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Joshua Tree: A Climbing Mecca

By John Sterling - August 2nd, 2000

An April journey to Joshua Tree National Park is an annual rite of spring for most West Coast climbers. I just returned from this year's pilgrimage to southern California's climbing mecca, and I'm happy to report that J-Tree is still the preeminent church for those who worship at the altar of rock and rope.

With great weather most of the year, a myriad of routes and awesome desert scenery, Joshua Tree National Park is the land of milk and honey for crag rats who thrive on great climbing. And April is the most sacred month here. The desert air is perfect, the wildflowers are blooming and climbers can be found crawling over J-Tree's boulders like pilgrims in the promised land. Our group of five arrived at Joshua Tree in the pre-dawn darkness, so we didn't get a glimpse of the park's namesake trees until we were right upon them. The bizarre trees lurked near the road with their strange appendages splayed in all directions. Mormon settlers named the plants Joshua trees after the biblical character who pointed the way to the Promised Land. Those early settlers might find it ironic that -- for 20th-century rock climbers, at least -- the trees literally do point the way to the promised land.

And for a few weeks each spring, you can see -- or smell, to be more precise -- one of the desert's most unique flowers. The Joshua tree's blooms decorate the park with brilliant white flowers and perfume the air with a startlingly strong odor. Some people like it -- some don't, but most agree that Joshua tree blossoms don't smell like roses.

Thousands of Routes
Literally thousands of climbs await adventurous pilgrims who make the trek to California's Joshua Tree National Park.

We drove straight to our first climb at popular Echo Rock, a low-angle slab where the only holds are the tiny edges and flakes that riddle many Joshua Tree routes. Climbing in J-Tree requires more balance than strength and provides a constant reminder of the first rule in rock climbing -- trust your feet. Climbers flock to Echo Rock because it boasts a high concentration of quality routes at every level. Most J-Tree routes are bolted or can be top-roped; new bolting is prohibited in the park.

With more than 4,000 named routes to pick from, there's no need to get stuck in a rut. Climbers of all abilities -- from novices learning to tie knots to experts putting up new routes -- will find what they want in J-Tree. The following is just a sample of the myriad routes in the park:

  • Echo Rock:

    Stichter Quits (5.7) is a good introduction to J-Tree climbing. The bolted route follows a dramatic, curving dike that resembles an ocean wave. (Locals call the climb Black Tide.)

    Stick to What? (5.9) is located just 30 feet to the right of Stichter Quits. This route offers difficult friction and edge climbing past several bolts to a belay that it shares with Forbidden Paradise (5.10b), another bolted face that features interesting crack holds.

    Heart and Sole (5.10a) is a tough friction climb that traverses the lip of a small roof.

  • Saddle Rocks (Sheep Pass):

    Walk on the Wild Side (5.7) is a three-pitch slab climb that leads to a spectacular perch on Joshua Tree's largest rock formation.

    Real Hidden Valley: Sail Away (5.8) ascends crack and face holds to the tiny summit of Hidden Tower. A tortuous bit of sustained edging on Loose Lady (5.9+) leads to the top of Houser Buttress.

  • Hidden Valley Campground:

    Double Cross (5.7), the hardest 5.7 climb in the park, is an intimidating line on Old Woman Rock that requires constant hand and fist jamming. Chalk-Up Another One (5.10a) is a nicely exposed friction climb. It leads past several bolts and up a beautiful formation of orange granite.

  • Lost Horse:

    Dappled Mare (5.8) is a three-pitch route that includes an airy traverse followed by an exquisite slanting finger crack. It's located in the middle of Lost Horse Wall. East of Dappled Mare is the steep Dairy Queen Wall where Mr. Misty Kiss (5.8) and Frosty Cone (5.8) follow direct lines to a good ledge with a panoramic view. It's a great place to ponder the mysteries of life (like how lucky you are to be climbing J-Tree in April).

A Fragile Desert Environment
While climbing Stick to What? (5.9), I looked at the desert floor below and stopped to watch a coyote watching me. It's surprising how often climbers encounter wildlife in this "barren" environment.

While approaching the rock, I nearly stepped on a desert tortoise. A biologist later told me that the desert tortoise is threatened by tourists who find them and take them home. In places like Los Angeles, where the air is moist and polluted, the endangered animals contract a sort of turtle tuberculosis and die.

In the desert, where plants and animals often depend on each other to survive in the harsh climate, threats to one species can mean dire consequences for others. The desert tortoise, for instance, digs a network of tunnels on which more than 30 species -- from the burrowing owl to the kit fox -- depend for a shady retreat.

And the Joshua tree itself depends on the Tegeticula moth for pollination, while the moth, in turn, lays its eggs in Joshua tree blooms. Neither could survive without the other.

Camping at J-Tree
After a long day of climbing at Echo Rock, our own survival seemed to depend on finding a campsite at one of Joshua Tree's campgrounds. (There are four in the immediate area, nine in the park altogether.)

The campgrounds are "primitive," with tables and toilets but no drinking water. Still, the sites always fill up quickly on weekends during the fall and spring. Climbers like to stay at either Hidden Valley or Ryan, where they can sleep surrounded by their favorite routes.

A certain mystique has grown around Hidden Valley Campground. The site is a semi-permanent home for the "resident" crag rats who elude the 14-day camping limit and live in the park for entire climbing seasons. (Camping is free in all but three of J-Tree's sites.)

The resident climbers are in keeping with the valley's outlaw past -- it was a legendary cattle rustlers' hideout at one time.

