Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
Published on: 11/18/2021
Last updated on: 08/23/2022
Joshua Tree National Park is an otherworldly place to go rock climbing. On a plateau between the Mojave and Colorado, its fragile desert environment boasts many trad climbing routes, a few sport climbs, and countless boulder problems – many within walking distance of a campsite. And with literally thousands of options, there’s something here for every level of rock climbing.
While JTree (as regulars affectionately call it) has plenty to offer the experienced, it’s also an excellent place for new climbers or indoor gym climbers looking for their next adventure. And it’s a history lesson in American climbing, with some of that heritage living on in the traditions and etiquette of those who come here.
Joshua Tree National Park attracts visitors from all over the globe. And while the park service has made progress in opening more campsites and enforcing capacity limits at existing ones, overnight camping can still be hard to find, and routes can get crowded.
We’ve compiled some helpful hints on campsites, classic routes, guide service, rest day activities, unwritten rules, and what you’ll need to get the most from rock climbing in Joshua Tree.
How to Get to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park in San Bernardino county lies 40 miles east of Palm Springs, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, and about 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. You can enter the park through one of three entrance stations:
- The West Entrance in the village of Joshua Tree is five miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard. It’s popular with tourists and climbers and takes visitors to the Hidden Valley campground, Ryan campground, and crags. Be prepared for crowds on national holidays or at peak times.
- The North Entrance is in Twentynine Palms, 3 miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Utah Trail. Heading south from the entrance takes visitors to Cove campgrounds and crags.
- The South Entrance near Cottonwood Spring is 25 miles west of Indio and can be approached from the east or west on Interstate 10.
Coming west from Los Angeles or Southern California, you’ll take the Interstate 10 east as far as Palm Springs. From there, continue on Highway 62 east to either the park’s west entrance in Joshua Tree or the Twentynine Palms entrance.
The closest airport to Joshua Tree National Park is about 50 miles away in Palm Springs. This is a smaller airport, however. Options for flights and car rental aren’t as extensive as those offered at LAX (about 150 miles away) or Las Vegas Airport (about 230 miles away).
The simplest option is to fly into Palm Springs International then drive the 40 miles on Highway 62 towards Whitewater and Yucca Trail to the park.
On the road
Many climbers relish the road trip to JTree almost as much as they do their time there – with the back road from Las Vegas a particular favorite.
This road can be an epic adventure of its own, taking you through some desolate but seriously cinematic desert scenes. There’s something to be said for this route. There are few roads on earth that look as impressive as the sun sets behind the desert.
Just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself in for. There’s little to no cell phone coverage, no gas stations, no convenience stores, and nowhere to rent a room. Apart from Kelso Depot, a restored steam engine depot with a visitors center about halfway through the trip, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in some post-apocalyptic, Mad Max/Fallout-like setting.
Be sure to have your route planned out and a paper map ready (Nuka Colas and bottle caps optional). The towns you’re heading for are Cima, Kelso, Amboy, and Twentynine Palms. You’ll see a few signposts for Joshua Tree National Park as you get closer. Increasingly, you’ll also see occasional hand-painted additions on road signs indicating the way to JTree.
Year after year, this scenic route grows in popularity with rock climbers looking to ready their minds for the climbing season. Consider checking it out before the charm and solitude are lost to time.
When to Go Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is a year-round rock climbing destination, with peak activity in spring and autumn. During these months, the days are still mild enough to climb in direct sunlight, and the nights are comfortable for camping.
In summer, climbing early (before 11 am) or waiting until the afternoon (about 3 pm) means you’ll miss the hottest part of the day. The Joshua Tree midday sun is no joke, and it’s best to avoid it during the summer months for comfort and health reasons. Some guides will offer limited tours, sticking to shady routes. Honestly, you’re better off visiting in spring, autumn, or winter.
Temperatures in winter are suitable for climbing but get cold at night or in the shade. A sleeping bag rated to 15-20 degrees is required for the later part of the climbing season. The monzogranite rock of Joshua Tree National Park is grippy and quick-drying. It’s often possible to climb – even minutes after an unlikely rainfall.
Best Climbing Routes At Joshua Tree
At almost 800,000 square acres, Joshua Tree National Park has rock climbing routes to suit every level. A conservative estimate counts over 8000 routes with countless boulder problems spread out over the many domes, cliffs, and other rock formations. The white quartz monzogranite’s rough surface gives a famously good grip.
