Last weekend, my husband and I drove ten hours from our Northern California home to Joshua Tree in Southern California for a weekend camping trip. We’d booked our site back in November, planning this as a research trip for a scene I’m writing in my novel in progress. But when the weekend came, it was apparent our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We just finished remodeling our whole downstairs, and the irony was that we’d already been camping in our house for three weeks. And while it was difficult to leave our gorgeous kitchen and living room, it was imperative that we leave our responsibilities (including unpacking the kitchen) so that we could get in some much needed quality time with each other.
Note: Check out my favorite resources at the end!
Our First Look at Joshua Tree
Back in November when I booked our campsite, I knew nothing about Joshua Tree. The most I knew was that there were these interesting Dr. Seuss-like trees, and that this was a huge destination for the rock climbing community. Other than that, nothing. So when I Googled campsites and Cottonwood Campgrounds came up first, my first reaction was SOLD. But then I had to be responsible and make sure it had everything we needed. We’re not roughing it kind of people. We love camping, but we also like going to the bathroom in a toilet that flushes. Cottonwood Campgrounds is one of (I think) three campgrounds in all of Joshua Tree that has running water, so that was a definite plus for this site. Another bonus was the location of the campsite I had my eye on. Recreation.gov, the site we booked through, shows photos of each campsite. I chose ours based on location (it was walking distance to the bathroom, but not right on top of it, and it was located near a hiking trail), and the size (it was on a curve, and possibly the largest site in the campground).
But that was all the research I did. I knew time was of the essence, and I swear I felt like other campers were breathing down my neck as I pondered which campground to book. So to ensure I didn’t lose our spot, I booked it right then and there. Then I let it be as we immersed ourselves in the world of home renovations and washing dishes in our backyard.
Fast forward to the week we were to leave. Our remodel complete, we had about one week to start thinking about this camping trip. A few days before we were set to leave, I finally had the good sense to get a guidebook to the area so we could have some idea about this place we would be staying. I’m glad I did, but we still entered the gates as Joshua Tree noobs without a clue and eyes full of wonder.
Cottonwood Campground is at the south end of Joshua Tree, and we decided to enter the park from the north end so that we could get a feel for the lay of the land. We’d already passed so many Joshua Trees on the way to the park, but inside the gates, they were gorgeous. And the boulders? Incredible. I’m not a rock climber, but seeing these huge orange rocks up close and in the distance, I understood the appeal. After so many hours on the road, I was ready to stretch my legs and climb like a billy goat.
Along with the many natural attractions, we also passed all the campgrounds we wouldn’t be staying at. It made me even more excited about camping as I saw RVs and campers entering these different areas, many with sites nestled by the rocks. Ours was on flat land, but I anticipated the views we’d experience.
Once we passed the northern part of Joshua Tree, the scenery changed. The boulders disappeared, and the Joshua Trees became tinier and tinier. Soon, there were no Joshua Trees, and the interesting terrain became flat and boring.
Shawn and I didn’t talk much as we drove through the wastelands of Joshua Tree. I had a bunch of thoughts and feelings, much of it tied to my shame over not doing proper research. This whole trip had been my idea, and I’d planned all of it. We’d just driven more than ten hours, including the hour it took to drive through the park, all to pitch a tent in the middle of something akin to a parking lot. We could have camped much closer to home and had a better view.
The air inside our car was thick with disappointment. I was afraid to say anything because it would admit that I’d messed up. It would also open the door for Shawn to agree with that assessment. That, and we were starving. And we had to pee. And the campsite wasn’t getting any closer, regardless of how long we’d been driving.
