By Michael Lanza
I feel the familiar nervous excitement just walking up to the base of the sun-warmed granite cliff, climbing gear jangling on my harness, rope over my shoulder. For various reasons, I haven’t gotten on rock in months. But as soon as I start moving upward and stick the first cam into a crack, I realize how much I’ve missed this intensity of focus, this sensation that there’s nothing else in the world except what I’m experiencing right here and now.
There aren’t many things in life that replicate the feeling of an eighth-grade date. For me, rock climbing still does it, after all these years.
I’m back in Joshua Tree National Park, in the Southern California desert, for the first time in several years, and packing a bundle of ready-made excuses: I’m out of climbing shape, nursing an elbow injury, and my horoscope cautioned against taking any unnecessary risks. Fortunately, my wife and I are here to climb with our grade-school kids, who are eager young beginners. They’re my best excuse for sticking to easy routes and not scaring myself too badly.
It’s hot, in the 80s, the sun a kiln baking and drying rock, dirt, thorny plants, people. So hot that Alex, age seven, twists her eyebrows in confusion and confesses to me, “It’s so warm I forgot it was November.”
More than just a welcome respite from the cool rain we’ll return to in Boise in a few days, J Tree is a playground for climbers. It has about 8,000 established routes on hundreds of granite monoliths, some a few steps from the road—with convenient picnic tables nearby—others reached by hiking an hour or two into the wilderness. For hikers and everyone else, it’s an otherworldly landscape where the Mojave and Colorado-Sonoran deserts overlap. Ocotillo, jumping cholla and prickly pear cacti, blackbrush, and Mojave yucca salt the dry ground, black-tailed jackrabbits dash between islands of vegetation, and rattlesnakes lurk in the rocks. With a lot of luck, you might see bighorn sheep on the cliffs.
But the park’s signature species is the spiky Joshua tree. With thick, twisting limbs terminating in dense clusters of needle-like leaves that evoke a medieval mace, the Joshua looks like some unfinished cross between a small tree and a tall cactus. Actually a yucca, Joshua trees grow profusely above 3,000 feet in the Mojave Desert. But they grow spaced so far apart it seems a stretch to call even thousands of them a “forest”—it’s more like a well-attended gathering of plants that value their personal space.
More than anything about the Joshua’s weird appearance, its limbs defy all traditional notions of a tree. Sometimes they reach skyward, like a saguaro cactus, but often they swirl at wild, deformed angles—the reason why Joshua trees draw frequent comparisons to the fictional flora of Dr. Seuss. Silhouetted against a dusk sky, the trees can conjure a mob of rigidly marching zombies from “Dawn of the Dead.” Set against golden granite or wispy clouds ignited by a setting sun, a sea of Joshuas stretching to the horizon constitutes one of the most unique and stirring landscapes in the national park system.
The trees are part of the reason we’ve brought our kids here, to show them an ecosystem destined for a major biological overhaul within their lifetimes. Most distressing, the Joshua tree’s future looks dire in its namesake national park, due to climate change.
But my kids aren’t terribly interested in talking about trees, yuccas, Dr. Seuss, whatever. They want to climb.
First they recon the 80-foot-tall heap of granite boulders right behind our campsite, crawling through every crevice and tunnel. Then we drive to Quail Springs in the park, where I put a rope up on a couple of easy routes on a formation called Trashcan Rock. Nate, who’s 10, scampers up both. I climb tied in right below Alex, pushing her butt up when she needs a boost.
Placing gear in cracks to build anchors atop each route—the gear that will fix the rope in place so that one of my kids doesn’t crater to earth—I spend more time than usual checking and rechecking each piece of gear. Funny how that is.
I introduce my kids to climbing with mixed feelings. I’ve seen its best and worst. It can be a volatile relationship, with too much stress and even destructive moments. It might be something they ultimately reject. But climbing also offers the potential for a lot of joy, the satisfaction of succeeding at an intensely solitary objective that may seem impossible at first, and self-discovery.