A Rock Between Ecosystems
Centuries of torrential rainfall, blistering winds and occasional freezing and thawing have weathered the rocks at Joshua Tree National Park to their current state of climbing perfection. The rocks that make Joshua Tree a climbing mecca -- and the desert sunsets spectacular -- are the eroded remnants of a giant batholith of granite that was forced to the surface long ago. Centuries of torrential rainfall, blistering winds and occasional freezing and thawing have weathered the rocks to their current state of climbing perfection.

The type of granite itself, called quartz monzonite, also adds to J-Tree's allure. The slow cooling of the rocks created coarse crystals in the granite. Though the crystals can shred a climber's hands, they provide excellent friction when smooth faces are otherwise devoid of holds.

If your hands get so raw you need a break from climbing, Joshua Tree offers 790,000 acres of pristine desert to explore. Miles of trails wind through the park. The eight-mile Lost Palms Oasis Trail is a good bet, or try the three-mile trail to Mastodon Peak for great views of the Eagle Mountains.

Two large ecosystems, the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, come together in the middle of the park. In the eastern half, below an elevation of 3,000 feet, lies the creosote bush and cactus-covered expanse of the arid Colorado Desert. The higher, slightly wetter and cooler Mojave Desert, home to the Joshua tree, dominates the park's western half (where all the climbing areas are located).

The fascinating transition zone between the two deserts is an ecological melting pot that contains elements from each habitat.

Pinto Man, Cattlemen and Hotels
Joshua Tree's habitat also has been a melting pot, of sorts, for the various civilizations that have left their mark on the desert. One of the Southwest's earliest residents, Pinto Man, lived here when a perennial river flowed through the now-parched Pinto Basin.

Several American Indian tribes passed through over the centuries, leaving petroglyphs and pottery as reminders of their presence. The Oasis of Mara, reached via a half-mile, paved path, once was a gathering place for the Serrano, Cahuilla and Chemehuevi tribes, and it was used later by prospectors and homesteaders.

In the late 1800s, cattlemen and miners began settling the region. A 1.1-mile loop trail, roughly one mile east of Hidden Valley Campground, leads to Barker Dam, one of the remnants of the days when cattle grazed under the Joshua trees. The dam now provides an oasis for wildlife. Joshua Tree, like other holy sites, can make you ponder life's biggest mysteries -- like when I recently found myself asking that age-old question: Why climb?

The question arose when I fell while climbing up a steep finger crack. My hand was in one of those holds called "hotels" -- holds so good that once you check in, it's hard to leave. When I fell, my hand was still enjoying the luxury of a solid finger lock and stayed put. Seconds later, I was dangling at the end of the rope with my dislocated right shoulder resting awkwardly in my armpit. "Why, indeed?!" I asked myself.

We had set out to tackle Touch and Go (5.9), a famous, steep-finger crack that I had always eyed but had never attempted. Touch and Go is a beautiful line, and the first 20 feet offers exquisite but hard climbing. I don't know about the rest of the climb, because that's when my hand checked into the hotel and didn't check out. I fell on the hard part and spent the rest of the day in the Joshua Tree Medical Center emergency room.

The rocks at Joshua Tree National Park are ideal for relaxing as well as for climbing.

"Because it Takes You There"
During the remainder of the trip, I spent roughly eight hours a day in a lawn chair or a hammock (thank God for J-Tree's great hammock-hanging rocks). I spent hours staring at the desert. For the first time in five years of climbing, I was forced to stop and answer the inevitable question: Why climb?

I pondered the rocks around me, thinking about what it means to climb them. And after finally confronting this fundamental question, my conclusions surprised me.

When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he said, "Because it's there." I stared into the desert's expanse, seeing tiny yellow, purple and blue wildflowers in minute detail. Stunning cactus blooms burst out in neon-bright colors. I smelled the pungent aroma of sage, and I listened to birds and coyotes in the distance. I realized that I climb not "because it's there," but "because it takes you there."

I have climbed in many places that I wouldn't have otherwise visited, places of remarkable beauty that have had a lasting impact on my understanding of nature. Someday, I will hang up my rope and climbing shoes, but I will always revisit those places that climbing introduced me to. Joshua Tree, I already know, will be foremost among them.

Trip Planner

Joshua Tree National Park was established as a national monument in 1936. The landmark California Desert Protection Act of 1994 added 234,000 acres to the park (bringing the total to 790,000 acres) and changed Joshua Tree to national park status.

Location: Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California, 140 miles east of Los Angeles. The park can be accessed from Interstate Highway 10 or from State Highway 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway). The Cottonwood Springs entrance is located off of I-10, 25 miles east of Indio. There are also entrances at Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree on the north side of the park.

Fee: There is an entrance fee; call the Park or visit their website for details (see below).

Camping: There are six primitive camping areas, including Hidden Valley and Ryan, scattered throughout the park. The sites have tables and toilets, but no drinking water is available. There is no fee, and all sites are first come, first served. Three developed campgrounds are available at Black Rock, Cottonwood and Indian Cove. Make reservations by calling (800) 365-2267.

Season: The temperatures are best from October to early December and March to early May. Mid-winter temperatures can vary greatly. (January snow is possible.)

Precautions: This may be the promised land, but it's still the desert. Wear plenty of sunscreen while climbing, and drink lots of water. Don't let yourself become dehydrated. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Climbing lessons: The Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School offers lessons with local guides. Phone (800) 890-4745.

Further reading: Joshua Tree Rock Climbing Guide, by Randy Vogel, Chockstone Press. Climber's Guide to North America: West Coast Climbs, John Harlin III, Chockstone Press.

For more information: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Monument Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277; phone (619) 367-7511;


The Trad Guide

Another guidebook that's especially helpful for your first (or first several) visit to climb at JTree:

"The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree - 60 favorite climbs from 5.5 to 5.9" by Charlie & Diane Winger, CMC Press

Posted on May 22, 2010 - 2:28pm
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