I had been avoiding Joshua Tree National Park like the plague for the simple reason that it's too popular; everyone knows about and visits JTree as it's known to locals. When we started planning last weekend's trip Bill asked that I find someplace that didn't require a 5 hour drive to get to the trailhead and I figured since Joshua Tree is only 2.5 hours from home it was a good time to go check it out so we could at least say we've been there and check it off the list. We've spent a lot of time in the high desert of the Mojave and the low desert of the Colorado (a subsection of the Sonoran) and I thought it would be interesting to see both at the same time and where they meet up.
To understand this post's title of "Desert Lite" I have to give you some backstory: I grew up in the outdoors, camping and hiking since I was a baby. My dad is a great outdoorsman and taught me everything he knows, and for several years I went hunting with him, my grandfather and their friends (until I decided that I didn't really like the taste of game, and if I wasn't going to eat it I wasn't going to kill it). Being outdoors is a way of life for me. My husband on the other hand grew up without a father around and except for boating and fishing on the Atlantic Ocean, didn't spend time in the greater outdoors. I had to slowly indoctrinate him and we started with hiking. We even spent out honeymoon hiking around Arizona, but 'base camp' was always a hotel.
My career kept me too busy during the early years of our marriage but when we moved to California the call of the wild was too strong for me to resist. When I first brought up the topic of camping he refused to camp anyplace where he couldn't take a shower. That meant (gasp) crowded public campgrounds. His maiden camping trip was in Cleveland National Forest, close to home just in case, and he settled in well and decided he liked it. His first desert camping trip a few months later was in Anza-Borrego, again in a public campground with a shower, and that's when he started realizing that he didn't like having so many people around because it ruined his peace and quiet (yay!). After a few primitive camping trips with our friends from Project JK he was 100% hooked on being in the middle of nowhere with no one else around and the Mojave Road taught him that he wouldn't get cooties if he went a couple days without a shower (and that I knew what I was talking about when I told him about unscented baby wipes).
But I didn't realize how thoroughly he was converted until last weekend. The only backcountry camping in Joshua Tree is hike-in and no camp fires are permitted. The desert is cold at night, sometimes below freezing, and I did not want to camp if I couldn't have a fire for heat. The second the sun goes down the temperature drops like a rock. There is some BLM land outside the park to the south that allows campfires, but it would mean a lot of backtracking over too many miles (50?) and then having to cover that ground again the next morning. The BLM land to the north doesn't permit campfires. That left (gasp) the public campgrounds.
JTNP has 9 campgrounds with 490 campsites, first come first served. We arrived at the park by 8:30am and the ranger told us that all campgrounds were full but we could hang around and hope to get lucky. We did manage to grab a site at Jumbo Rocks, which is in a beautiful location. BUT at every campground we checked out the sites are right on top of each other and right on the road that winds through the campground. Since there are pit toilets throughout the campground there is steady traffic, vehicle and pedestrian, along the road as people make their way to and from the toilets. There was music coming from every direction, tons of loud kids and the beautiful rock formations were covered with people. Bill muttered about it not being quite what he expected, but we set up camp to reserve our spot and then headed out to explore.
We visited a few of the main attractions - the Cholla Garden, the Geology Tour Road, Barker Dam (very little water) - and we were hiking to the next destination (along with a hundred other people) and joking about the steps cut into the rock, all of the Day Use Only areas and how everything was 'just so' when Bill turned to me and said "This is like Desert Lite! This is for people who can't handle the REAL thing!" hahahahaha
"I remember the first time I took you camping and you said..."
"Hush! Don't say it!"
"I'm really proud of you Bill, you've come a long way and you're finally fully converted."
I don't mean to denigrate our National Park System at all. I've enjoyed visiting many of them and they are always beautiful, clean, well kept and have wonderful interpretive information so I always learn something. Joshua Tree is among the nicest we've visited and it is a beautiful example of the local desert environment. It's a safe way for people to visit the desert and hopefully develop an appreciation for it. National Parks just aren't a place to go when you want to get away from it all. If you're spoiled like we are and used to having solitude and complete quiet, visiting a National Park such as JTNP requires a bit of an adjustment of expectations - there will be LOTS of people.
It's also a good reminder of how fortunate we are to have hundreds of miles of open trail just waiting to be explored here in California, and that we need to do our part to protect and maintain those trails so we can continue to enjoy the complete solitude. Tread lightly, leave it better than you found it, and take only photographs and memories.