I want to make sure those of you joining me for my upcoming workshop have a good understanding of the park and environment. The foreknowledge will help you enjoy your visit.
Geography and Climate
Joshua Tree National Park spans 2 deserts the Mojave and the Colorado deserts.The two halves of the park are like different worlds.
Average high and low temperatures in April will be much more tolerable than in high summer. High temperatures should be in the 70F range and low temperatures should be around 50F. Bare in mind the north to south variation below as well as the fact that temperatures can vary wildly during the spring. Plan for the summer temps on the high side and winter temps on the low side.
Mojave and the Joshua Tree
The northwester end of the park is the southern edge of the Mojave desert. Chances are, if you’ve seen pictures from Joshua Tree National Park they are from this area. The iconic joshua trees the park is named for exist in this part of the park. The area is at considerable altitude (above 4000 feet) and is characterized by sand flats broken up by mounts of broken granite.
Besides the iconic joshua trees, the rocks of the Mojave half of the park define it’s image. There is an entire area know as “The Wonderland of Rocks” that we will be exploring. The rocks are beautiful and along with the trees, create an otherworldly environment. They also provide habitat for many plants and animals you won’t see on the sand flats.
These fields of rocks make the northern half of the park a mecca for climbers. Climbers are visible most days taking advantage of the many bolted routes. Those inclined toward portraits or sports photography and willing to approach climbers can create opportunities. Most of the climbers are friendly, but be respectful by asking to photograph them.
Because of the altitude and low humidity, the temperature can vary significantly from day to night. Even during the height of summer, night time temps fall into the 60s most nights. Summer day time temps can reach triple digits, but rarely do. This area of the park is usually 10F cooler than the lower Mojave just to the north (where the towns of Joshua Tree and Twenty-nine Palms are).
The Colorado Desert
The southeastern side of the park is part of the Colorado desert. The geography changes and much of the southern side of the park is a basin. Your ears will let you know as you drive down from the northern end of the park. With the drop in altitude the geography changes. The basin is basically a sand flat populated with desert plants sans the joshua trees.
Temperatures are also higher here, as much as 15F hotter than the northern end of the park during the heat of the day.
While the southern half of the park is not as well known, and the day time temperatures can be intolerably high during the summer, there are still areas worth exploring. We will be venturing into the southern half of the park at least once during the workshop. Late spring temperatures should be much more pleasant than summer highs.
Just north of the park lie a few small towns: Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. Of the three, Yucca Valley is the only one with major retails, etc. Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms both have food, gas and other necessities and are relatively close to the area we will be operating in.
The southern side of the park is bordered by I-10. The southern entrance lies on a very desolate stretch of the highway. About 45 minutes west is Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs. Entering and exiting through the southern entrance requires a lengthy drive across the southern half of the park to the northern section where we will be staying.
Spring is peak season. The camp grounds are generally full 7 days a week. Many are first come, first serve. Luckily, the workshop includes a reserved camping spot, likely in a group site. Unfortunately, we can’t say exactly which camp ground we will have until closer to the workshop as workshops can not reserve spots until 6 months from the reservation date. Check back closer to the workshop for details.
Most campgrounds inside Joshua Tree lie in the interior northern half of the park or along it’s northern edge. The camp sites on the interior are all similar and are nestled among granite bolder fields. Most camp grounds allow RVs, but some forbid trailers due to tight turns and small spaces. Most of the camp grounds have small but comfortable sites. The group sites are generally one large area. The ground is gravel/sand. Most have picnic benches and fire rings.
Attendees are responsible for their own camping gear. I routinely camp in a tent with an air mattress. Night time temps are cool even during the summer. RVs (small anyway) are allowed in most campground. Trailers are allowed in some places, but not others. Check closer to the workshop date once our reservations are confirmed.
Bring your own camp supplies to cook and clean and a camp chair. Assuming there is no fire ban, I will bring wood for a group camp fire each night.
