a few manageable goals to attack and making enough time to appreciate the beauty of the desert is the perfect recipe. A productive weekend at Joshua Tree National Park can leave you and your friends grinning through sunburned cheeks and skin-taxed fingers yearning for the next great adventure under the desert sun. Joshua Tree is an adequate escape from the daily grind. There isn’t cell service in much of the park, so you’re forced to separate from the outside world. As you submerge into the natural beauty and spend much of your time watching out for rattlesnakes, your mind retreats into that peaceful place that silences all the ailments of a routine driven life. Even if you’re not a climber, the silence of the desert can be healing for anyone. Kicking the dust around under the dry desert heat; darting in and out of the shadows or foreign rock structures amplifies a relationship with nature on a personal level. We each found a little more of ourselves that weekend in tackling our personal goals, some in climbing and some to escape into a better place, even just for a little while.