Joshua Tree

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Joshua Tree, or the 'Monument' as locals still call it, contains approximately 6,000 routes. Some 5,500 of these routes are grainy choss, but the others range from worthy to the climbs that will fill your dreams for nights throughout the years to come. Josh was the preferable training grounds for the founding fathers of our sport. Many heroes rose like a Phoenix from the granite domes and blocks to stardom. Legends such as John Bachar (RIP), Lynn Hill, Mike Lechlinski and many others established extremely impressive routes here. However, as a consequence of the ethics of those leaders and their brethren, routes were accomplished ground up, and the leading was often bold. Furthermore, you'll find that the grades are among the stiffest in the country. Combine this with sometimes awkward and technical climbing, and its not uncommon to find 5.7 routes that will give Elvis legs to climbers who can climb 5.10 solidly at sport climbing areas.

Clint Eastwood famously said that 'a man has to know his or her own limits'. In Josh, this is the best advice for the uninitiated climber. If you are just starting to climb, you are going to be extremely limited as a leader here. However, no worries, as many routes have reasonable scrambles off to the side such that top-roping is both very doable as well as popular. If you think you are ready to lead, there are climbs here that accept plentiful protection. But once again, always use good judgment and be aware that there are routes here that are not R or X rated but still contain mandatory run-outs that could result in huge falls or even ground falls. Got your palms sweating yet? I hope so, because this place is super serious.

The Joshua Tree climbing season starts in late September/early October and goes through winter and spring to late May/early June. But be warned, the weather is about as predictable as a coin flip, so it is always best to check weather a day or two before your trip. The middle of the winter can have perfect warm days where the attire is shorts and tee-shirts, or it can have stormy miserable days where your gallon jug of water is sure to freeze overnight (see Camping below). Also, you should be aware that the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains often create a rain shadow over the Mojave desert, such that rainy lousy days in Pasadena are epic climbing days in Joshua Tree. I've had many excellent weekends with good climbing conditions in Josh when the weather report for Los Angeles was grim, so sometimes you just have to go for it and hope for the best.

The Rock

The rock in Joshua Tree is a type of granite called quartz monzonite. As the name implies, the rock contains a lot of crystals and as such tends to be quite grainy. Well-traveled routes tend to clean up well, but expect to find lots of sharp holds on most of the climbs. The larger rock formations are domes, with the South and West faces tending to be very rounded and slabby, whereas the North and East faces tend to be steeper and sometimes covered in wonderful rusty-brown patina. You'll find crimpers, slopers, huecos and cracks of all sizes, although splitters are few and far between at Josh.

The Routes

Many climbs in Joshua Trees are not much taller than high-ball boulder problems. However, due to the unusual bouldery difficulty of these rock climbs, Joshua Tree routes have sometimes been described as the longest short routes you'll ever climb. If you like to get off the ground, there are longer routes as well, including several adventure climbs up to 3 or 4 pitches in length. Don't expect to find lots of rappel stations on the top of the climbs. If there is an 'easy' way down, you'll have to take this descent (sometimes involving tricky 4th class down-climbing moves to boot).

Sport, Trad, or Bouldering?

The name of the game out here is Trad, although you will find very good Sport Climbing and Bouldering here as well. One important thing to keep in mind is that in Josh, face routes do not necessarily mean Sport climbs, and in fact, usually face climbing in Joshua Tree means run-out slab climbing. Having done some of the classic 5.10 and easier slab climbs in Josh, I can say that honing yourself on these routes is a good way to develop a solid lead-head, but I cannot emphasize enough to work your way through the numbers. As a new Josh climber, take your on-sight grade level, and subtract 1 or 2 numbers off and this gives you a good starting point. The other Trad stuff involves plugging your own gear into cracks. There are also numerous hybrid routes, where face climbing is protected by bolts, but you'll still need gear to protect the crack climbing sections on these routes.

For the sport kids, yes, there is very good Sport Climbing in Joshua Tree, but there is a catch. There is very little easy Sport Climbing here that is also of high quality. The entry level good stuff starts at 5.11, but remember the grades are going to feel stiff, so 5.11b at Joshua Tree may feel like 5.11d or even 5.12a at the Riverside Rock Quarry. The solid 5.12 climber will find many classic routes to engage themselves on. Remember, if you are not sure where you are at, throw up a top-rope, you'll be glad that you did.

