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A Solo Camping Trip in Joshua Tree National Park

After hearing that I went on a solo camping trip, several friends commented that they’d love to embark on a solo trip but don’t think they could do it. First of all, you are stronger than you think and you can certainly do it! Second, if you’d rather go on a girls trip let me know and I’ll tag along. 😉 I wrote this post in a way that will hopefully take you on this journey with me. Grab a drink and a snack because this one is a little long!

I’m not normally big on birthday celebrations but I turned 40 this year and wanted to ring in the decade right. There was no way I was going to do anything remotely close to the normal grind on my 40th. I wanted fun, new and epic. The problem was that my birthday was in the middle of the week and my husband is out of PTO. At first I felt sorry for myself, then I thought about trying to convince someone to come with me, and then I realized that I can do things by myself. The idea made me a little nervous so I knew I needed to make it happen. And that’s how this trip was born.

Leading up to the trip, the campsite was booked, the park was researched, dates were taken off work, but I kept the idea very quiet. I told only a couple people who needed to know, like my husband, and a few coworkers who happened to see some cryptic markings on my calendar. By keeping it quiet I was leaving room to back out as I still wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea.

MONDAY EVENING: I decided I wasn’t going. I thought of all the reasons why it was unsafe, stupid, thought of all the what if’s, and firmly told my husband I was staying home.

TUESDAY MORNING: I was driving home from the gym, thinking about what I would do instead of solo camp and realized that I was giving in to fear and that I’d probably regret not going for the rest of my life. I got to work and mentioned this to a coworker who proceeded to give me the best pep talk (we all need someone like this in our lives!), wrapped me in a virtual hug and by the end of the conversation the trip was back on. But for real this time. I spent the rest of the day frantically shopping and packing. And overpacking.

WEDNESDAY MORNING: I planned to leave early Wednesday morning but ended up having to work for a few hours. I finally got on the road around 11am. Google told me Joshua Tree National Park (JT) was five hours away but with stops and such it took about six. One thing I missed driving solo is a navigator. I knew there’d be no gas in the park but had no idea where I would need to stop to get gas. I could have figured this out ahead of time but am not used to planning to this level.

There were still so many unknowns at this point on the trip so the decision of where to stop for gas carried more weight than normal. I knew I was getting close to JT and saw three names on a sign so I decided I’d stop at the last one which was presumably the closest to JT. Turns out, the last one is just a road. At this point I was regretting not stopping at every gas station I passed but I kept going. The point of this trip was to work on not letting fear take over. I saw a sign for an upcoming summit and assumed it was just the top of a pass. I guess it was but they also had gas! And the General Patton Memorial Museum and Matzner Tank Pavilion. That was a fun stop and a huge sigh of relief. I filled up on gas, took a few pictures and headed to JT.

Of course, I had to stop for the obligatory sign picture.

Shortly after I entered the park I stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center to get a map. There were six kids, probably more like college students, there also and they asked me to take their picture. They handed me a disposal camera and a polaroid. The encounter made me chuckle and also reinforced that I’ve lived long enough now to see my childhood regain in popularity. I guess that’s fitting for 40. I made my way towards the campground and enjoyed the quiet drive through the park.

Along the way I stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Living in the desert myself, cholla are not new to me so this sign made me laugh.

Cholla Cactus Garden

I arrived at the Jumbo Rocks Campground just before sunset. Surprisingly, I still remembered how to set up the tent! I got everything set up and popped open a bottle of wine. I didn’t want to deal with cooking on this trip so I brought oatmeal bars for breakfast, wraps for lunch, and backpacking meals for dinner. The only cooking I had to do was boil water for coffee and dinner. Backpacking meals really aren’t that great when not backpacking but they still beat having to actually make and clean up a meal.

Jumbo Rocks Campground campsite

I ate dinner sitting in a chair and watching the sunset. At this point the stress of the day was starting to melt away but it was also starting to get cold. I retreated to my tent pretty early with the plan of reading but was so tired I crashed. Several hours later I was reminded of the downside to tent life when the wind picked up and it felt like my tent was going to fly away. This went on for a while so I ended up playing games on my phone for a few hours.

