Joshua Tree is one of the most beautiful National Parks I’ve ever seen. The sunsets are spectacular and the stars are so bright they light up the night sky. It’s a backpacker’s dream, as long as you know what to expect.
Out of all the hiking and backpacking that I’ve done, Joshua Tree has proven to be the greatest mystery for me, and I have yet to complete a successful trip there. But what I lack in success, I make up for in experience gained.
Here is a rundown of four of the more valuable lessons that I have learned while hiking and backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park.
Lesson 1: Established Backcountry Trails are Hard to Come by
Out of the areas of Joshua Tree that I have explored, the only established backcountry trail that appears on a map is the California Riding and Hiking Trail. All the other backcountry trails that appear on maps, like the Tom Harrison and National Geographic topographic maps, are more or less routes.
A route is different from a trail. It’s simply a known path or direction that people can use to navigate their way across the terrain to get from one place to another. There are no signs on a route and little, if any, indications of foot travel. Safely travelling a backcountry route requires experience, knowledge of the terrain, and advanced navigation skills using a GPS or high quality map and compass.
If you do go off trail, Joshua Tree is helpful in one very unique way. in most of Joshua Tree’s backcountry landmarks are abundant, unlike the mountains where all trees look the same, and the nearest peak may be a mile or more away..
The rock formations that surround you are prominent and no two are the same. You can name them as you go, if they don’t already have a name, to help you remember them. Other landmarks exist as well, like washes, valleys, hills and, of course, Joshua Trees. No two Joshua Trees are the same, which makes them very easy to recognize, as long as you take the time to notice them.
A simple technique you can use is to stop occasionally while you’re hiking and look at the terrain behind you. Take note of your environment and any landmarks that stand out to you. If you have a camera, take a few pictures to help you remember. With a little effort and diligence you can stay found, which is the primary goal in wilderness survival.
Lesson 2: Day Use Areas can Ruin Your Day
In Joshua Tree, many of the park’s most scenic destinations have been designated as “Day-use Only.” A day-use area is a piece of habitat that has been preserved for one reason or another. It is open to exploration during the day, but closed to visitors at night, which means no camping.
While most day-use areas are located within the most heavily travelled sections of the park, a few sit deep within the park’s backcountry. The boundaries for day-use areas can be found on the park’s website.
When planning a backpacking trip around a day-use area, pay careful attention to the areas where you can and cannot camp. You may find, as I did, that getting from one backcountry campsite to the next will require extensive travel in and around these areas.
My second trip was cut short when I found that the area I had intended to camp in was day-use only. The signage around the park may conflict with the boundaries indicated on the day-use map.
Call the ranger station ahead of time and confirm that the areas you plan to set up camp in are, in fact, not day-use only areas.
Lesson 3: Park Rangers Don’t Want to be Your Tour Guide
When I arrived in Joshua Tree I took a detour and stopped off at the visitor center in Black Rock Canyon Campground. The plan was to run my intended route past the rangers before heading out so that I could get their opinion. Was my plan practical? Were there options I hadn’t considered?
Surely a park ranger could answer these simple questions, and so I asked.
What I found was that the rangers are completely disinterested in the details of your specific plan. They regurgitate park regulations like a scripted cartoon character, write off your questions and tell you to be safe and, “Don’t get yourself lost. We don’t want to have to come find you.”
“Thanks for the advice.” That was worthless.
Lesson 4: The Environment Will Bite You Like a Rabid Dog
Snakes, scorpions and jumping cacti are not your only concerns when backpacking in Joshua Tree.
Both of my backpacking trips in Joshua Tree took place during the winter. On both occasions I encountered winds up to 60 m.p.h. and temperatures below freezing, but my biggest challenge was the dry air and lack of water.
When you hike in Joshua Tree, there are no water sources available to visitors of the park. The few natural resources that are available are reserved for the park’s wildlife. Any water you will need for drinking, cooking and hygiene you will have to carry with you. And at a minimum of four liters per day for drinking, cooking and hygiene, that’s a lot of extra weight.
What Not to Do
Don’t skimp on water to save weight or plan your water consumption based on your experience hiking in unrelated environments. The desert will suck you dry and you will get dehydrated if you don’t drink enough water. Trust me, I’ve been there.
What You Should Do
Joshua Tree is so concerned about the water issue that they allow backpackers to leave water caches for themselves. This is great for two reasons.
- Less water carried, means a lighter load and easier hike.
- You run less of a risk of dehydration, hence a safer hike.
On my second trip to Joshua Tree, I drove around the park on the day I arrived, stopping at Ryan and Twin Tanks Campgrounds to stash water. At each of the campgrounds, I hiked out a quarter of a mile or so along my planned route and stashed a gallon of water in the bushes. If all had gone to plan on my hike, I would have had approximately 4 liters of water for each day in the backcountry, thanks to the water stashes.
Joshua Tree offers an endless bounty of fun and adventure for backpackers who are willing to face the challenging environment. Plan your trip in advance. If you have the time, do some day hiking before your trip to investigate your planned routes and uncover any potential problems.
Check the weather and plan accordingly. Be prepared with the right clothing and gear for the environment, and never underestimate your water needs.
Be safe, be prepared, and have fun. Joshua Tree is amazing!
Take a look for yourself…
Do you have any tips for hiking and backpacking in Joshua Tree? Let me hear about them in the comments below.
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