Regardless of the campground we end up in, there is NO running water inside the park. There is no electrical hookups either. Campgrounds and most trail-heads have pit toilets. Most allow generators during the day (outside quiet hours).
Bring in all the water you need. Remember, it is a dry desert. You will drink more than normal and will also need water for cleaning and cooking.
I bring in 3 gallons a day when camping by myself. That is enough to drink while hiking and handle basic cooking that doesn’t require a lot of water.
Running water and flush toilets are available at the Joshua Tree (the town) entrance on the northeastern corner, the cottonwood camp ground (at the southern entrance) and at the visitor’s centers in Joshua Tree (the town) and Twenty Nine Palms.
Hiking and Exploring
We will be hiking through a desert. It can be a hostile and unforgiving place for all it’s beauty. Each student is responsible for their own safety and gear. It is impossible for the instructor to think for everything or plan for every contingency. Everyone is responsible for themselves. That said, here are some suggestions for preparing for our hikes.
Knowing the Risks
It is impossible to create a comprehensive list of hazards. The list below are things you are likely to encounter and should be prepared for. It is not exhaustive and each attendee is responsible for their own safety and person during the workshop.
- Trip and Fall
- Broken Bones, Sprung Joints
- Scrapes and Abrasions
- Snake Bites
- Bee Stings and Other Insect Bites
- Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Remember: There is NO cell phone coverage in the park. Getting emergency help involves someone hiking to a vehicle and then driving to a ranger station.
Emergency phones are available at: Indian Cover Ranger Station, Intersection Rock Parking Area and the Cottonwood Ranger Station.
Preparing for a Hike
Hiking can seem like a casual stole and in many places it need not be more. At Joshua Tree we will be venturing into the wilderness. Many of the trails are not well marked and traverse rugged land. They will include climbing over boulders and around obstacles. Other hikes will be along easy to follow trail. Regardless, no hike should be started without appropriate preparation.
The Pre-Hike Briefing
Please pay attention during the pre-hike briefing. I will cover what to expect on the hike, including what we will see, but also conditions and hazards we are likely to encounter. I will also cover the emergency plan for the hike. Each and every person coming along should know what to do if an accident occurs.
Wear Appropriate Shoes
Joshua Tree is a rugged place. Most of the plants have thorns or spines. The ground is made up of sand and rocks. Even the smoothest trails include trip hazards and uneven ground. Some of our hikes will include rock scrambling.
In general, you should wear hiking boots with good ankle support. Flip flops or other sandals are inappropriate. They provide no support for the ankle, and no protection from accidentally dragging a food against a rock or brushing a cactus.
Wear Appropriate Clothes
There is no shade on the trails. Your clothes should provide sun protection as well as some protection from the physical environment. Wear light colored clothing the covers the arms and legs. Some may choose to hike in short pants (and shirts). Remember that shorts and short sleeve shirts provide no sun or abrasion protection. Many of our hikes will involve rock scrambles. The granite of the park is very rough and abrasive. It is very easy to scrape your knees and legs.
Bring Along Extra Clothes
In general it is a good idea to bring along at least some clothes for warmth and to deal with (all be it highly unlikely) rain. Bringing along a water proof shell (such as a gortex shell) is a good way to address both problems in one light item.
It is easy to get chilled after sweating on a hike, especially if there is a breeze, which there often is. If we are hiking near sunset, the temperature will drop rapidly once the sun sets. Having some additional layers (such as a shell) can help keep you comfortable and safe in the event the hike runs long or unexpected conditions.
Bring Sun Protection
Repeat after me: There is NO shade on the trails. Bring a large brimmed hat. Wear sunscreen and reapply often (at a minimum before each and every hike and mid hike on the longer hikes). Have SPF rated lip balm/chap stick with you and use it.