Our bladders reached breaking point with no bathroom in sight, and we finally stopped at a place with huge hills of loose rock. We found a spot hidden from the road and relieved ourselves, then took a moment to stretch our legs. From the road, these huge rock hills looked like gravel mounds in a rock quarry. But up close, they were a million times more interesting. And climbable. We explored a little, and it felt great to climb while checking out critter homes hidden within gaps in the rocks. They weren’t as picturesque as the huge boulders Joshua Tree is known for, but they were just as interesting. We came back to the car feeling a little better about this adventure. We sat in the car on the side of the road, and over sandwiches we admitted our feelings. Both of us agreed that we were coming to too many conclusions. We realized it would be different than our expectations, so it would be best if we just chucked what we thought we knew and headed into it with open minds.
This mindset helped a lot when we reached our campsite.
Setting Up Camp
The sun was dipping lower by the time we reached our campsite. It wasn’t yet evening, but the temperature was cooler. At least, it was cooler than our sun-baked car. I had checked the weather repeatedly in the days leading up to our Joshua Tree arrival, and was pleased to see a high of 73 with a light breeze. That light breeze turned out to be semi-heavy gusts, which cooled the air considerably and made setting up camp a challenge. Have you ever tried to put a tent together in a windstorm? Somehow, we had to get the tent to stand upright and keep it from blowing away, and it was not an easy task. Still, we made the best of it.
This is where I should mention the vow I made Shawn.
Transitions are not my strong suit. Whenever we go on vacation, there’s that transition period between our busy lives of responsibility and the carefree feelings of detachment when I just want to crawl out of my skin. Anything within touching distance could end up a victim to my wrath, which usually involves the tent I’m trying to erect and the husband trying to help me.
I made a vow to Shawn that I would do everything in my power to breathe through this transition and not set a negative tone for our trip. Shawn goes through a similar thing, and he made the same vow to me. So when it came time to set up a billowing tent in a desert windstorm, both of us gritted our teeth, tried to smile, and just got the job done. I’m proud to say, we survived. The tent was fastened to the ground by ropes and weighed down with all our stuff (plus a few rocks for extra insurance), and now we could finally relax.
Except, we couldn’t. We still had to unpack our camp kitchen and figure out how to make dinner, and the sun was at the horizon and it was only getting colder. And I mean COLD. The wind wasn’t letting up, and neither of us could get warm. We couldn’t stop shaking as we warmed our pre-cooked steak over the fire, which never fully warmed up. Sitting there by the fire, fighting the freezing wind, the exhaustion hit us full force. We finally called it a day at 7 p.m. I felt awful, and told Shawn we could cut our trip short and drive back the next day if it stayed this miserable. I was actually surprised when he told me we were toughing it out. But after driving ten hours, he was adamant that we’d have a good time, whether we liked it or not. So we went to bed, shivering under down comforters until our body heat finally took over, then slept in fits and starts as the wind rattled our tiny tent.
I felt Shawn wake up around 3:30 a.m. Not wanting to face the cold, I stayed in bed for another half hour before I finally caved and joined him outside. The night before, the full moon had drowned out most of the night sky. But now that the moon was lower, the stars appeared brighter. Shawn warmed a cup of coffee for me, and we sat in the dark, mesmerized by the stars. The wind was gone, and while it wasn’t warm, it wasn’t freezing either. Beyond my novel research, the Joshua Trees, and the rocks, I came to the desert to see the stars. Sitting there in the earliest part of the morning, I felt like I’d finally arrived. This was the magic I’d been seeking.
Shawn eventually went back to the tent to catch a little more sleep, but I stayed out for a while longer. It was truly something to sit there and sip my coffee while staring up at the stars.
And then the rats came out.
When I first saw a furry flash cross our campsite, I thought it was a chipmunk. We’d seen the cutest, tiniest chipmunks all through Joshua Tree, all no larger than a handful. In the glow of the moonlight, that’s what I thought these were, too. But then I saw the tail. I realized these were rats (Wood Rats, I’d later find out), and they were super curious and completely unafraid of me. One crossed an inch in front of my feet. I’d scuff the dirt, and they didn’t care. If I moved as if getting up, they’d run away, but then come back.
