Visiting Joshua Tree National Park on Black Friday

I think the memo went out years ago: travelling around the U.S. during American Thanksgiving week is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’re on the road you are going to land somewhere, and Joshua Tree was it.

We figured the park would be busy, but we tried to convince ourselves that everyone would be either at home fighting with their relatives, or stuck in the malls, trying to remember where they parked their cars. So, with hope in our hearts, we left Las Vegas and headed  west.

The sky was gorgeous – big storm clouds moving toward Las Vegas, as we moved away.

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Our route to Joshua Tree took us right through the Mojave Desert; at times we were the only car on the road.  At one point we found ourselves on a stretch of America’s famous Route 66, and stopped for gas at Roy’s, our last chance before Joshua Tree.  At $5.00 a gallon, the price was almost two dollars higher than we would pay anywhere else, but we decided that there were two things we did not want to run out of in the desert: gas or water.

Roy’s – the place that time forgot – gas pumps, a small motel and a “cafe.” That vacancy sign looks permanent.

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When Stephen asked the laconic owner if he was Roy, He replied, “Nope, Roy’s been gone  a long time.” We’re thinking  Roy took the restroom cleaner with him.

We carried on and about an hour outside the park, we drove past a compound surrounded by chain-link fence, with a number of scruffy low buildings, old trucks and a prominent TRUMP/PENCE sign on the hill in front. No surprise there, but what gave us a knot in our stomachs was a huge Stars and Stripes flying on the flagpole, with a slightly smaller Confederate flag just below.

It would appear that most Joshua Tree residents do not share those politics. The town supports a good mix of shops selling crystals, pottery and boots made from recycled plastic. This sign appeared in one of the windows.

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This mural is an accurate depiction of the town and park – pretty trippy.

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We had lunch at the Crossroads Cafe, staffed by a reassuring battalion of young people with the requisite hipster beards, flowered dresses with military boots and imaginative tattoos.  We ate the very best burgers we’ve had in a long time, served medium-rare.

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When we pulled into the Visitor Centre, first we got the bad news: Every single campsite in Joshua Tree had been booked for months. We were hoping to snag a first-come-first-served site, but even those had been “reserved” with an advance payment. Anyone close enough to the park to drop by with the fee in advance gets a spot. This is the situation in most state and national parks during peak times, weekends and holidays. We were directed to Joshua Tree Lake Campground, just outside the park, and it worked out perfectly.

Our campsite:
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The campground is situated at the end of a road, with mountains on one side. They have music festivals in the spring and fall and the rest of the year, they operate a quiet, clean site with a book exchange, a small store and a lake stocked with fish (to throw back).

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Over the next two days we put many miles on our hiking boots; Joshua Tree National Park is crisscrossed with a number of trails that range from a half-mile to a multi-day hike. We kept our hikes to under five miles, especially since many of them involved altitude. Our first hike, Ryan’s Mountain, had us climbing 1000 feet and it offered up an ideal combination of the flora the park is known for and the giant boulders, that formed from magma eons ago and were tossed around like so many building blocks.

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This is a Joshua Tree, which is not really a tree, but a tree-sized yucca.

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Although there are untold numbers of Joshua trees in the park (as well as other desert  areas), there is also an abundance of cacti, creosote bush, fan palm trees, cottonwood, scrub oak, juniper and Parry’s nolina – all plants that have adapted to the desert conditions.

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Joshua Tree is a prime climbing destination – we saw a number of people bouldering (climbing without ropes) as well as a few rappelling down cliffs. Stephen did attempt one climb, but only got about a quarter of the way up – enough to give you a perspective.

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Mainly we stuck to the trails:

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A few shots of the park:

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IMG_0056Barker Dam. At one point the annual rainfall was twice what it is today, and there was cattle ranching in the area. Ranchers built a dam to provide enough water for their cattle, and the small lake still remains.

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All the photos I’ve shown so far would indicate we had the park to ourselves. In fact, it was so busy it became a little comical. A solid line of cars snaked into the park; making their slow procession to the entrance gate. From that point on, every single parking lot was jammed, with cars circling and idling; just waiting to pounce on the very next available spot.

This is the lineup, waiting for a parking spot at Keys View.  It was madness; although once you were on the trail, the crowds thinned out somewhat.

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This was a popular hike – just a quarter of a mile walk on a paved road, overlooking the San Andreas Fault and a number of mountain ranges. Apparently on a clear day you can see to Mexico.