THURSDAY – MY BIRTHDAY!: When I awoke the next morning I was glad to see I hadn’t blown away during the night. I boiled some water for coffee and got back in bed.

I opened my book and started reading and since I had no required agenda, I kept pushing my self imposed deadline back. I read for an hour or two before finally getting out of bed to start the day.

I finally made my way out of my tent to explore the park. I had no real plans other than to stop wherever I wanted. The first stop was the Hall of Horrors. I wasn’t sure what that was and was surprised to find there was no map or explanation. Fortunately the area is really pretty and walking around is fun on its own.

Hall of Horrors

The area has these huge rock piles surrounded by Joshua trees. For size reference, the trees are typically 20 – 40 feet high so those rocks are huge.

Hall of Horrors

After the Hall of Horror I drove up to Keys View. The vista was pretty but there wasn’t much to do. I left and headed back down the hill/mountain.

View from Keys View

Next stop was the Cap Rock Nature Trail. This is a super easy trail with an explanation of the flora and fauna along the trail. I took a picture of my 4Runner and an outhouse with the trees and rocks to share a little size perspective. Since I was solo there are no people in any of my photos so this is it.

Cap Rock Nature Trail
Cap Rock Nature Trail

At this point it was around lunch time and I wanted to go to the town of Joshua Tree. I stopped at the ranger station to buy a few things and a local cafe where I found a piece of peanut butter chocolate cheesecake (gluten free and vegan!) which I saved for later.

I had read that the Black Rock area was supposed to be the best in the park and that they have some of the largest Joshua trees. This area is not connected to the main part of the park and you access it from the town of Yucca Valley (right next to the town of Joshua Tree). The area was not what I was expecting. There were lots of Joshua trees but I found the ones in the larger park to be more scenic. The campground was also a little rundown looking.

Black Rock area

I decided I didn’t want to explore any further and headed back to the main park. Once again, I could have used a navigator. I wasn’t using my GPS because I thought I knew where I was but I was wrong. After taking several wrong turns, I finally pulled over and started the GPS.

Pro tip: the Joshua Tree entrance seems to be the most popular and can get super backed up. Most importantly, they have the park sign blocked off so you cannot get a picture with it. Gasp! I know. Fortunately, I came in through the Cottonwood entrance and already had a sign picture but if you too are a sign picture junkie, make sure to visit one of the other entrances.

The drive into Joshua Tree National Park

By this point in the day, all the stress from the previous day was gone and I was loving life and my solo adventure. The next road I drove by said there was a trail so I took the left. This was my new plan. Just turn when prompted. The trail was the Barker Dam Nature Trail. JT has quite a few nature trails and they are all awesome and a great way to learn about the park. The first half of the trail takes you along rocks and eventually on rocks to the Barker Dam. Ranchers dammed the area years ago to collect water for their cattle. There was no water when I visited in mid-April but supposedly the area fills after rainstorms.

As you leave the dam area you enter a more traditional JT walk; through huge boulder fields and Joshua trees. It’s stunning, really. Towards the end of the trail there is a short side trail to some petroglyphs. This hike is listed as easy but there are a few areas around the dammed area where you are walking on rocks and down rock steps.

At this point in the day it was mid-afternoon so I kept telling myself after *this* stop I’m going back to camp to read and relax. And then I’d see another pullout and be drawn in. The next one was the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. A narrow gap in the rocks opens to a valley where a cowboy gang used to hide their illicit cattle. They’d rebrand them and sell them off in other states. The area is a big bowl surrounded by towering rocks. It’s a popular rock climbing area and I was able to watch a guy climb. I couldn’t see a rope so I thought he was free soloing (I watched Free Solo and am pretending like I know the lingo) which I was in awe of. Now that I’m home though I can see his rope. His climb was still incredible nonetheless.