Routes range from mellow slabs and wide, easily protected cracks to full-on, overhanging routes. Joshua Tree National Park offers a full range of experiences for all levels and tastes. And while it’s not known for its multi-pitch climbing, spots like Lost Horse Wall, Saddle Rocks, and Astro Dome offer some fun, longer options.
Best Rock Climbing Routes for Beginners
Typically, anything rated 5.8 or below is considered an “easy” climb. But there are a few things to bear in mind. Joshua Tree is packed with cracks and slabs – things that don’t have much of an analog in the gym.
The kind of balance and friction dependant movement necessary for successful slab rock climbing isn’t easy to pick up outside of real-life practice. Likewise, crack climbing techniques aren’t easy to practice in gyms with their bolted-on holds.
Also, some of the walk-offs here are no joke and can be as intimidating as rock climbing. The safest bet is to always start with an experienced Joshua Tree climbing guide, be ruthlessly honest about your ability, and build up confidence slowly in the company of someone who knows what they’re doing.
- Sail Away (5.8) Hidden Tower, Real Hidden Valley
Sail Away is a classic trad climbing route, one of the most fun, cleanest hand and finger cracks in the entire park. Sadly, it’s also popular. Expect to queue while waiting. But this is a satisfying climb with bolted anchors at the top. It’s sweet to be able to rappel down after testing yourself on an epic-feeling but relatively forgiving route like this.
- The Eye (5.4) The Cyclops, Hidden Valley Campground
Large, friendly holds and a series of cracks make this a highlight of climbing in Joshua Tree for beginners. It’s a long, approachable climb that ends at a cave overlooking the campground. Many a first-timer has topped out this route to be greeted by other climbers enjoying a cold beverage in the waning light.
Seriously, check this one out. It might change your life. Vogel’s guide calls this one a 5.1. But the general consensus from the community puts it closer to 5.4.
- Toe Jam (5.7) The Old Woman, Hidden Valley Campground
Toe Jam is on the tick list of almost everyone who’s climbed in Joshua Tree. On a rock formation called The Old Woman, this one’s a fun 20m trad climb with some mellow laybacks and a slightly flaring top-out crack. And it’s right in the middle of the campground.
This one is worth checking out because it condenses a lot of the JTree experience into a single climb. Layback sections, slabs, finger cracks – they’re all here. And while dealing with all these scenarios on one route is a fun challenge, none of them are overwhelmingly technical or intimidating.
- Double Cross (5.7) The Old Woman
Easily Joshua Tree National Park’s busiest route, Double Cross, is accessible and photogenic. But you shouldn’t take this spot lightly. While its beginner-friendly 5.7 rating is tempting, it doesn’t mean much if you’re unfamiliar with crack climbing. It’s a spot that has a reputation for getting a few people in over their heads.
There’s often lively discussion on this route’s grading and safety considerations. With more accidents here than any other route, is it safe? Well, part of the reason for all the accidents is its popularity.
This Joshua Tree spot is famous, accessible, and on many people’s tick lists. Our two cents – make sure you’re comfortable with crack climbing before tackling this one. Ask your climbing guide/more experienced friend if they think you’re ready.
- Leaping Leaner (5.7) Locomotion Rock, Real Hidden Valley
If your plan to do Sail Away is ruined by the crowds and long lines, Leaping Leaner might be worth a look. Approaching from the left side of the left-leaning main crack is the mellowest start. Once you reach this crack, protection is easy to find, and there’s plenty of jams and holds until the top.
Old-timey, JTree Climbing lore says the person on lead climbing duty should begin by leaping for the crack from a boulder near the start of the climb. We’re all for tradition. But we’ve always skipped this one and recommend you do too. If you nail the leap, you’ll have skipped the initial climb and jumped straight to the hand crack. But if you miss… Well, take a look at the spot. It wouldn’t be fun.
- SW Corner (5.6) Headstone Rock, Ryan Campground
Headstone Rock, named for its distinctive shape, has several routes. The easiest, and arguably the best, is called South West Corner – one of few sport climbing routes in a sea of trad routes and bouldering problems.
When we say “sport climb,” we should clarify. These are some widely-spaced bolts. With only 4 bolts spread over its 70ft, this isn’t a typical grid-bolted wall. You’ll be making long runouts between the sparse bolts and occasional small placements. But with bolted anchors at the top, this is another route you can rappel down after completion.