There is no water anywhere on any of the trails, including at the trail heads. You MUST bring all the water you need into the park. When setting out on a hike, make sure you have enough water. I generally carry a minimum of 2 liters of water or more on even the shortest hikes. There is nothing worse than running out of water. Running out of water can be life threatening even on a short hike!
If your bag has a space for a bladder (camel pack style), it should be full when you depart and you should also have another 1L or larger bottle along. If you are carrying water in bottles, at least one of the bottles should be accessible without stopping and taking your pack off. I recommend a belt pouch.
Every individual is responsible for carrying enough of their own water.
Always have some food in your hiking day pack. It can be a couple of “protein” or “granola” bars, trail mix, beef jerky or just about anything else. Never start a hike without some food, even on short hikes. If you do consume some of your trail food, replace it when you get back to the trail head so it is there for the next hike.
Know the Route & Have Safety Gear
As the instructor, I will carry a hiking first aid kit, a trail map and provide overall navigation. That said, each individual in the group should know the route, have a trail map with them and be capable of returning to the starting point alone. It is recommended that students carry:
- A compass and trail map.
- Extra water and food.
- A small first aid kit.
- Signalling mirror and whistle (found in many hiking first aid kits).
- A flashlight or headlamp. Your cell phone doesn’t count.
DO NOT RATION WATER!
Drink as much water as you need and then more. You should carry enough water that you can drink as much as you want and end the hike with no less than 1/3 of that water left. That last third is for emergencies only and to share with other hike members that find themselves out of water.
The solution to running low on water is to end the hike immediately and return to the start, learn your lesson and carry more water the next time.
Dehydration can happen in a very short period of time in the desert (a half hour or less) if you aren’t drinking enough water. It leads to heat exhaustion and then heat stroke, a potentially deadly condition.
Dealing with Problems
Many problems can be solved in the field. Others may require the group to return to the starting point. The earlier we try to address an issue, the happier and safer everyone will be. I will have various emergency gear with me to solve trivial and non-trivial problems from broken shoelaces to medical emergencies. I am trained in basic first aid as well.
Heat Related Illness
The number one thing students should watch out for is heat related illnesses: Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke.
To prevent these: stay hydrated, wear sun protection and know your limits. Some people can hike in 90F+ degree weather as long as they stay hydrated, others will overheat causing a cascade of problems ending in serious and possibly life threatening conditions.
Some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
- Profuse Sweating
- Rapid Heartbeat
If you feel like you are getting overheated (well before the symptoms above appear please!) during a hike:
- Let me know immediately.
- Drink more water!
- Seek shade (I’ll be helping with that once you complete #1) if any can be had.
- Wet your hat or extra clothes and place it on your head to help cool you down.
If you cool back down, we can proceed. If not, we will exit for everyone’s protection.
Turning the Hike
Any member of the hike can turn the hike without prejudice for any reason, no questions asked. Reasons you might turn the hike:
- Overheated or cold.
- Aren’t feeling well.
- Have consumed a third of your water.
- Are injured (minor or otherwise).
- Are uncomfortable with the hike’s route.
Joshua Tree is located north east of San Diego and due east of Los Angeles.
Driving to the Park
Driving to Joshua Tree National Park from Texas requires 2 days 99.9% on I-10. I normally stop overnight in Tucson. The first day is long (13 hours without stops), but that leaves a “short” 5 hour drive the second day.
There are photo related things to see and do in Tucson to break the drive up:
- The Center for Creative Photography – It’s the home of the Ansel Adam archive with rotating exhibits from other photographers. It is worth a quick visit as you drive through.
- Saguaro National Park – Drive through the western portion around sunrise or spend a day.
- Mount Lemmon – Ascend from the desert world to an alpine world along a spectacular mountain road. The drive takes a couple of hours up and down but is worth it.
Flying to the Park
A vehicle is required to visit Joshua Tree. You can fly to any of the Los Angeles airports or San Diego airport and rent a car . It takes about a two and a half hour drive to the park from either city. Bear in mind that RVs may not be allowed at our campsite. Check back for details on our campground closer to the workshop.