I find pleasure in many outdoor pursuits—dayhiking, backpacking, trail running, skiing, mountain biking, paddling. While backcountry skiing and mountaineering come close, nothing quite duplicates the natural high I get from rock climbing. It’s partly about risk—how we deliberately place ourselves out of our natural element, in this insecure, counterintuitive circumstance that epochs of evolutionary programming have taught us to equate with danger. Humans don’t belong on cliffs, our DNA communicates to us through adrenaline, sweat, and a suddenly thumping pulse. Fear concentrates the mind like nothing else, and there’s no narcotic as powerful as feeling the electric shock of fear and then learning to control it.
Darwin might not approve of climbing, but it sure does clear a lot of life’s sediment from my head.
Eventually, climbing is no longer as simple as an eighth-grade date, of course. It matures into a complicated relationship, with all that entails, including the hope of greater stability. Like any relationship, it comes down to how you manage it. With my kids, I hope to point them in the right direction, teach them how to be safe, and then let them find their own way.
On our last morning at J Tree, discussing how we’ll spend the day, Nate and Alex are unequivocal. They both insist, “We wanna climb!”
Yes, I tell them. I do, too.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR rock climbers from experts to beginners, as long as someone in the group knows how to build anchors, and dayhikers of all ability levels who can read a map. Climbing routes at Joshua Tree are very traditionally rated; climbers new to JT may feel that routes here are rated one or two full number grades lower than a comparable route would be elsewhere—for example, that a 5.7 at JT feels like a 5.8 or 5.9 in other areas. Choose routes below your ability level until you get used to the character of climbing here. Some routes are runout, and some descents are complicated and involve exposed scrambling. Hiking here presents the usual challenges of the desert—generally no water available, extended exposure to sun and hot temperatures, and open terrain in which distances can be deceiving. (See Concerns below.)
Make It Happen
Season Spring and fall are the peak seasons, with daytime highs usually in the 70s and 80s and nighttime lows around 50. Winter days often get into the 60s, and nights drop to around freezing. Summer highs frequently exceed 90° and 100° F. The park receives very little rain or snow.
If you’re taking kids or beginner adults climbing, check out Trashcan Rock, right beside the road in Quail Springs, which has several easy and moderate routes and an easy scramble descent; and the Sheep Pass area, which has several easier routes, including Mr. Rogers, Geraldo Follows Ophry, and Right On.
Some of my favorite easy and moderate routes at Joshua Tree are Mike’s Books, Overhang Bypass, and The Flake in Hidden Valley Campground; Fote Hog and Sail Away in Real Hidden Valley; Southwest Corner on Headstone Rock (Ryan Campground); White Lightning on Hemingway Buttress (Lost Horse area); The Swift on Lost Horse Wall; and Hex Marks the Poot, Mental Physics, and Enchanted Stairway in the Wonderland of Rocks.
Getting There Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. Its three entrances are: The west entrance, on Park Boulevard, five miles south of CA 62 at Joshua Tree Village; the north entrance, on Utah Trail, three miles south of CA 62 in Twentynine Palms; and the south entrance, at Cottonwood Spring on Cottonwood Spring Road, north of exit 168 off I-10.
Camping The park has several campgrounds, all first-come, which frequently fill up by Friday, especially on weekends in spring and fall.
Map Trails Illustrated Joshua Tree map no. 226, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
Guidebook Rock Climbing Joshua Tree, by Randy Vogel, $35, Falcon Guides, falcon.com.
• Carry all the water you need when climbing, hiking, or in any other activity. Water is available only at the visitor center in Twentynine Palms, at Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds, at the West Entrance (south of Joshua Tree village), and at the Indian Cove ranger station.
• There’s little shade. Minimize exposure to sun and heat by wearing a sun hat, sunblock, and covering as much skin as is comfortable with light, breathable clothing, including pants to help protect you from the myriad plants that want to bury thorns in your skin.
• Many trails are not well-marked, and numerous use trails branch off main trails. Distances and navigating by sight in the desert can be deceiving. Check your map and eyeball your surroundings frequently to keep track of your location, especially when hiking off-trail.
Contact Joshua Tree National Park, (760) 367-5500, nps.gov/jotr.