- Trashcan Rock – Routes (5.0-5.12) Boulders (V0-V5), Quail Springs
This isn’t a single route but a spot with loads of fun stuff for beginners (and some for intermediate/advanced climbers too). It’s located in the Quail Springs picnic area, about 6 miles from the west entrance to the park.
This spot can get pretty busy. It’s popular with beginner groups doing top-rope climbing. If you hire a climbing guide, this may be one of the first places they suggest. There’s lots of approachable but satisfying stuff here – be wary of the crowds on weekends.
Best Rock Climbing Joshua Tree Routes for Intermediate/Advanced Climbers
- Bird On A Wire (5.10a) + Dappled Mare (5.8)
This multi-pitch crack climb intersects another famous (and more beginner-friendly) route called Dappled Mare. Both are three pitch climbs, and you can do it back to back if you’re feeling energetic.
Bird on a Wire’s first pitch is a class 5 scramble up to a large ledge. The second pitch runs from there up a reasonably straightforward crack that narrows in places. Pitch three takes you up and right and crosses paths with Dappled Mare.
- Real Hidden Valley (5.8, 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.8)
This is another entry that’s not a single route. The Real Hidden Valley is a circular valley with various excellent rock climbing routes packed together in one place. The previously covered Sail Away (5.8) is here, but some seriously challenging climbs are also here.
Run For Your Life (5.10a) is enough to get anyone’s blood pumping, Fisticuffs (5.10b) is fun for any climbers with big enough hands, and Clean and Jerk (5.8) is an excellent crack climb. There are lots of fun bouldering problems hidden amongst all the rock formations here too.
Things to Bring with You
Food and Drink
Other than what you bring with you, there’s no food available in Joshua Tree National Park. Thankfully, an assortment of grocery stores a short distance away in the nearby towns of Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley have everything you’ll need. Make sure to visit them and stock up on all your food and water needs before entering the park. The Walmart in Yucca Valley also carries camping stuff.
There are three places in the park where you can fill up your water containers. At the west entrance, a vending machine accepts quarters and pumps on a timer/volume limit. Make sure your containers are open and ready to go before you drop the quarter for maximum value. The Oasis Visitor Center near the north entrance and the Cove Ranger Station also have water.
There’s no supermarket or large market in Joshua Tree, just a few gas stations and convenience stores. You won’t starve, but you’ll quickly get tired of instant noodles and microwaved burritos. A camping stove and some imagination will go a long way.
Options for restaurants and takeout in Joshua Tree village increase every year, with places now offering pizza, Indian food, kebabs, and veggie food. Staples like the Crossroads Cafe are worth checking out for the history, coffee, and chats with other climbers.
Some of our favorite places to eat include:
- Country Kitchen
Sometimes, after a hard day’s climbing, you don’t want leafy greens. You want that simple, greasy spoon, homemade charm. This mom-and-pop joint has that in spades.
- Pie For The People
Great pizza by the slice or by the pie is often just what we need after a climb. These guys have a great selection of pizza, good salads, and even gluten-free options.
- Palm Kebab Express
If you’re on the way to Indian Cove and passing through 29 Palms, check this place out. It’s legit. They’ll hook you up with fresh, large portions of good spicy stuff that will fuel your next session.
A Full Tank of Gas
You’ll be surprised how much gas you can burn through when sticking to the speed limit on the winding roads, stopping to look at climbing routes. After a tiring day and a satisfying dinner, it’s all too easy to forget to fill the tank on the way back to camp. Make a habit of checking that fuel gauge every time you pass the entrance station. Better safe than sorry.
The desert is going to throw all kinds of temperatures at you throughout the day. It’s super easy to get hot and sweaty when climbing in direct sunlight, only to feel a chill moments later as you wait for a friend in the shade.
Breathable clothing that you can layer up and pack away easily is critical. Bring a hat to keep the sun off your face and neck and sunglasses to help with the glare.
A down jacket is a good idea in winter when nighttime temperatures can get chilly. Pack a few pairs of long or adjustable pants. You’ll be glad of them when walking on overgrown trails or the temperature drops.