I tried to ignore them and went back to watching the stars, but I kept imagining one of these rats crawling into my lap or something. So I finished my coffee and joined Shawn in the tent where we slept, waking up just in time for the sunrise. And what a sunrise it was! Our campsite was surrounded by rocky cliffs, and it created the perfect setting for a rising sun or moon. We experienced some truly beautiful sunrises and sunsets, along with moonrises and moonsets.
Breakfast that morning was sausage, eggs, and toast. I was already feeling better about our camping situation, but breakfast cinched it. Have you ever toasted bread in a pan with sausage grease? Omg. This was a breakfast like no other. A second cup of coffee, and both of us felt like a million bucks.
As I mentioned earlier, our campsite was located near a hiking trail. We’d explored a tiny bit the day before, enough to know we weren’t in the barren wasteland we thought we were. But on this next day, we realized how much of a hidden treasure this campground really was.
The trail led through the rocky terrain surrounding our campsite, and there seemed to be unexpected surprises at every turn. It was a two-hour hike, and I could have gone longer. On the trail we saw miles of desert and rocks, all the way out to the Salton Sea, the Cottonwood oasis, stairs carved into the rocks, and even two old gold mines. For all that driving we did the day before, we made up for it just on that morning hike alone.
The hike was just the beginning. We spent the rest of the day exploring all of Joshua Tree. We drove 90 minutes back to the top of the park, then stopped at every spot we’d noticed the day before. I found a campground I planned to use in my book, and took tons of pictures and mental notes. We explored skull rock, which is actually shaped like a skull. We ate lunch near the rocks, and then hiked some more. And then, after a full day of exploring this national wonder, we ended our day with a delicious dinner at Foster’s Freeze. I know, it sounds silly. There are some really cool restaurants around Joshua Tree. But after a day of hiking and burning so many calories, nothing sounded better than a good old fashioned burger at a gas station restaurant. It was seriously another highlight of the trip.
That night, we roasted s’mores over the fire. Without the wind, sitting by the fire was a lot easier. The moon was big and beautiful, and the campsites around us were buzzing with energy. And booze. It was your typical Friday night, and people were getting chatty. We’d also seen a bunch of young people setting up for some kind of gathering at the lower parking lot where there were covered benches.
I wasn’t worried. Once I had my earplugs in, I couldn’t hear a thing. But when I woke at 4 a.m. and removed the earplugs, I could still hear the party in the parking lot. Shawn said they’d partied all night, along with the campsites around us. The party ended soon after, just as Shawn and I got up for the day. We enjoyed our final morning in the park, sipping coffee under the stars and eating our grease toast and sausages. Then we watched the moon set on a pink horizon, followed soon after by the vibrant sun.
We packed up and left camp around 8:30 a.m. We’d originally had plans to go back through the camp and visit a few of the places we’d missed. When it came down to it, though, we felt like we’d had our fill of Joshua Tree. We felt content, like our experience was truly complete. Plus, it would give us something to look forward to the next time.
And yes, there will be a next time. We may even stay at Cottonwood again.
A Few Resources That Helped Us
- Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide: Joshua Tree National Park: This guidebook had everything we needed as total newbies to the desert, and it was so simple to read and navigate, we felt a little more prepared (even though we received it the day we were to leave!). I got this in both paperback and Kindle, and both versions were excellent.
- Joshua Tree Subreddit: Let it be known that the Joshua Tree subreddit was an incredible resource for information! People are all too willing to share their experience, along with places to buy firewood, best places to eat, cool places to visit, and so on. In the week leading up to our trip, it was very helpful to see other people’s photos and read their experiences so that we weren’t completely caught offguard by the weather. I owe a lot to this board!
- Joshua Tree Visitor’s Guide: This website has tons of information on things to do, places to see, and things to know.
- HotHands Handwarmers: We had two of these on our body in the evening and at night, and they saved our tushies! Seriously, don’t leave home without them!
Note: Some links are affiliate links, which just means I get a small kickback if you purchase through link)
Have you been to Joshua Tree? I’d love to hear about your experience, along with any recommendations!