Earlier this year, I presented myself with a challenge to visit one National Park a year. I'm proud to say I completed that challenge...for this year at least.
I've been meaning to visit Joshua Tree National Park for some time now. And when I heard that the National Park Service was offering free admission this weekend in celebration of its 100th birthday, I figured that'd be as good a time to visit as any.
I was slightly thwarted by the forecasted 100-degree desert weather and debated waiting until it cooled down a little. But then my grandma (an Airbnb host) sent me a text with a link to one of her guest's blog. This woman—who shares my love of adventure—camped at Joshua Tree herself just a few weeks ago.
I'm continually surprised by how often tiny coincidences like these seal my decision to experience new things.
I began my research and discovered that only two of Joshua Tree's seven campgrounds have water and that the park only takes campsite reservations during its busy season (October-May); all other times it's first-come-first-served. Considering it was a non-holiday weekend in the peak of summer, I thought my chances of getting a campsite would be pretty good.
I had no idea which of the seven campgrounds to camp, so I selected the one geographically closest to Phoenix: Cottonwood. After arriving at the visitor center there, I found out Cottonwood was one of the lesser popular campsites but one of the two that had water. Fortunately, I came prepared and brought enough water to last me the weekend, and so opted to take the park ranger's recommendation and camp at Jumbo Rocks—the park's favored and most scenic campsite.
The drive to Jumbo Rocks was another 45-minute drive from Cottonwood but I saw some incredible scenery driving through the park. Every few miles or so, there were stops that featured a different plant native to the area. I passed Cholla gardens and Ocotillo patches and fields of funky, moss-like trees that I still have no name for.
I also couldn't resist stopping at a location called Skull Rock. A scramble up a few boulders brought me to a large rock that did indeed look just like a skull. I spent quite a bit of time in that area, climbing the smooth-looking rocks to reach a higher vantage point. Once I reached a height that was too dangerous to surpass, I laid on the rock to enjoy the view and appreciate the breeze that kept the day from becoming too warm.
I eventually made it to Jumbo Rocks campground and—although all the shaded campsites were occupied—found one nestled in front of some rocks and a tree that would provide some coverage later in the day. I set up camp, had some lunch, and decided to check out where the trails were located. I thought it'd be cool to check out the abandoned Lost Horse Mine, but decided instead to check out the Desert Queen Mine I saw en route to Lost Horse.
I first hiked the area's 1.5-mile Pine City Trail, which offered a wide variety of breathtaking desert scenery and views overlooking the park. As well as a tiny, red cactus that apparently needed sunglasses more than their former owner. At the end of the trail was a wall of boulders speckled with pine trees at various elevations.
After swatting a few thirsty bees from the car, I walked the short quarter-mile hike to the Desert Queen Mine. There wasn't much left except a decaying cyanide bin, a couple gates covering some mine shafts, and ruins of a small stone house that I like to imagine would have been a lovely place to end a long day.
Having had a pretty long day myself, I planned to head back to camp to eat and get some reading in. My plan turned into a two-hour nap that ended just in time to watch the sun go down. I have to admit I felt like a kid, as much fun as I had crawling and climbing over the massive rocks to get higher and better views of the sunset. I was rather content with what I found.
I wasn't too disappointed with the stargazing, either. I'll have to remember to bring a sweatshirt next time so I can sit and gaze longer. It got chillier than I expected the desert would in the peak of summer.
I woke up the next morning with a sliver of moon still visible above my tent. Cursing myself for not getting more sleep but excited about being able to witness the sunrise, I scrambled up the rocks just behind my campsite to watch the distant colors shift from purple to red to yellow and back to a faint blue.
I managed to get a few more hours of sleep before my tent became to hot in the morning sun. As much as I would have loved to stay longer, I packed up and headed to hike Ryan Mountain—which one of the park rangers had recommended the night before—on my way out. This was a steeper one-mile hike that boasted impressive views of the variety in the park's landscape.
After hiking six miles over two days (without a shower) in the desert, I drove the four hours home to Phoenix with an exhilaration I hadn't experienced after any other hike—despite mom's President Snow-like threat to put a tracking device on my phone.
I had survived my first solo camping trip.