Bring your most comfortable athletic shoes for approach, evening time, and walking around between climbs. If this is your first intensive climbing trip, make sure to give your feet a break whenever possible. Keep those tight-fitting climbing shoes for trips up the rock only.
Finding Partners and Guides in Joshua Tree
Exploring the park with professional Joshua Tree climbing guides is your best option. Especially if it’s your first rock-climbing trip, like we mentioned before, be ruthlessly honest with your guide about your ability and experience level. This will help them select appropriate routes.
A trip to Joshua Tree can be an excellent introduction to rock climbing with the right guide. A climber who knows the park can also help you to find a shady spot for lunch, avoid the most crowded spots, and show you some quieter climbing areas.
The highest-rated guide services are Mojave Guides, Vertical Adventures Rock Climbing School, Cliffhanger Guides, Uprising Adventure Guides. They all provide a variety of packages, from one-on-one instruction with specific goals in mind to group lessons in the basics of climbing.
The beta you get from internet sources, and even guidebooks can feel insufficient when faced with the park’s scale. It doesn’t help that one rock formation looks a lot like another. If you’d like to get a lot of actual rock climbing done on your first trip, hiring a guide is recommended.
If you have more experience, you might also try your luck at making some friends at the campfire. Honestly, it won’t take a great deal of luck either. Joshua Tree is one of the most accessible crags to pick up rock climbing buddies in the country.
Each campground has a bulletin board where people post their partner requests. Hidden Valley is the focal point for linking up with new partners, though. Even if you’re staying at another spot, consider posting on the bulletin board here.
You’ll also see people hanging out at the parking area by Intersection Rock looking for climbing buddies. These are often weekend climbers looking to get as many hours of climbing as humanly possible in whatever limited time they have.
Tips and Tricks for the Best Experience at Joshua Tree
Look After Your Hands
The monzogranite rock of Joshua Tree is not kind to your hands. This is especially true if you’re new to the sport. Rock rash is easy to come by from this rough surface. When rock climbing here, committing to your holds is key. The more times you press your hand in and out of a crack or placement, the more scratched up you get.
Bring plenty of salve/balm. Make sure to wash your hands before applying any salve thoroughly. Bits of sand and grit left on your skin will only cause further irritation as you rub the healing stuff in. Packing a pair of mittens in winter could be a good idea anyway, as cold rock sucks the warmth from your hands. But they’ll double as rock rash protection.
Getting a Campsite
The five campgrounds within Joshua Tree National park are all walk-in only – no reservations. This means they fill up quickly on weekends, and rangers can and do ticket people camping/parking in undesignated areas.
The key is to show up early to see who might be packing up to leave or who might be willing to share their site. All sites have a maximum of two cars and six people. Other visitors are often willing to share.
- Joshua Tree is one of the national parks that charge for entry.
- Visitors can purchase a digital pass at recreation.gov or at the park’s entrance or visitors centers.
- A 7-day pass for a single vehicle and its occupants is $30, a motorcycle $25, and a person on foot or a bicycle $15.
- Alternatively, an annual Joshua Tree National Park pass is available for $55.
You’re probably going to need some rest days while visiting Joshua Tree. If it isn’t tired and aching muscles, it may be your slightly shredded hands that convince you to take a break. Thankfully, there’s quite a bit to see and do apart from climbing in Joshua Tree.
Unsurprisingly, there are many excellent trails and unique spots to explore in the park. The Discovery Trail, completed in 2012 with the help of local high school students, is an excellent introduction to the area and some of its most exciting geology.
The Barker Dam Nature Trail is another firm favorite with Joshua Tree hikers. Built over a century ago to help raise cattle in the area, this trail has some unique geological features and even some Native American petroglyphs on nearby rocks.
Cholla Cactus Garden Loop is as impressive as it sounds. Running close to the transition between the Mojave and Colorado deserts, this trial shows you thousands of cactus and some spectacular scenery. This is an epic place to watch the sun go down.
A Complete Bouldering Guide to Joshua Tree National Park by Robert Miramontes divides up the park by areas and does a better job of orienting you than many guides. This one may be out of print, but you’ll see second-hand copies around the village.
The Trad Guide To Joshua Tree is a condensed, no-nonsense guide to the park for people who want to get in as many 5.5-5.9 graded routes as possible. If you’re short on time and like to tick things off your list, check this one out.
Did you tick Joshua Tree off your list? Check out Smith Rock in Oregon!