Twin Tanks Backcountry Camping
I should preface this blog with a quick story. We attempted to camp in Joshua Tree just a couple of weeks prior to this trip. We left work early, got to the park at around 4pm on a Friday, and felt like the universe was laughing at us. There was not one single campsite open. We drove every loop, and literally could not find a single empty spot. We did not plan for the chance of backcountry camping, so we were not well equipped to hike out a mile or two with our gear and pitch a tent. We finally went into town, mostly to get a quick dinner (at 9pm, can you say hangry?), and called every hotel around the area. Not a bed available. We realized that we were out of options and drove back home, frustrated, defeated, grumpy, and tired. So, when the next opportunity to head to the desert presented itself, we prepared for a backcountry adventure.
So, back to this blog, we were all packed for backcountry hiking and camping, and took our sweet time on a Saturday morning. We arrived in the park at around 10am, and didn't bother to look at campsites. The traffic we were seeing was a telltale sign that the park was full. We opted for a few photo stops around the park, and some short walks here and there. Eventually, we headed towards Desert Queen Mine. There is a small dirt parking lot for this backcountry board... and it was full. Feeling frustrated all over again... we headed for Twin Tanks. We've camped in this area before, and it has one of the largest backcountry parking lots. The sun was beginning to set, so we drove there, parked, and finally got on our feet. We filled out the permit, slipped it in the box, locked the car, and headed away from Twin Tanks (east) on the California Hiking and Riding Trail.
This trail leads a somewhat zig-zag course at first, then begins to lead into a rocky and boulder-filled area. Some of the boulders are low and large, for easily hiking. Others are towering, and make great nooks for camping. Once we hiked over a mile, we left the trail to find a spot to camp. We came upon a section, after wandering all around, where there was an open space surrounded by big boulders on almost every side. There was a perfectly sized flat space, which turned out to be rock face, so that is where the tent popped up.
We had a brief amount of time remaining before darkness would be upon on, so we quickly got our camp set up and then went to watch the sunset. Joshua Tree always puts on a sunset show, and the best place to watch is on a big rock. The darkness sweeps in rather quickly after the sun sets, so it wasn't long before we were tucked into our tent for the night.
We expected temperatures to be in the high 40's on this night, and good grief, were we wrong. We are quickly learning to never trust the desert forecast, just assume it's going to be cold at night. To lighten the backpacking loads, we left our sleeping bags at home, and just opted for our Sea to Summit "Extreme" bag liners. Luckily, we packed some layers of Under Armour and warm socks, because it got dang cold, quickly. We were not too uncomfortable for the first couple of hours, but by 1am, it was COLD.
To prove that we are not fearless rugged campers, we will admit that we often do not sleep well in the wild, and I (Andrea) turn into a big chicken after dark. On this trip, before dark, near our tent, I had seen what looked like a little resting spot for bunnies or maybe coyotes. It was a flat spot, tucked under a rock, with lots of little paw prints. Now that it turned dark, I was convinced we were being stalked by a few hundred coyotes or mountain lions or scary monsters, probably tucked cozily into that little nook. So, we tried playing that forehead charades iPhone game and having some fun. It worked, for awhile. Then we ate some snacks we had brought along - homemade brownies! (Which, logically, had to be eaten so those scary creatures wouldn't come try to eat us to get to them.) Eventually, our Kindles came out and we just read our books until we couldn't keep our eyes open.
This was one of those camping trips that, at a few times, left me wondering why we do this... I was so nervous that I couldn't sleep. My brand new Nemo air pad had a leak - I woke up three times and had to air up my pad, because my hip and shoulder were on the rock we chose to camp on. We couldn't stake out the tent, because of that rock, so it was a rustling, noisy, windblown ruckus all night. Eventually, we put on every article of clothing we had with us and busted out the whiskey, and called it a night!
We got the best sleep of the night during the last hour or so that we were in the tent... the sun had just started to light up the sky, but wasn't all the way up, and things quieted down enough to be restful. When the sun decided to pop up over our boulder yard, things warmed up rapidly. It was a relief to feel that warm sunshine on our bodies for the first few minutes. Then we started packing things up to avoid getting too warm, and headed back down the trail. We drove a short distance to one of the campgrounds and found a few empty sites, so we snagged one and borrowed the table to make coffee and breakfast. We climbed up on a nearby boulder and enjoyed a quiet morning with our coffee... this moment is when we remember why we do this.
During this visit, Joshua Tree was experiencing a spring wildflower bloom. The southern portions of the park were just covered in wildflowers. Several of the ocotillos were blooming, and we saw a few cacti with some flowers popping out. The coolest thing we saw was how green the ocotillos were - in the past, they've been brown, not covered in green leaves, so we didn't know these big plants could even be so green! We were even visited by a beautiful butterfly - possibly a Painted Lady - that seemed content to sit nearby and let us take it's photo. Springtime in the desert... always a surprise.
In addition to the beautiful wildflower bloom that was occuring, the Joshua Tree's themselves were blooming! Yuccas also had some beautiful blooms. These plants create such beautiful, huge, flowering blooms. If you happen to visit during the springtime blooming season, be sure to get close and check out the detail, and even the smell, of these beautiful plants. Just be careful, they are sharp!