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Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails, for a variety of reasons – wildlife, ecologically sensitive plants, undesirable conditions for pets (heat, dehydration, altitude, unsure footing on narrow trails, etc.). We saw just one foolish owner who disregarded the rules; we encountered him and his Golden retriever (off-leash) about halfway up a very steep 2-hour trail. This is a difficult park to bring animals if they cannot be on trails and they cannot be left alone in hot vehicles. The rules did not apply to this little walk (out in the open and paved), and we saw a number of happy owners and dogs.

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We had a wonderful time in Joshua Tree – we could have stayed another day or two. Perhaps we’ll be back in the spring on our way home to see the desert flowers.

We’re seeing a lot of interesting, unique old campers, truck campers and trailers. I’ll post photos from time to time – this one had driven here from New Hampshire.

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Tomorrow we head to Anza-Borrego, a state park just north of Mexico. See you again in a few days.

12 thoughts on “Visiting Joshua Tree National Park on Black Friday

  1. Doug Beaton November 24, 2018 / 9:59 pm

    We’ve been to Joshua Tree many times including once with Craig and once with Alanna. Also ent camping there with Craig and Shauna and Alanna and Alex. Craig and Alex did some bouldering when there. A very interesting spot…too bad it was so busy! Looking forward to your next instalment…

    Doug

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 26, 2018 / 2:17 pm

      We were especially interested in Joshua Tree because it has meant so much to Alex and Alanna. It was super busy but really the only impact was parking. Once we made our way on the trails, the crowds tended to thin out. Would love to go back in March to see the flowers.

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  2. Joan Fisher November 25, 2018 / 6:01 am

    Loved the comment about Roy! I assume the washroom brought back some memories of your last trip! You will have to frame some of these pictures. They are wonderful. I’m jealous of your warmth as winter set in here very early, and it feels like February. Not impressed! I see The Girls at Pilates twice a week and at our card weekly game (they are teaching Debi and I 45’s). It’s not always pretty.

    Do I remember something about a plan for your boys to join you for Christmas? Or did I dream that? I’m sure you two will find a way to enjoy it in one way or another. My youngest will be home so looking forward to her visit. Travel safe! Hi to Steve.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 26, 2018 / 2:21 pm

      Yes, Roy’s was in stiff competition for some of the Asian and Indian bathrooms we’ve encountered!

      It was in the cards at one point for the family to join us at Christmas, but Loreto, Baja is not easy to get to, and most of the flights we looked at took between 15-30 hours of travelling and $$$ over Christmas. Danny will probably meet up with us in Mexico at some point.

      Do you have travel plans for the winter?

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  3. Gabriel November 25, 2018 / 7:47 am

    Thanks for this warming post on a wet, slushy Nov 24th, its a soothing blanket of dry comfy heat! Have you felt the need for any AC in the trailer?

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 26, 2018 / 2:24 pm

      So far, so good as far as keeping the trailer cool. On the advice of friends with an Escape trailer, we opted not to get AC – they were in Utah in high 30s heat and were just fine with two ceiling fans. We haven’t been in extreme heat yet, so we’ll see how that goes. Just as happy not to have AC blasting on us in such a small unit.

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  4. sas selfjord November 25, 2018 / 8:33 am

    hey, I have a dear friend who has a place in Joshua, who has also been on Gabe. Kathy Pryzgoda, next time will connect you guys. She is always urging me to :”come on down”….

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 26, 2018 / 2:26 pm

      Oh Sas, you should, especially since you have a friend who will no doubt know of great spots to hike, eat, drink, etc. It is a very magical place.
      If you have a choice, I’d go in the spring when the desert just fills with wildflowers, and giant cactus blooms. We’re hoping to stop back in JT on the way home.

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  5. Garry Davey November 25, 2018 / 12:47 pm

    Stunning landscapes, and an achingly blue sky, what a contrast to this wet, and chilly Gabriola day. And those burgers sound pretty darn good! Bravo you two, as always it’s a treat to follow along with you…armchair hiking! What a concept! 🙂

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 26, 2018 / 2:27 pm

      Thanks Garry – we’re really discovering the beauty and magic of the desert – I had no idea how it grabs hold.

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  6. Heather Scott November 26, 2018 / 2:35 pm

    The desert has never appealed to me as much as the ocean or woodlands have; but, thanks to others who has shared it’s “magic”, I’m beginning to see things differently. Thanks for broadening my perspective!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind November 27, 2018 / 2:43 pm

      I never gave the desert much thought before (hot, dry, lifeless, vultures), but boy, this trip has really given us insights into all the life that is here. It is the light that really changes the landscape too. We are missing a rainstorm on Thursday – we’ll be on our way to Mexico. I wish we were here to experience rain in the desert – it must be very dramatic.

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