This trail is listed as easy but that’s not true. The trail is just over a mile and there’s not much elevation change but there are so many rocks to navigate. On several occasions I though I was lost but someone had used spray paint to mark the trail. Not sure if that was legal or illegal but either way I’m grateful. I would not attempt this trail if you have any mobility issues. It’s a beautiful hike though.

View from the start of the Hidden Valley Nature Trail

And because it’s 2021 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I took a selfie with my mask. Because why not. The trails were much more crowded in the afternoon and most people were good about mask wearing when passing.

My book was finally calling me and I was ready to sit down. I took a few more pictures along the way, stopped at a few road side signs, and made my way back to camp. Once back at camp, I moved my chair into the shade, put up my feet and opened my book. Life. Is. Good.

There was a trail near the campground to Skull Rock. It’s a “famous” rock formation in the park. I figured since I was so close I couldn’t not see it. I put the book down, grabbed my backpack and hiked another 1.7 miles to see Skull Rock. I would say it’s the most overrated formation in the park. It’s hard to get a picture of it because there are rocks in front of it and there are people everywhere. It’s not too far off the road but I wouldn’t go out of the way to see it.

Skull Rock

Once back at camp, I read until dinner time when I made another backpacking meal and drank some more wine. Dinner was not doing it for me but that might be because the cheesecake was calling my name. I decided to get the cheesecake from the cooler as a reward for when I finished dinner. I started with just one bite and planned to go back to my dinner but threw in the towel and ate cheesecake for dinner. It was heavenly and exactly what a girl should have for dinner on her 40th birthday. I even sang myself happy birthday in my head. 🙂

I alternated between reading, eating cheesecake, drinking wine and watching the sun set. This exact scenario is now what my dreams are made of.

Eventually it got too cold and I retreated to the warmth of my bed where I stayed awake until my book was finished. I read the Lost Apothecary and it was so good! One of the main characters is named Caroline so that was fun.

FRIDAY: Fortunately, there was no wind that night so I slept like a baby and woke up at 4:50am. A little earlier than I would have preferred but it worked. As I laid in bed waiting for the sun to rise, I listened to what sounded like two owls hooting. Maybe it was just one but the sound was alternating locations. And at one point the coyotes chimed in. This went on for a while. I finally got up when it was light out and made some coffee and took a few pictures of the sun rising. The campsites are close together so I was trying to wait a little bit longer before making too much noise. Around 6am I decided it was late enough and packed up.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

The drive out of the park was breathtaking. I was driving east as the sun was rising so all the plants were glowing and the mountains were in layers. Once again I took way too many pictures. I stopped at the cholla cactus garden again and took a few (or 100) more pictures, stopped at the ocotillo garden, and made my way to the Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

This landscape is so cool. It’s barren desert and then all of a sudden there’s a grouping of palm and cottonwood trees. Apparently this is the result of a crack in the earths crust.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis

I took a few pictures, walked around, and sat on a bench and listened to the birds chirping. There was a bird that was standing on top of a hill that had its wings spread open. It was the strangest thing. It was like it was warming its wings or showing off. I sat there for a few minutes expecting him to take off but instead he kept spinning in circles.

At that point it was time for me to leave. Someone was coming over at 4pm so I had to get back home. I stopped at the nearest gas station to get coffee for the drive home. Gas station coffee is hit or miss and this was totally a miss. It tasted like dirty water but that’s how it goes some days. And with that I was on the road home.

It’s taken me a few days to really digest my trip. I am so glad that I went and so grateful to everyone who encouraged me even when I started to doubt myself. This is the exact trip I envisioned when I wanted my 40th to stand out. I’m not sure if solo trips will be a regular thing in the future but I loved every moment of this one.

A couple things to note regarding Joshua Tree National Park. There is no cell service in the park. Like none. Pretty much as soon as I passed the entrance sign my phone stopped working. I do appreciate a forced break from the connected world so while this can be a little unnerving, it’s also always so lovely. There is also no water in the park. Make sure you take all you need plus a little extra.

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