4 days in joshua tree for the lazy climber

Joshua Tree National Park

When days are gloomy and cold and short in the PNW, escape to the desert! It might still be on the chilly side, but it’ll definitely but sunnier on the whole. When Christie asked to do a spontaneous trip to Joshua Tree, I was so down! I’ve had such great memories from traveling there a few times during college, and it’s always a fun time no matter how chill or how extreme you take it. I had lots of fond memories of camping and lazily scrambling on boulders with not much aim but to experience that child-like freedom and joy.

We got a little group down to climb, work-from-home, and simply hang out in better weather. Joshua Trees are such spectacular and silly “trees”, part of the yucca family and have such fun personalities if you were to personify them. A change of scenery was just what we needed and these are just some of the things we did. Scroll down for our itinerary, but read the next section if you want the logistics of traveling there.

Cholla Cacti

When to visit

Since it is the desert, Joshua Tree National Park is best visited in spring and fall when nights aren’t too cold and days aren’t too hot. The desert can have extreme swings in temperature and I personally prefer to be in a temperate comfortable range. Winter can be alright to visit if you bring puffy jackets, but summers would be brutally hot with minimal shade and the overhead sun. For this trip, we visited in early December.

What to do

Well, we’ll go more into this below! In general, there’s so much you could do from visiting all the touristy spots to scrambling and rock climbing. And scrambling is for everyone here – it’s a child’s and adult’s playground! If you have time and patience, you can watch for wildlife like roadrunners and coyotes and cactus wrens. The sunrises and sunsets can be pretty spectacular and look a little different than the mountainous ones we find in the PNW. They’re more expansive and you can still get bangers when light clouds line up the horizon.

A note on climbing: there’s lots of guidebooks and routes on Mountain Project if you’re not already familiar. A lot of the routes are sand-bag rated, meaning they’re harder than what they’re stated for the most part. So if you’re used to climb 5.10s, maybe start at 5.8s instead. Use your best judgement!

Cacti at sunrise

Where to stay

For a longer stay or work-from-home option, there’s plenty of affordable AirBnB options in Twenty Nine Palms or Yucca Valley. It makes little difference which town you choose since the majority of the sights and activities are at the center of the park. It takes about 20-30 minutes to drive from town to the center.

You can also choose to camp, but it seems like it’s getting harder these days to find a good campsite. You can make reservations the same day or up to 6 months in advance. So for last minute trips, it may be more difficult than staying outside the park.  There’s several campgrounds within the park but the best areas are the central ones where you have easy access to all activities: Ryan Campground, Jumbo Rocks, Sheep Group Camp. Hidden Valley is first-come, first-served, and this would be my top pick. You literally can walk to a climb route from camp. Indian Cove is on the north entrance and segregated from the rest of the park, save a long 15 mile hike. But if you really want the camping experience, that is an option, along with the far away Cottonwood Campground.

How to get there

We flew into Palm Springs, which is a cool outdoor airport. Outdoor in the sense that from the security check, you walk outside to a seating area and then re-enter the indoor gates the planes. But weather is always spectacular, so it’s really a treat. It’s a relatively small airport, so there’s no need for the hassle of a large airport with checking bags and security. You can also fly into LAX, but then you’ll have to contend with traffic and an extra 2 hour drive. For flying from Seattle, we found that it was nearly the same price between the two airports and the same between SeaTac and Paine Field in Everett.

We rented cars at the airport, which was super easy and right next to the arrivals/departures. From the airport, the park is about an hour drive away, super straightforward on I-10 and then the 29 Palms Highway (CA-62)


You can bring your own gear on the plane. Technically rope and climbing gear can be taken carry-on, but it can be risky if the TSA officials don’t understand the gear. We ended up checking gear. We also were able to rent and buy some gear from Nomad Ventures, such as cheap crash pads for rent. It’s right next to the visitor’s center on the west entrance of the park.

Some of our group also rented mountain bikes, which is an option if you want that activity. If you don’t have an easy way to carry the bikes on your car and don’t want to rent a bike rack, the Desert View Conservation Area is a great way to challenge your skills at avoiding a collision with a cactus.

What to eat

We cooked nearly every day. There’s a Trader Joe’s 10 minutes south of the Palm Springs airport, but we ended up going to Stater Bros. Markets for everything. I heard that the Joshua Tree Coffee Company is pretty good! Jelly Donut has great reviews too, despite it being both a donut shop and pho restaurant. I’d try it next time. I really enjoyed Taqueria 29. Solid food! We saved the salsa for when we made our own tacos at the AirBnB. We brought sandwiches with us every day for the park and plenty of snacks. There’s some water spigots but no food in the park.  And don’t forget In-N-Out by Palm Springs and Raising Cane’s for fried chicken!!