Did somebody say bouldering? Joshua Tree has about 1,000 boulder problems. I've done some of the Classics near the Hidden Valley campground so I can attest that Josh indeed has excellent bouldering. There are two sweet guide books (reference).

Top Roping

Many of the formations have easy scrambles to the top, so many of the routes can be top roped. However, there are several difficulties. First, you will usually have to build your own anchor using trad gear. Joshua Tree definitely does have bolted anchors, but they are usually on routes you have to rappel to descend, so they aren't very useful for top roping. Second, the rock is usually very abrasive, and the tops of the routes very rounded, causing serious wear on your rope every time you lower a climber. One strategy to avoid rope wear is to have each climber rappel rather than lower.

Planning Your Days

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when you plan your climbing days in Josh. First, I recommend staying on the good to classic routes and staying away from the choss (at least 1 star in the Vogel guide book or on mountainproject). This usually means having to visit multiple walls in a day. It also means a fair amount of hiking, and sometimes approaches can be an hour or more from the car. But for me, its just way more worth it to climb the good stuff than to have the convenience of only having to approach one wall for the day.

Second and most important, you need to evaluate whether you are going to want to be in the sun or shade due to the weather. If its super hot out, there is no choice, you'll need the shade. If its super cold out, well, I think you get the idea. The mountainproject is an excellent tool for figuring out this beta beforehand, or if you are a motivated cat, make notes about the sun in your guidebook as you visit the area. Keep in mind that the sun takes different paths through the sky at different times of the year and this will also affect whether a wall is in the shade or not.

Getting there

Getting to Joshua Tree from Caltech or JPL is easy. Simply hop on the 210 east and continue until this merges with the 10. Continue until you can see the majestic North Face of San Jacinto, the 2nd highest mountain in Southern California. In fact, usually at some point during Winter and Spring months you'll notice a prominent couloir that descends the massive 10,000 foot North face. Named the Snow Creek Couloir, this can actually be skied and represents one of the more proud adventure backcountry skiing descents in Southern California. But stop staring, or you'll miss your turn to Joshua Tree. Take the exit for highway 62 (also called the 29 Palms Highway), and drive through the small community of Morongo Valley, then through Yucca Valley, and finally you'll arrive in the town of the Joshua Tree. Follow the signs toward a right turn that takes you up to the park entrance.

Camping

There are 4 major campgrounds in the park that rock climbers will be interested in. The first one that you'll come to as you drive in is called Hidden Valley Campground, and its the Mecca of Joshua Tree. No area contains a higher concentration of routes and boulder problems, so I always try to stay here if I can. There's climbing in the campground itself, and Intersection Rock is only a hundred yards away. It's also a 5 min walk from the Real Hidden Valley, and a 5 min drive from Echo Cove.

Further down the road another 5 minutes is the smaller but still excellent Ryan Campground. If these are full, you'll have no choice but to cruise another 15 - 20 minutes to the Jumbo Rocks Campground, by far the largest but also the noisest campground in Josh. Note that all these campgrounds are in the North of the park, where most of the climbing is. The Southern part of the park (which is at lower elevation) is not as interesting, from a climbing perspective, although it has other attractions.

First, you'll have to pay to camp here (10 dollars a night, still, people?). Second, you will find it difficult to find camping if you arrive anytime except early in the morning. This is the key beta to getting a campground in Joshua Tree. Plan on arriving in the campgrounds between 8 and 9 AM. Drive around and be proactive (if you see someone mulling about in a campsite, ask them if they are leaving). This beta has never failed me (if you follow this rule, you will almost certainly find a spot in at least Jumbo Rocks). You may also be able to join someone's campsite if they are really friendly (look for small groups with only one car, preferably of climbers, and avoid large groups and romantic couples).

