Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best climbing areas in the United States. The 789,745-acre park, about three hours east of Los Angeles, offers rock climbers over 8,000 routes spread out on various formations, outcrops, domes, and cliffs composed of rough gneiss and bumpy monzogranite in a high desert environment. Besides offering lots of rock for climbing, the park’s cliffs are also easily accessed, sunny and warm in winter, and offer a huge variety of routes from beginner slabs to expert crack climbs.
Great Winter Climbing Area
Joshua Tree is also, along with Hueco Tanks in Texas, one of the best winter rock climbing areas in the country. The weather here is generally mild and sunny for much of the winter with only occasional snatches of snow, which almost never sticks. Climbers flock like snowbirds in the winter month to bask in Joshua Tree’s reliably winter sunshine. The park is rain-free an average of 358 days a year and the sun shine almost every day.
J-Tree’s Climbing is on Small Cliffs
Most of the climbing at Joshua Tree, usually called either J-Tree or Josh in climber lingo, is on small cliffs rather than big walls. Most of the routes tend to be less than 100 feet high, although numerous multi-pitch routes are found on the bigger cliffs like Saddle Rock. Joshua Tree is easily divided into different groups of rock piles and cliffs, with each forming a specific climbing sector. It can, however, be confusing on your first Joshua Tree trip to sort through all the different sectors throughout the park and then deciding where to climb. On your first J-Tree trip, use a good select guide like Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park to sort out the best areas and routes. On later trips you can explore some of the more obscure and remote areas.
Joshua Tree’s Climbing Sectors
To best understand the J-Tree climbing sectors, drive in on the road from the northwest entrance five miles from the town of Joshua Tree. The first major area encountered is the Quail Springs area, a popular roadside top-rope venue, on the west end of the park road. Move eastward along the park scenic road to other areas including Lost Horse Road, Hemingway Buttress, Hidden Valley Campground, Real Hidden Valley, Echo Rock area, Wonderland of Rocks, Cap Rock, The Headstone, Hall of Horrors, Saddle Rock, Jumbo Rocks, and Split Rocks on the east side of the park. Indian Cove on the north side, reached by a side road between the towns of Twenty-Nine Palms and Joshua Tree, rounds out the most commonly visited climbing sectors.
Joshua Tree Face Climbing
Joshua Tree climbing is all about the rock. Most of the granite in the popular climbing sectors is hard, compact, and less abrasive on the hands than that found in other parts of the park. Expect, however, to thoroughly trash your fingers and hands in a few days. Most of the face routes tend to be crimpy and thin with your fingers poised on small edges rather than bigger friendly holds and your feet are smeared on bumpy friction holds. Also expect long runouts between bolts and tricky face climbing sections that will leave you thoroughly intimidated. Unless you’re really confident and have a good leading head, stick to climbing the better protected cracks or using top-ropes on scary climbs. Also watch out of the slab routes, like Stichter Quits, which are runout and traditionally under-graded—a leader fall on these will grind you up good.
Routes Can Be Serious, Demanding, and Under-Graded
Be aware that most bolted J-Tree routes are not typical sport climbs. Nope, Joshua Tree face routes are notoriously under-bolted, especially since many were drilled on-the-lead. Most bolt-protected routes under 5.12 come with a R-rating since they have serious fall and injury potential. Best to get acquainted with the rock and routes before picking out a bolted moderate climb from the guidebook. Many Joshua Tree routes, both crack and face, are stiffly graded with old-style ratings. Don’t be lulled into thinking that a 5.7 here will be like one in other areas. Most are demanding, delicate, and dicey with a big scare factor. Also get used to “Joshua Tree starts” on routes with high first bolts that are reached by bouldery moves.
Jamming Josh’s Thuggish Cracks
The crack climbs are equally brutish. Expect lots of hard jamming in cracks of every size from fingers to off-widths, scrapes and cuts on your hands, and tricky gear placements. Tape is essential for hand protection, especially if you’re learning to jam. If you’re new to Joshua Tree climbing, top-rope a few cracks at the popular areas to get a feel for jamming and protecting the cracks. Many of the crack climbs are sustained, strenuous, and painful.
Bring a standard rack with a set of Stoppers or other wired nuts; a couple sets of TCUs with some offsets; and two sets of cams like Friends or Camalots. A #4 or #5 Camalot is useful on some climbs. Bring 10 to 20 quickdraws, free carabiners, and a half-dozen two-foot slings. A 165-foot (50-meter) rope is adequate to climb and rappel most routes, although a 200-foot (60-meter) rope is handy for longer pitches. Wear a helmet to protect your head from falling rocks. Tape is also essential for protecting your hands from the abrasive crystals in JTree’s cracks.
Southern California. Joshua Tree National Park is 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 35 miles northeast of Palm Springs. Allow almost 3 hours to drive from Los Angeles. It is accessed by two entrances on the north at Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms. From the south the park is accessed at its Cottonwood entrance off Interstate 10.
Distances to Joshua Tree from Major Cities
- Los Angeles CA: 140 miles.
- San Diego CA: 175 miles.
- Las Vegas NV: 215 miles.
- Phoenix AZ: 268 miles.
- San Francisco CA: 523 miles.
- Salt Lake City UT: 700 miles.
- Denver CO: 1,035 miles.
National Park Service.
Restrictions and Access Issues
- Climbers do not have to register to climb. The park is a fee area with weekly and annual passes available just for Joshua Tree. The park also accepts the Golden Eagle annual pass.
- Walk lightly on this fragile desert land and pick up all of your trash. Use a
Guidebooks and Websites
Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park by Bob Gaines, FalconGuides 2012, details the best routes at Joshua Tree National Park; Rock Climbing Joshua Tree by Randy Vogel, 2nd edition: 2000; Rock Climbing Joshua Tree West: Quail Springs to Hidden Valley Campground by Randy Vogel, FalconGuides, 2006; The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree: 60 Favorite Climbs by Charlie Winger and Diane Winger, 2004; Joshua Tree Rock Climbs by Robert Miramontes, Wolverine Publishing, 2010.
Joshua Tree National Park has 9 campgrounds-Belle (18 sites); Black Rock (100 sites); Cottonwood (62 sites); Hidden Valley (39 sites); Indian Cove (101 sites); Jumbo Rocks (124 sites); Ryan (31 sites); Sheep Pass (6 group sites); and White Tank (15 sites). All are fee sites and limited to 6 people and 2 cars per site. Water is only available at Black Rock and Cottonwood. Bring lots of water; water is available at visitor centers and nearby towns. Sites at Black Rock and Indian Cove can be reserved for October 1 to May 31 up to 6 months in advance by calling 877-444-6777 or at recreation.gov. No showers are available.
All other campgrounds are first-come first-served. They are filled on most weekends. The best camping for climbers is Hidden Valley Campground in the heart of the park; lots of cliffs are within easy walking distance of the campground. Other good ones for climbers are Indian Cove, Ryan, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, and Belle. There are other campgrounds on nearby BLM land as well as private campgrounds and motels in nearby towns.
All services in Joshua Tree, Twenty-Nine Palms, and Yucca Valley, including motels, restaurants, and shops.
For More Information
Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Drive, Joshua Tree, CA 92277. Telephone: (760) 367-5500.
Climbing Shops and Guide Services
Guide Services: Cliffhanger Guides (209) 743-8363 or (209) 743-1785; Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School, (760) 366-4745 or (800) 890-4745; Shops: Vertical Adventures Rock Climbing School (800) 514-8785 or (949) 854-6250.