Now that we’ve gotten the nitty gritty stuff out of the way, here’s our rough itinerary for our group!

Our itinerary

Day 1: Climb hard and watch the sunset

We spent some good time at Rock Garden Valley Left Side in the Lost Horse Area. It held a lot of excellent climbing at moderate grades 5.7-5.9. Remember that grades are rated easier than they actually are here. It’s mostly trad, and we had some great people to lead up the routes and some we were able to just move the anchors over on. Rock Candy, Double Dogleg, Split Personality and a few others share the same top over 2 (maybe 3??) different anchors that you can walk between. Smithereens and Young Lust were also super fun and felt much more like a sport climb than a typical trad crack climb.

We tried to find the Freeway Wall, which is on a different corridor than Rock Garden Valley and takes some trekking. But we ended up seeing that it’s best done as a follow and walk-off which didn’t work with our group. So after all that scrambling to the base, we descended back down and drove around to the other side of the rock feature. I think technically you could scramble around, but we wanted an easy approach.

So we went over to the Hemingway Wall (east) and got up a stellar climb (though very much harder than it’s rated). We started on White Lightning (5.7) and accidentally got on the end of Poodles are People Too (5.10b) and it was incredibly difficult even on top rope! But if you do end up going this way, at least it is easy to rappel and clean the anchor.

To end the day (this was actually a different day for us after a WFH day), drive to Keys View for effortless sunset views. You could hike around a little bit, but the views here are plenty good, though lacking in Joshua Trees.

Views from Rock Valley
On Rock Dog Candy Leg 5.11. Left crack: Rock Candy 5.9+. Right 2 cracks: Double Dogleg 5.7 and Split Personality 5.9. Smithereens 5.8 and Yi 5.6 on the left main face
On White Lightning 5.7 with accidental finish on Poodles are People Too at the right split-off

Day 2: Sunrise, Bucket-List Climbs, and the Hall of Horrors

If you can muster getting up before the crack of dawn and drive a half hour, you’re in for a treat at the Cholla Cactus Garden. It truly is best at sunrise because the valley opens out east and the sun lights up the cactus in a way you couldn’t see when it sets over the hill. It turns these prickly cacti into soft fuzzy stuffed plants, but be careful, don’t let it lure you too close! They’re known to be jumping cacti, but I never saw them jump. I did see how balls of cacti can roam loose and attach themselves to each other like an air plant. They are prone to attaching themselves easily when you get too close, but I’m pretty sure they don’t jump out of free-will. Perhaps with an outside force!

Pay attention and you’ll notice the difference between the two deserts that Joshua Tree National Park encompasses, Mojave and Colorado Desert. This is due to the weather patterns, the elevation, and geology of the land.

After the sunrise, the sun was warming the air and we took another stroll to see the one main Arch by the White Tank Campground. You’ll have to park along the highway at a pullout because there’s no day-use parking by the campground. It’s a short walk and if you have time still, check out Heart Rock.

Some of the other sites that you can check out (only half our group did this time): Skull Rock right off the highway, Jumbo Rocks where you’re free to scramble, Ryan Mountain hike if you want some elevation gain, Boy Scout Trail to the little oasis in Willow Hole.

Loop at the Cholla Cactus Garden

It was still early in the day, so there was plenty of climbing ahead of us! We went to claim our spot at the Headstone Wall, thinking that it would be crowded. But like every other climb, somehow post-Thanksgiving was pretty empty for the park. This crag is by Ryan Campground – make sure you park at day-use spots and not someone’s campsite. It’s a short walk and interesting big boulder scrambling to get to the base of the climb. It’s super airy, so it’s not for the faint of heart with bolts spread apart, it makes you commit to each move. SW Corner is rated a 5.6, which I would disagree for its exposure, but sure makes for some great pictures on this wall. You can set up a top rope from there to the equally famous Cryptic route (5.8). Get your cool no-legs “cut” picture! It gets breezy here by the way!

After Headstone, we headed over to the Hall of Horrors. We found a V0 boulder and got a few people to top out even in approach shoes! No crash pad this time, but plenty of people to spot you. Our main goal here was the Exorcist 5.10a with 3.5 stars! It was a straight up crack with lots of difficult hands and feet for me. But my favorite was the top where you get a beautiful juggy, easy hold to climb through a gap and a shallow walk up to the anchor. The bottom to get to the climb would have been scary for me because it’s a whole boulder problem that is very committing, though for strong climbers, it’s not terrible.

If you have time left, go over to the opposite rock for exploring the true Hall of Horrors. We entered on the east side and found lots of fun pathways, including a narrow shimmy pathway and lots of scrambling up and down. We exited out the west side where most people were found. It took some effort to “chimney” down, pressing my back to one side and my feet on the other side and slowly lowered myself to the ground. Obviously, do only as much as you can and make sure you can always go back out the way you came so you don’t get stuck! This was absolutely so much fun!

