Let's Camp: Easter in Joshua Tree
We both work regular 9-5 jobs which give us weekends and some holidays off. This is great, except that we end up in National Parks and other amazing outdoor places with the majority of other 9-5'ers on what tend to be busy dates. We haven't fully mastered how to handle this. We have definitely gotten stuck a few times, and this trip is an example of that. We decided to go camp in Joshua Tree on Easter weekend.
Neither of us are morning people. Personally, this bugs me because we miss a lot of sunrises while camping and tend to get late starts when hitting the road. On this particular weekend, we really tried to get up early and get out to Joshua Tree to find a campsite. We knew it was going to be crowded, and all the campgrounds would fill up fast. We arrived around 9:30am, which seemed early to us until we got there. We ended up circling every campground multiple times looking for an empty site. We watched so many people that were able to wake up just slightly earlier than us unload and set up camp - like we missed that site by minutes.
We have a favorite site (in Belle) in Joshua Tree. It's perfect, quiet, tucked and our first stop every time we head out there to camp. We approached the couple that were at this particular site because their tag said they would be leaving the following morning. Luckily, they said they would be packing up early to head back to Northern California, so we told them we'd be by early to put our tag up for the next night.
It was already getting into the afternoon hours so we headed a little further down Pinto Basin Road to the Twin Tanks Backcountry Board parking lot. There were quite a few cars there already with groups of people walking out into the desert with piles of bedding and pillows and even (prohibited) firewood. We saw guys stuffing wood and wine bottles into backpacks, and another group dragging coolers behind them. Not the best way to treat the desert, honestly. We grabbed our 30 liter day packs, emptied our hiking gear and cameras, and deliberately packed only what we needed for a quick overnight.
Since we had planned to car camp we didn't have our backpacking gear. We decided to forgo a hot meal and grabbed our Kate's Real Food Bars for dinner, a couple liters of water and, of course, a flask of whiskey. Luckily, we had our REI's Flexlite chairs, so we were able to bring lightweight, comfy seating with us. We did however only have our large queen air mattress (REI Relax Bed) that we use when car camping, so that we had to hand carry.
The few groups that left before us headed towards Twin Tanks, east of the parking lot. So we decided, in an effort to find that backcountry solitude, to cross the road and head west towards the Pinto Mountains.
We found a great spot after hiking towards the hills off of the California Hiking and Riding Trail. I'm not sure we were the full mile from the road required for backcountry camping, but it was pretty close. We set up the tent, pumped up our massive air mattress and set out to climb and explore a bit before the sun went down.
A sunset is a sunset, it happens everyday. But its extra special when backpacking, surrounded by only nature. We sat down with our Kate's Real Food bars and had "dinner" and whiskey - surprisingly the Kate's bars were totally satisfying and did not leave us hungry.
When the sun goes down, it gets dark, especially down in this southern part of the park, pretty far away from cars and campfires. So we crawled into our sleeping bags early, played charades on our iPhones, laughed until we cried, and fell asleep way before our normal bedtime.
We woke early with the sunrise, drank a shot of Starbucks espresso (in a can, which had chilled nicely overnight) and packed up to head back to Belle Campground and get our campsite for the second night.
We filled out our tag and paid the $15 fee for Site 2. We walked out a ways from the campsites, found a big rock, and set up to have breakfast and warm coffee while the nice couple packed their stuff up from the night before.
Once we got set up at our campsite for the night we headed out to explore some new dirt roads in the Subaru and find some wildflowers. Joshua Tree had a very colorful spring this year.
These roads are all well graded. At the time of our visit, there were deeper washboard areas, and could have been passable in a sedan. We appreciate our all-wheel drive on these roads though, because you never know what the conditions will be. If in doubt, always ask a ranger before venturing out on your own.
After exploring these dirt roads, we headed back for a classic night at camp with hot dogs, s'mores, beers and relaxing by a blazing fire.
It's easy to get stuck with no place to camp on these big holiday weekends. Either get up before the sun (if you can!) to beat the late arrivals, or plan ahead for other alternatives. Joshua Tree makes it easy with a plethora of backcountry boards to hike out from, just know your limits and be prepared. If the idea of hiking out at least a mile with all your gear doesn't sound fun or possible for you, there are BLM sites on the north and south sides of the park that always serve as a backup. We haven't explored those areas yet, but they have an informative PDF about them here.