There is also a group campsite that you can reserve in advance at Sheep's Pass (reservations can be made online [1]). These campsites are really quite posh. You'll find a picnic table, a barbeque pit, and lots of flat places to pitch your tent. However, you will not find any running water, so its key to bring in enough water to drink as well as to cook and clean with. The SCMA often reserves this campsite, and several alpine club members are also SCMA members, and they can invite guests; such opportunities are usually advertised on the club email list.

None of these campgrounds have water, so bring your own, and remember that this is desert. Campfires are usually permitted in the designated fire pits. There is no cell phone reception in the park, so plan accordingly -- if you are trying to meet another party, the best method is to leave notes at the message boards (one in every campground). There's a message board for Intersection Rock and a message board for Hidden Valley Campground, and these message boards are only about 50' apart, so don't confuse the two (or better yet, leave a message at both).

If you can't find camping in the park, there is BLM land around the town of Joshua Tree and you can camp there. Upon entering the park, ask a ranger and they can give you a map to find the BLM camping (but this only works if you enter the park at a reasonable hour, otherwise the entrance station is not staffed). The map is also online. If you arrive Saturday evening in Fall or Spring peak-season, you will have a hard time finding a camping spot inside the park, so there's a good chance you'll be camping at the BLM area. The BLM campsite is about 30 min drive or more from Hidden Valley. More info at the park service camping webpage.

Recommended Routes

It is simply too tempting to not use the opportunity to spray about the best routes in Josh. However, I'm gonna keep the list short, and instead point you to Joshua Tree on MountainProject.com which has an impressive list of classics (routes given 3.5 to 4 stars). Or go for the 4 to 5 star routes in the Vogel guidebook. You cannot go wrong. There are so many rad routes in Josh, just typing this is making me jones to get on something awesome!

Suggested Routes by Gary Kleiger
Route Name Type Grade Comments
Sail Away Trad 5.7 Beautiful hand jamming with protection basically wherever you want it. CLASSIC! Expect crowds.
Mental Physics Trad 5.9 Another jamming beauty at the Future Games wall. You'll only wish that it was longer.
Bird of Fire Trad 5.10a Run-out and 5.8 at the start. Unbelievable climb with the steepest and hardest moves at the top. So good!
Illusion Dweller Trad 5.10b Every 5.10 leader wants to test themselves on this route. Why? Because its totally epic! Real hidden valley.
Imaginary Voyage Trad 5.10d Roof climbing at 5.10+. Hard start. Epic location. No crowds. Good pro. Get on it!
Janes Addiction Sport 5.11b Perhaps a bit sand-bagged, but absolutely outstanding movement on every inch of this one. Adequate pro (bolts). Hall of horrors area.
Wanger Banger Trad 5.11+ Overhanging thin hand jamming for those with normal to big hands. Splitter crack + hard bouldery exit = CLASSIC! Rusty wall.
Leave it to Beaver Trad 5.12a Bachar used to 3rd class this one sans rope. Trust me, you'll need the rope. Utterly classic. Top 10 route in the park.

For more recommended routes, please see the discussion page. We have a few more lists there (and feel free to add your own lists).

Other Info

If you are going to Joshua Tree, but need breakfast, lunch or dinner, then I recommend the Crossroads Cafe. You'll see it on the right hand side of the road as you drive into town towards the monument. The food is reasonably priced, super tasty, vegetarian friendly, great atmosphere, etc., etc. Its a great place to meet other climbers, or just to hang out and drink coffee and talk about how you almost decked on that scary slab yesterday. For breakfast, I recommend the ultimate bagel sandwich with bacon (vegetarians should opt for avocado instead). For dinner, I'll recommend the Coyote, a grilled chicken sandwich with marinated portabella mushrooms. Yum.

There is an excellent climbing store called Nomad Ventures in the town of Joshua Tree. You'll see it right after you turn off the 29 Palms Highway. They sell standard rock gear, so this is where to go if you forgot tape or a guidebook. Nomad Ventures has other outlets, including one in Idyllwild which is near Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks.

Guidebooks and Beta

By far, the most helpful resource is online at Joshua Tree on MountainProject.com. This is where you will find beta on many of the routes in the guidebook, and essentially all of the classic routes in the monument. You'll find helpful beta to find the route, a consensus difficulty rating (this is a good place to find out if a climb is heavily sand-bagged in the guidebook, a distinct possibility), comments on the availability of protection (like gear and bolts) and specific sizes of protection that you'll need, whether you can set-up a top-rope or if you have to lead the route, and potentially even climbing-specific beta. I've found this website to be invaluable for Joshua Tree and some other areas as well, so definitely check it out when planning to visit.

On Mountain Project, at each area there is a link called "Best routes for you" which lets you search an area (or sub-area) and organize by difficulty. For example, here's the search for all of Joshua Tree. If only they also let you search for sunny/shady routes...

Below is a list of guidebooks. All of these are available for checkout from the club Library.

Joshua Tree Rock Climbs

By Robert Miramontes. This is a very popular book with our members and there are several copies in the Library. It covers 2600 of the best routes and boulder problems and includes nice color photographs and sun/shade information, which is very useful in the park's desert climate. As of this writing (February 2014), it is out of print, so treat those copies well!

Rock Climbing Joshua Tree West: Quail Springs to Hidden Valley Campground (3rd edition)

This is most comprehensive and up-to-date guidebook for roped climbing in Joshua Tree. The Alpine Club has two copies of this guidebook. Unfortunately, it covers only the western third of the park, and the Central and East books have not yet been published. Author: Randy Vogel

Rock Climbing Joshua Tree (2nd edition)

The 2nd edition of the above mentioned guide covers the entire park, but has much less information about each climb - often only a few words.

Parts of it are online at Google Books

The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree

Subtitled "60 Favorites from 5.5 to 5.9" this is a great book for a beginning trad leader. It has big color pictures of 60 of the best easy-to-moderate routes, information about what types of anchors are required, sun exposure, and some beta for each climb. The drawback is that it only includes 60 routes, and few are close together, so it's helpful to have a more comprehensive guide as well. If you're a trad leader in the 5.5 to 5.9 range, this is a very useful book. (A word of warning: 5.7 in Joshua tree often feels like 5.10a at other areas, harder if you're not used to climbing slabs or cracks.)

The club has made a list of the 60 favorite climbs in the form of a ticklist. You need a Caltech/JPL ip address to access, or email a club leader for the club's username/password (i.e. the webpage is restricted).

See also the Google Books preview

A Complete Bouldering Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

This is one option for bouldering information about Joshua Tree. Author: Robert Miramontes.

Others

Maps

Mountain Project has an excellent Google map showing the locations of the sub-areas at Joshua Tree. Very nice!

Related trip reports

Club members go to Joshua Tree all the time. We also have many group trips, at different levels of organization. Below are some online trip reports from these:

See also

Links to other of our wiki pages, e.g. nearby routes, similar types of areas

  • Climbing Magazine featured Walk on the Wild Side (5.7+) in their "Classic Climbs" section
  • Climbing Magazine (Nov 2009) featured "hidden gems in hyper-crowded Joshua Tree" in the Desert Solitaire article.
    • Their 5 gems are: Physical Graffiti (10d, Echo Rock area), Savwafare 1st Everywhere (5.8, Real Hidden Valley), Seitch Tactics (11b/c, Wonderland North), Straight Jacket (10c, Sheep Pass), and Mojave Queen (11a/b, Queen Mountain).
    • Their 10 more hidden gems: Diagnostics (5.6, Belle Campground), Hawks Nest (5.7, Oz Area), Dos Chi Chis (10a, Wonderland North), Icon (10b/c, Queen Mountain), Waltzing Wern (11a, Rattlesnake Canyon), Rice Cake Roof (10c, Wonderland of Rocks), Dyno in the Dark (10b, Hidden Valley Campground), Spirited Away (5.8,5.11b,5.7, Wonderland North), Where have all the cowboys gone? (5.8,5.10d,5.7, Saddle Rocks).
    • We have compiled these 15 routes into a nice four page PDF JTree guide
  • Joshua Tree Climb is a interesting site. Some useful info. Run by Joshua Tree locals.
  • Because this is a national park, guiding must be done by an approved guide service. For example, see Vertical Adventures run by Bob Gaines.