Camping - Joshua Tree National Park

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Backpackers in Joshua Tree National Park
Backpackers in Joshua Tree National Park (Photodisc/Getty)

Joshua Tree National Park Highlights

  • Cottonwood Springs Campground is on the park's south side, where trails lead to Mastodon Peak and Lost Palms Oasis. You won't find any Joshua trees at this low elevation; sites are surrounded by desert scrub and cactus. This camp is one of only two in the park that has potable water and flush toilets. In winter, it is warmer here than elsewhere in Joshua Tree.
  • You'll be in the jovial company of rock climbers at Hidden Valley Campground. This fairly primitive camp is set among the jumbled monzogranite boulders for which Joshua Tree is famous. Practice your bouldering technique at camp, or head to the neighboring Wonderland of Rocks. Jumbo Rocks is another climber-friendly campground.
  • Neighboring White Tank and Belle Campgrounds are good places to get away from the Joshua Tree crowds. The camps aren't suitable for RVs and the rock climbers have better places to go. Sites are nestled among the boulders, which block the wind and provide shade. The sandy soil makes a soft spot for tent pitching. Water is available at the Oasis Visitor Center a few miles down the road.
  • Horse lovers favor Black Rock Canyon Campground because of its corral and proximity to the California Riding and Hiking Trail. With potable water, flush toilets, and ranger programs at the Black Rock Visitor Center, this camp is also a good choice for families.

The first thing you need to know about camping in Joshua Tree is that the temperature here can change 40 degrees in any given 24-hour period. Yes, this is the desert, but the lows can be as extreme as the highs. Be sure to pack more layers than you think you'll need.

Once the sun drops and you're snuggled up inside your cozy bag, you'll be treated to as brilliant a night sky as you'd find anywhere in the state. No overhanging trees to block your view; no city lights to wash it out. If there's any park that was made for sleeping under the stars, this is it.

There are nine campgrounds in all, in addition to countless backcountry possibilities. Each of the campgrounds accepts RVs as well as tents, but generator restrictions minimize the trailer park effect. Even the busiest of these campgrounds benefits from being situated amid lots and lots of open space—escaping noisy neighbors is often as easy as taking a walk behind the nearest rock.

To reserve a site at the three campgrounds that accept reservations, call 800-365-CAMP or go to http://www.recreation.gov.

If you're planning to sleep in the backcountry (highly recommended for anyone with map and compass skills), be sure to register at one of the backcountry boards before you leave. It's not just a safety issue—cars that are not accounted for can be cited and towed. Needless to say, it's quite a bummer to end a long hike sans wheels.

Some general backcountry guidelines: Camp at least a mile from any road and 500 feet from any trail. And, most importantly, DON'T SLEEP IN THE WASHES! Sure, it might look like a nice shady spot to pitch your tent, but rain can come when you least expect it, sending torrents of mud gushing down those dry beds faster than you can scramble to safety.

West Entrances

Indian Cove
One of the largest campgrounds in the park, Indian Cove is also one of the easiest to get to from the major highways. Add that to the fact that it hosts 13 group campgrounds, more than any other part of the park, and what you've got is one hectic place to pitch a tent. Hardly the middle-of-nowhere feel you'd expect from Joshua Tree, but tolerable if you're short on travel time. Reservations accepted (800-365-CAMP). Open year-round.

Black Rock Canyon
Running water and flush toilets make this the most developed of Joshua Tree's campgrounds, a quality that tends to attract a higher proportion of reluctant campers than other parts of the park. Horse owners choose Black Rock because of the horse camp and the California Hiking and Riding Trail that stretches across the park to the north entrance. Others like it for the park's namesake trees that crop up around the 100 campsites. That's right, 100. Reservations accepted (800-365-CAMP). Open September to May.

Hidden Valley
Not far from a main park attraction, the Wonderland of Rocks, this campground provides a good home base for visiting climbers. The drive in from the town of Joshua Tree isn't far, but the relatively small number of sites helps you feel a bit more removed from civilization than some of the larger campgrounds. Be sure to hike the short loop leaving from Barker Dam that takes you to a tiny lake. No fee, no reservations, no water. Open year-round.

Ryan
From this little campground you can explore countless nearby rock formations and hike the three-mile loop trail to Ryan Mountain (5,470 ft.), where you'll look out over San Gorgonio and San Jacinto peaks, as well as J-Tree's own Wonderland of Rocks. No fee, no reservations, no water. Open year-round.

Sheep Pass
These six tent sites sit at a higher altitude than any other in the park (4,500 ft.), but they are only open to groups. Like its neighbor, Ryan, nearby hiking and climbing spots are the main draw. Reservations accepted (800-365-CAMP). Open year-round.

North Entrance

Jumbo Rocks
True to its name, this spot features giant granite boulders that are scattered across the campground. For climbers, this is ground zero. A short loop trail takes you from here to Skull Rock, which is definitely worth the trip. The downside: 125 sites that fill to capacity on busy weekends. At 4,400 ft., this is the highest non-group campground in the park. No fee, no reservations, no water. Open year-round.

Belle
Another option for climbers that's a bit closer to Twentynine Palms, this tiny campground features plenty of rocks and Joshua trees. Hiking trails and bouldering nearby. No fee, no reservations, no water. Open year-round.

White Tank
Located in the heart of Joshua Tree, White Tank tends to draw the fewest visitors, though the scenery and surroundings compare to any other campground in the park. Climbing and hiking nearby. No fee, no reservations, no water. Open year-round.

South Entrance

Cottonwood
Anyone entering the park from the south will get to Cottonwood first. Flush toilets and running water make it a hit among half-hearted participants. The draw for the rest of us is cactus, lots of it. You can hike the one-mile nature trail to find out what the various prickly plants are called, then try the 8-mile trail to a fan-palm oasis when you've had your fill of arid desolation. Reservations accepted (800-365-CAMP). Open year-round.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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