Other flight options may be available to other cities in the area (Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, etc).
You can enter through any of the 3 entrances: Joshua Tree (northwestern), Twenty Nine Palms (northeastern) or Cottonwood (southern). When you enter, you will need to pay for admission. If you have a inter-agency pass (i.e. a national park pass), a Senior pass, or similar, you can use those. Otherwise, you will pay by vehicle and the pass is good for 7 days. In this case, admission is $30/vehicle (as of Sept 2018, check the site for current prices). Admission to the park is not included with the workshop.
If you visit national parks regularly, consider an annual inter-agency pass. As of Sept 2018 they cost only $80 and admit you and your passengers to all National Parks and most other Department of the Interior lands. There are cheaper senior options ($20/year, or $80 lifetime) and free annual passes for US military.
The northern visitors’ centers are located outside the park in Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. If you would like to purchase a park guide, patches, use the passport stamps, etc, make sure to stop in before continuing into the park, or plan to stop on the way out. If you come from the southern entrance, there is a visitors’ center at the Cottonwood entrance station.
During peak season (including April when we will be there), lines can form at the entrances. Be prepared for a possible wait. The workshop starts on Sunday so crowds should be lighter. Regardless, peak season means lots of visitors 7 days a week.
While you can enter through any of the three entrances, I recommend coming in through the Joshua Tree entrance (northwestern most) at least once. The drive up and into the high Mojave desert here is beautiful. You will be treated to fields of joshua trees backed by majestic rock formations. Pull off and grab pictures if the scenes grab your fancy. Just make sure you follow the park rules for stopping:
- No off road driving or parking is allowed.
- Always pull completely out of the travel lanes.
- Be courteous to other park visitors.
The Rules – They Are Important
Our national parks are a shared resource that the National Park Service has stewardship over. They set rules to keep these shared lands in as good as shape as possible while providing access to millions of Americans a year. It only takes a few people to destroy a natural resource forever. Some of these may be obvious, but others might not be. Please take a moment to review them:
- Pets are never allowed on the trails. You may bring a pet to the campgrounds.
- Drones and other RC vehicles are strictly forbidden. They disturb the wildlife and other visitors.
- Never drive or park off road. Drive only on roads and make sure to park in designated lots or along road ways at pull offs.
- Be respectful of wildlife. Give it space. Never feed wildlife.
- Campfires may only be started in designated fire rings.
- Do not attach anything to the vegetation: no slack-lines, hammock or anything else maybe attached to the trees.
- Watch for wildlife including tortoises on the road. There is no excuse to hit an animal in a national park . SLOW DOWN! PAY ATTENTION!
- Follow the speed limit and other traffic laws. The highest speed limit in the park is 45 mph, many places it is 35mph or 25mph. Drive slowly around animals or other visitors.
- Never gather anything from the park for any reason: gather no firewood, plant specimens, etc. The only exception is the next rule.
- Pick up trash others have dropped. Leave the park better than you found it.
- Do not litter by accident or intentionally. That includes cigarette butts and empty water bottles.
- Do not vandalize or mark the rocks, vegetation or artifacts in any way. Report anyone you see vandalizing or destroying natural or human artifacts in the park.
You are each responsible for knowing and following the park’s rules. If in doubt about whether something is allowed, even if you see someone else doing it, don’t do it. Find and ask a ranger for clarification.
Leave No Trace Principles
We will follow “Leave No Trace” principles during this workshop:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impact
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information, check out the Leave No Trace web site, and their free online awareness course.
Andrew is a photography instructor teaching students of all skill levels in Austin, TX through Precision Camera and independently in San Diego, CA. He runs workshops around the United States.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.
Andrew is a full time wedding and commercial photographer in both Austin and San Diego. Andrew is a club founder and multi-time past president of North Austin Pfotographic Society.