Disappointment and surprise in Joshua Tree

Gorgeous vistas from above Indian Cove

Our week in the Joshua Tree area showcased both the disappointment and the luck you encounter when trying to find a good place to camp.

We wanted to go into Joshua Tree National Park after our time in Palm Springs. Some of Joshua Tree’s campgrounds are reservations-only, and when I checked those places in January, few of them had availability for more than a night or two. That worried me, but since we didn’t know when exactly we were going to Joshua Tree, there wasn’t much we could do to set up a campsite in advance. There are quite a few first-come, first-serve campgrounds in the park, so we were optimistic about our chances of finding a place.

Towards the end of our stay at Lake Cahuilla, we checked the reservations system again, and decided that our best bet was to pick one available night in a campground, and use that spot as a jumping-off point to find a place for the rest of the visit. Our first night in the park, at the Indian Cove campground, was a good one.

Indian Cove is isolated from the rest of Joshua Tree National Park, and I initially viewed this as a negative—we weren’t staying in the ‘real’ park—but once we set up camp, it was clear that this was a special place. The rock formations were beautiful, and the campsites were spacious and private, and our site looked out onto a gorgeous plain, with rock walls all around. There weren’t any Joshua trees, something I had been looking forward to photographing at sunrise or sunset, but that paled in comparison to the rest of the campground. We remarked that we would have loved to stay here longer, but the campground was booked for the week.

On Tuesday morning, we packed up camp and headed into the park proper. The first warning that our search might not be easy was the sign at the entrance gate: “All campgrounds full.” We asked the ranger at the gate if that was really true, and he said that some campgrounds might have available spaces, but that they filled quickly during the day. And with that, we headed into the park with trepidation.

We drove into a few of the campgrounds, and it was pretty clear that we would have trouble finding a good space. There were a few spots in the Jumbo Rocks campground, for example, but they were pretty lousy, mostly right on the busy access road that ran through the campground, with little room for us to set up. To top that off, it was like a bee’s nest of people swarming for open sites, which made the search even more unnerving. (There were bunches of Portland/Brooklyn-style hipsters camping throughout the park, which was funny, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me.)

As we drove around, the other campgrounds were just as busy. When we checked the last campground and came up empty-handed again, Susan and I were quite low about our prospects for a decent place to camp anywhere near the park for a few days. We didn’t want to leave the area unless there wasn’t a satisfactory option.

One of the things we’ve learned about living in such close quarters for this length of time is that we each have to be careful not to turn frustration into anger. And that’s the good thing about being in a situation like the one we were in that afternoon: you can either wallow in disappointment and snap at each other, or get over it and figure it out (always the better option). So, we drove out of the park and into the town of Joshua Tree, and connected to the Web, looking for a place to go. We had few options: either BLM land with no services in the desert outside of town (and looking nothing like the interior of the park), or an RV park in Twentynine Palms, a ways down the road. The latter wouldn’t be ideal, but it would work for a night or two, and we could figure out a plan for the week.

As we drove to the RV park to check it out, we passed by the Indian Cove entrance. On a whim, we stopped at the ranger’s office to see if there was any availability for that night in the campground. We received even better news: only moments before, someone had cancelled their reservations for the rest of the week, and it was a site that would fit the Casita just fine. And, we had an awesome week there.

As much as I wanted to spend nights in the heart of Joshua Tree, wandering through those packed campgrounds gave me the willies. I don’t expect to have the place to my own, but I really don’t want to feel as though a hundred other campers are on top of me. And Indian Cove, which really was intended to be a quick way station before going into the park, turned out to be the right place for us: a quiet and lovely little spot in the desert. We had nice, quiet neighbors, lots of things to do, and a bit of the downtime we each needed. It was perfect. (And, to be fair, we don’t expect every campsite to be awesome; sometimes we just need a place to stay for a quick shower, laundry and a recharge.)

As we prepare to head to our next destination, Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada (a place I’ve visited numerous times, and have been dying to camp in), we’re preparing for a similar thing: the park reportedly fills up every night these days. To try and minimize potential disappointment, we hooked up to the Web at the Indian Cove ranger’s station and looked for alternative places to camp in the Valley of Fire area. Our first stop is in the Boulder City area near Lake Mead. We’ll spend a few nights in this area—one of which will be a date night, with a fancy dinner and a hotel room in Las Vegas, before reprovisioning for the next leg of our trip. After that, we’ll head to Valley of Fire, where we have a couple of decent-looking options for camping if we can’t get in to the park, or if we think it’s too busy a place to camp.

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