Joshua Tree Day 0: Preparation

The primary challenge for backpacking in the desert is, of course, water. So our 38-mile trek on the California Riding and Hiking Trail in Joshua Tree National Park required a little extra prep work up front, because there are almost no water sources in the park. We planned to cache a couple of gallons of water at two different points on the trail, sleep at a car-camping campground where I’d reserved a site in advance, and begin hiking early the next morning.

Gallons for caching, liters for carrying.

At the west entrance, we waited in a long line of cars. When we finally approached the ranger standing along the road, I rolled down the passenger window and he said, “Stop. Stop.” Cyn kept driving slowly. “STOP,” the ranger said, and I turned to Cyn urgently: “Stop!” “Oh, sorry!” she said, finally braking. The ranger handed us a park brochure and map (“But the one you have there is way better,” he said, looking at the National Geographic trail map in my lap) and instructed us to bypass the little entrance station and to pay on our way out instead. As we drove through, I asked Cyn why she hadn’t stopped earlier. Turns out that she thought the ranger was saying “‘Sup?” that whole time [which is really no excuse. I was in a bit of a fog of stress about the hike, wondering if we’d made a terrible decision to hike through such an unforgiving ecosystem. -Cyn]. We agreed that we both always feel that the rangers are going to find us out — that they’ll realize we’re total novices and tell us that there’s no way we’re allowed out in the backcountry all by ourselves. But just like at Rainier, they waved us right through.

And then we were in Joshua Tree National Park! We took the main paved road through the park, marveling at the mountains and giant rock formations as we went. At the Juniper Flats backcountry board, we located our trail and walked a few yards out, hiding two gallons under a bush next to what seemed like a distinctive Joshua tree. I took a photo and a GPS waypoint to be extra sure we could find it in a few days. Onward to the Twin Tanks backcountry board, where we stashed another two gallons under a vivid red plant. We noticed that other hikers had left water right next to the trail or under the backcountry board itself, marked with their names and pickup dates, including one jug dated mid-February, so clearly abandoned by now.

Water hidden under that brown bush to the right of the Joshua tree. We were already falling in love with this desert landscape.
I think this shot is near the Twin Tanks backcountry board, because you can just make out the “hikers crossing” road sign in the distance. That spectacular sky…

Then we headed to the north entrance station, where we planned to leave our car to pick up at the end of the hike. We cleared this plan with the ranger there, paid our fee, and parked the car. Unlike the stressful permit lotteries we’d dealt with for the Wonderland last summer and JMT this year, at Joshua Tree you simply fill out your own permit at the trailhead, and this felt almost not real — could getting a permit really be so easy? We had a bit of time before the taxi was scheduled to take us back to campground on the other end of the park, so we had a snack and Cyn found a comfy rock to rest on.

Cyn enjoying “Mattress Rock” near the north entrance station. Apparently she’s able to find a nap-worthy rock in every national park we visit.

The taxi driver was early, and he offered us a choice of radio stations: “politics, hair bands, or sort-of-country.” We chose hair bands, which somehow included music like Green Day, and then were delighted to hear two Queen songs in a row [“We Will Rock You” followed by “We Are the Champions.” Not my favorite Queen songs (though there are no bad ones), but I was impressed that the station recognized them as a pair, and they are just the thing to hear before a big adventure. Thus ends my Queen nerdom. -Cyn] : a very good sign for our trip.

Finally, we arrived at Black Rock Canyon campground just after 4pm, located our campsite, and put up our wee backpacking tent in increasingly forceful winds. We weighted down the stakes with big rocks. Some of the other tents there were palatial; I saw one that even had its own screened porch area and was tall enough to walk around inside of! Our tent seemed laughably tiny in comparison, but I noted it was much better at shedding wind than the others, and felt grateful.

Campsite #95 at Black Rock Canyon.


View from our campsite in the late afternoon light.
Dealing with strong winds and bright sun at Black Rock Canyon.

The wind was really picking up — loud, cold, and relentless. We bundled up in our warm clothes to eat a quick dinner, enjoyed an early evening rainbow just before the sunset began, and tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags before it was dark out. It took me a long time to fall asleep. The wind shook the tent and made all kinds of noises that I couldn’t get used to. Car campgrounds also make me uneasy in general: lots of strangers with different ideas of fun, often with lots of alcohol, crammed into a space that offers very little privacy. Things like shared gendered bathrooms at these kinds of campgrounds can also make them extra uncomfortable/anxiety-producing spaces for queer and trans people. So I had some trouble relaxing my brain that night. But I finally fell into a series of naps, awakening to the whipping wind at regular intervals. At one of these times, I woke to hear some other campers walking past our site, exclaiming, “Look at this little tent! They don’t even have a car! They must have walked in and brought this tent with them!” I rolled over and smiled, anticipating the start of our real walk in the morning. –Toby


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