A hipster guide to Joshua Tree National Park
Ever since it graced a U2 album cover back in 1987, Joshua Tree National Park in California has been dubbed a “hipster’s oasis”. This is kind of ironic, especially considering the whole region is a desert – the arid topography punctuated only by massive lunar-like boulders and furry, strangely human Joshua Trees – the park’s namesake. But perhaps this is exactly why gypsies and creatives the world over flock to the park, following in the footsteps of musicians and artists like Keith Richards, Donovan and Kim Morrison who were also quite fond of taking the occasional desert “trip”.
The area is said to possess supernatural powers, a place of solitude and solace, so if you’re keen to find out what all the fuss is about, here are a few pointers and highlights from my recent camping trip to Joshua Tree.
Get there super early if you plan on camping within the park…
And lets face it, you should be camping inside the park to get the proper experience! The problem is, you can’t book a spot in advance, and the limited number of campsites makes sleeping under those magical stars a very tough feat indeed, especially during the weekends in Autumn and Winter. It’s doable only if you arrive at the park before 11am on a Friday or visit mid-week. The changeover for last day campers is 12-midday, so if you arrive before then you’ll be able to cruise around the different camps and pick out a spot beside some shady boulders. Try not to stare people down as they’re packing up though – awks!
Focus your camp grabbing skills on these sites…
If you’re one of the lucky (and organized) few who catch the park on a less full day, try to camp at the beautiful Black Rock Canyon Campground, which is set among juniper bushes, cholla cacti and other shrubs. It also has running water and flushing toilets for the more precious glampers among us! If seclusion is what you’re after then White Tank Campground is your best bet. With 15 sites, you’ll really feel like you’re on a different planet. Jumbo Rocks Campground is the largest of all the campgrounds inside the park, with 124 sites separated by huge boulders for extra privacy. It’s also in a perfectly central location to explore the entire park. Most campsites have pit-toilets, picnic tables and fire-pits but you need to bring your own firewood, which you can buy at nearby TwentyNine Palms.
If you miss out on a camping spot inside the park (I feel for you) you have a few alternatives…
There’s plenty of cool Airbnb’s for rent in the communities surrounding the park, like TwentyNine Palms and Pioneertown. You can also day-trip 2 hours from Palm Springs or even LA (it’s about 4 hours drive) but be warned, you’re not going to get the same vibe because sleeping in the park at night is where all the fun happens!
If you still want to camp, an alternative to the above is to set your pegs down at the Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground. Known as the “back-up camp” for all the rejects that couldn’t find a spot, the grounds are located just outside the west entrance to Joshua Tree and costs US $20 per night. The upside of this camp is hot showers and a small shop for necessities, things that don’t exist inside Joshua Tree. The downside of this camp is it’s very family-friendly. Make of that what you will people, screaming kids and all!
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Bring water and warmth if you’re camping… oh, and don’t expect phone reception…
Joshua Tree is a true dry desert climate, which means it can be unexpected and unforgiving! Even if it’s cool during the day, hiking and exploring will really dehydrate you and before you know it you’ll be panting like the proverbial dog. You can’t rely on running water at campgrounds, basically because most of them have none, so ensure you pack at least 4L per person, per day. On the flipside, if the day is a scorcher the night will still get down to low temperatures, so make sure you bring extra blankets if you’re sleeping on the ground!
Take a hike…
Joshua Tree is known as one of the world’s best rock-climbing areas, but if you feel like taking it a bit easier while still seeing the sites, there’s also some fantastic hike’s scrambling between high and low deserts, cactus gardens, historic ruins and ghost towns from the old mining days.
The 6.5 mile Lost Horse loop trail is one of my favourite hikes in Joshua Tree National Park. Many hikers go to the mine itself (which is fascinating), then return the way they came, but if you have the time, continue on the loop trail for excellent views of Malpais Hill and beyond.
Visit Pappy and Harriet’s pioneertown palace...
This middle-of-nowhere pub is an institution. And not just because it’s the only honky-tonk and music venue anywhere remotely near Joshua Tree. Pappy and Harriet’s, a 15-20 minute drive from the west entry to the park, has hosted the likes of Queens of the Stoneage, Eagles of Death Metal, Band of Horses and Vampire Weekend within its historic walls.
It’s packed to the rafters pretty much every weekend, and offers a pretty mean brunch full of carby delicousness. It’s best to designate a driver to and from the pub because of its remoteness, but if you’re prepared to wait it’s still possible to grab a taxi both ways.
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