We also tried finding the Heart of Darkness across the highway from Hall of Horrors in the Conrad Rock area. But we got a little turned around to find the entrance, but we eventually found it – looks amazing! Really awesome narrow chasm. I think you can somehow set up a top rope on the 5.11a route. We ended up backtracking and bushwhacking our way out. Oops.

Arch Rock
Walking to Headstone
Bouldering in Hall of Horrors

Day 3: Choose your adventure – go mountain biking, climbing, trail running

The Hall of Horrors was such unexpected fun (just go in and explore with no agenda – you can’t get lost), that I had to find another fun canyon. So the next day, we had a goal of the Chasm of Doom. This one really isn’t a secret, but definitely look it up for some helpful directions to find it. It’s the first set of picnic tables south of the main entrance to the Real Hidden Valley trail. There’s a few key signs to know you’re on the right track, like going behind a palm tree into a narrow hallway and finding a square opening in the rock (you don’t go through – just look for it). In general, stay under when possible and once you find the chasm, stay within the chasm while ascending and nothing should be overly difficult. Also don’t try to get out of it! The coolest part was called the coffin, where for 5 feet you pull yourself head first, slightly upwards until you get through the opening. It maybe difficult for people with larger chests and can get a little claustrophobic. It’s only a few seconds though! After this fun section, you climb out and then find the narrow chasm again and scramble down the rocks. Eventually you pop out to the main trail in Hidden Valley. You can take the short loop around and look at this little oasis!

This day, our group split up with people trail running, biking, and climbing. I was in the climbing group. We took it easy and found the Blob, a bouldering route that you can set up top rope on, rated 5.10d/V1-. Then we ended on the Cyclops for the very famous, touristy route called The Eye. Fun fact: It was actually featured on the Bachelorette, Season 18. It’s rated 5.4 but actually hard to lead because it is so slick now with few good protection placements. But super fun for anyone following. You scramble down the other side, so if you don’t climb, you can access the eye (hole in the rock) through the back side scramble!

Day 4: Boulders and more classic climbs

Our last day, we took it easy. We rented a single crash pad for easy bouldering and this really fun traverse boulder called Gunsmoke V3. There’s some easier bits and it’s easy to spot people since it’s never very far from the ground. It’s next to Barker Dam, so make sure to check it out, one of the only spots with potential water and a whole different environment than the rest of the desert. It’s near Hidden Valley, so we also did some climbing there. Make sure to check off some of the bucket-list climbs there like Double Cross on the Old Woman or Overhang Bypass on Intersection Rock.

If time permits, across the highway is the Real Hidden Valley where the Chasm of Doom is. Lots of amazing climbing there and we only were able to check out Thin Wall. All the routes are on the side opposite the trail. Lots of fun climbing here, very sporty feeling and easy to set up top ropes.

And lastly, one of our favorites was the Dihedral Wall, just west of Hidden Valley. Coarse and Buggy is a 4 star route, but quite difficult at 5.11a/b. It is easy to scramble to the top to set up a top rope. Super fun corner, even though I only climbed half of it, some others in our group made it all the way with some hard effort! None of us could imagine leading it, but I had lots of fun playing photographer and sitting at the top here.

I hope this helps inspire your next Joshua Tree National Park adventures, whether you’re there to sight see or climb, there’s something for everyone here!

My view from up top
Sunset from Real Hidden Valley
Barker Dam
  • Everyone will have a different experience but here were our highlights:
  • Climbing at Hemingway Buttress, Ryan Campground, Real Hidden Valley, Hidden Valley Campground, Rock Valley East
  • Exploring Chasm of Doom, Hall of Horrors, Cholla Cactus Garden, Arch Rock
  • Trail running, climbing, scrambling, hiking, mountain biking
  • Climbing: a lot of Joshua Tree is trad climbing or bouldering and quite hard, but if you look, there are ways to make it easier and some sport routes do exist. We went in with a few ideas of areas and routes to climb but played everything by ear each day!
  • Permits: It’s a national park, so have your annual interagency pass ($80) or get a week long Joshua Tree pass for $30. You can get it right at the park entrance or online here. Campsites are $20/night for reservation-based sites like Ryan Campground and $15 for first-come, first-served like Hidden Valley Campground.
  • Logistics: I think it is simplest to fly into Palm Springs, rent a car (check your employer for deals!), and stay at an airbnb. Then you get the luxuries of an air-conditioned/heated building, cell service and wifi, while getting all the outdoor adventures at the same time. We planned everything a month in advance.

Photos taken on Canon 5D Mark IV and iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 14

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *