With or (hopefully) Without You at Joshua Tree

Hills, boulders and Joshua Trees

The Joshua Tree masterfully expresses human ideals of earnestness, austerity and introspection. We’re talking about the 1987 U2 album, of course. Joshua Tree National Park on Easter Sunday during Spring Break masterfully expresses the behavior of clueless people acting like animals let loose from their urban cages.

It is so nice to escape the city

The main attractions at JTNP are the gnarly trees, cholla cacti and gargantuan rock outcroppings concentrated around small parking lots where a global conglomerate are scrambling around and over each other to take just the right selfie. Etiquette is not universal. The experience is more chaotic than calm. The battle begins in the parking lot for a precious space, and extends to the foot paths where crowds vie for the perfect backdrop.


Set against what we thought would be an awe-inspiring panorama of expansiveness and beauty, we picked up a night in one of the four reservable campgrounds in the park. Ryan Campground is 30 sites tucked into a field of Joshua Trees with campsites backing up to a pile of large sandstone boulders perfect for climbing. Unfortunately it felt like downtown Los Angeles with closely packed wet wood fires replicating SMOG.

Teddy Bear Cacti in bloom

We were stoked at first. Site 29 was 600 feet of spacious with climbing access to a covered rock, perfect for happy hour above the trees. After setting up camp, we strolled into the desert, away from the crowds for a closer look at Joshua and its blooms. Halfway into the field we noticed a large number of climbers setting up camp in the covered rock. Six “Crazy Rich Asian” dudes each with thick gymnastics landing pad and stuffed duffels were camped out in our rock outcropping. We hurried back and asked them if in fact they were staying in the campground and more specifically, in our site. They were not but they assured us that the “Ryan’s Roof” outcropping is famous with climbers and they were allowed to be there. We said no and that we’d be happy to call the ranger. After several minutes of consulting with each other, they strapped their gym mats on their back, packed up their duffels and camp stove and retreated to their 4WD Lexus and Land Rover SUV’s parked in the No Parking zone and left, their pop-up epic climbing adventure spoiled.

Rad dudes

Immediately following their departure, the sites on either side of us filled with B-B-B Bennie and the Jerks. Bennie, previously from SF and now from Vegas organized a camping get together for his sister Julie from LA, her husband Nate, their two teenage boys, Julie’s friend Caroline from South Carolina with her two needy kids who were visiting her brother Manny who moved from Bethesda to LA. Is it eavesdropping if they are speaking so loudly that you cannot not hear them? Fresh out of REI where they stuffed the truck with rented gear and whatever else they thought was needed for camping, they set up their tents for the first time as Camp Host Pam helped them.

What is the maximum numbers of tents that can fit is site 28?

Bennie brought firewood, a loudspeaker, shot glasses and a $2000 bottle of aged bourbon that he “won” the rights to buy in a raffle for $150. Instead of selling it on eBay, he brought it for this event and everyone agreed it was mighty awful. We wondered how Bennie could fall for that scam. If you missed the “bourbon story” the first time, no worries. Bennie would go on to re-tell it at ever increasing volume long into the idyllic night.

REI’s ill-advised rental program

Judging by the loud conversations, REI sold them defective propane, uninflatable camp chairs and head lamps for stadium viewing. The gluten free chicken nuggets never did get hot and the short ribs from Trader Joe’s were still frozen when they were eaten. At one point, Manny drank hand sanitizer by mistake and threw up – but don’t worry, he’s fine. You can’t make this up, and we’re not! It’s funny at first and then really annoying.

Album cover material

As children wandered randomly through our campsite and climbers dropped from ledges above our heads, we retired to the tent to enjoy the soundproofing of the thin nylon tent skin. Eventually the adults passed out from a combination of alcohol and drugs, each carefully described. Hint: the red and blue Molly’s are the best. About an hour later the cute-as-a-tarantula children woke to a squealing tickle fight and shout out of their favorite “potty” words. Camp bliss.

A happy moment before everyone arrived.

The Joshua Trees are quite unusual. Not like any tree you have ever seen, these trees have figured out how to live in the high temperatures and stiff winds of summer by looking like a cross between a cactus and a bristle cone pine. They are cool and certainly made for a famous U2 poster, but don’t seem to be really worthy of National Park status, at least at peak Spring Break. It’s not the Grand Canyon or the Carlsbad Caverns that’s for sure. It is a day trip from LA. That is the strong point. You can rent a Cruise America Class C for the weekend. Jam it half in, half out of a tent spot and soak up the joys of nature.

Bloomin’ art

With flashbacks to Zion, where throngs of tourists were running up the Narrows hike trampling children in the process, Joshua Tree in high season is what’s wrong with National Parks when they become overcrowded. The camp host hid in her Geo Pro trailer all night wisely figuring that her volunteer status gave her the option to opt out of conflict when dramatically outnumbered. We had the next night reserved the 100+ site Indian Cove campground. How many Bennie’s could there be?

Long lines to enter on a Monday morning.
With or (hopefully) Without You at Joshua Tree