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Four Classic Climbing Destinations in Joshua Tree, CA

 Four Classic Climbing Destinations in Joshua Tree, CA

by Jonathan Copp

December 31, 2001

Land of Contrast

As the last of the thrift shops falls into the rear view mirror and rock peppered, undulating hillsides begin to surround, I fall into a steadiness that lands me where I continually want to return. The scent of sage wafts as coyotes weave through the mazes of quartz monzonite and Joshua Trees. Only 140 miles separates Los Angeles from the prehistoric landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. The dichotomy always amazes.

Climbing in "Josh" can range from esoteric slabs, where holds need to be imagined, to steep cracks, where the friction is so good it feels like you are cheating. From a distance the rock formations look like piles of potatoes separated by expanses of vegetated land. (Maybe I donít bring enough food out there.) The best months to be in the high desert of Joshua Tree are from October to December and from March through April.

There are over 4,500 climbing routes within the park. Most of them are between one and two pitches in length. Itís very easy to become overwhelmed and lost among the endless formations, so my goal here is to focus on four classic spots, each suited to climbers of a specific ability level. Iíve chosen destinations by merit of rock quality, potential for sound protection and beauty of setting. There are a few guidebooks for Joshua Tree, but the most comprehensive at present is Randy Vogelís Rock Climbing Joshua Tree, 1992, republished by Falcon . (Iíve ear marked some pages to help you find these spots.)

5.5-5.6: Head out to the Galapagos! Just as the name implies, this beautiful area is "out there". Investigating the famous moderates hiding amongst this quiet island of formations makes the Galapagos a rewarding outing. Since the area requires a healthy jaunt to access, other parties are seldom seen here. There are two possible approaches: One takes off on the dusty Geology Tour road. After rolling across the washboard for a few miles, park at the fifth pull out, near Jerryís Quarry, then hike 2.5 miles to the west. The alternate approach begins easily in Ryan Campground. Hike 2.5 miles along the Ryan Campground trail to Queen Valley. When the trail jogs abruptly to the northeast, continue straight instead for approximately .3 miles to land on the sandy shores of the Galapagos. A detailed map will be present in the guide book on page 396. Grab the equipment and begin research. Warm up on "Elementary Jamming", a great 5.5 hand crack on the Tortuga rock. For the beginner crack climber, taping up the hands for this route may be inspire confidence. From here head south to the Darwin Dome and enjoy "Lust In The Love Den", 5.6 up an exotic flake/crack on the northeast face. When exploring this wall on a cold winter day, a jacket can be appropriate. If you are ready to cool down, move over to "Construction Blues" at the far right end of this same face. 5.6 face climbing past one bolt will get you to the top. Breathe it in and study the landscape, an ideal place to ponder the theory of evolution. (Vogel p.405)

5.7-5.8: Find Hidden Valley Campground. This is where the history of rock climbing in Joshua Tree began. Stepping onto a fine route here can be as easy as rolling from your sleeping bag, jumping over the campfire ring, walking five feet and sinking your hands into the golden monzonite. All types of people roam this region, from weekend warriors escaping the LA area to seasoned rockhounds seeking the warm an lovely granite faces for weeks and months at a time. Climbs here do see some traffic, but even on the most crowded days there are plenty of open routes to satiate. The routes adjacent to the campground seem to have a curious mystic about them. Some people claim to always have epics on these easily accessible and highly visible lines. But there is no need to let reputations taint these striking routes. If visiting the area for the day, the best place to park is on the south side of Quail Springs road at the Intersection Rock parking space. Directly across the road from this space is the Old Woman formation, a perfect place to begin a day of cragging. Rack up for the "Toe Jam", an ultra classic 5.7 on the Old Womanís east face. The route climbs bulbous flakes up to a brilliant splitter-crack crux. Next, step around to the west face and prepare for "Double Cross". This 5.7+ hand crack ascends steep rock through an overlap to top out on a spacious belay ledge. People driving the Quail Springs road may stop to spectate. Donít let their gaze confound you. Now you are ready for the "Dogleg". Left of the "Double Cross", this arching crack system bends right and through a 5.8 crux. Cool stemming and jamming will take you to the anchors. (Vogel p.188-189)

5.9: For a foray into the realm of 5.9 climbing, ride over to the Shorter Wall in the Lost Horse area. The Lost Horse, although a fairly vast region, has a superb concentration of quality routes. The walls here tend to face either northeast or southwest, delivering many great options when temperatures are a concern. Getting to this area is simple, but finding the routes can sometimes be tricky. The shorter wall however, is an easy one to find. A few miles to the northwest of Hidden Valley Campground a dirt road intersects the main Quail Springs road. Head southwest on this road stopping at about .25 miles. A large formation, the Freeway Walls, rise to the east of the road. The most direct passage to the Shorter Wall leads around the southwest side of the Freeway Walls to eventually climb into the Rock Garden Valley. Look for a fractured area that composes the base of a beautiful wall split by four pronounced cracks. Jump start yourself on "Double Dogleg". At 5.7, this crack is a good warm up. Then clip your way up "Rock Candy", a delicate 5.9 face climb with four bolts for protection. "Young Lust", a stunning 5.9 thin crack, could be next. This crack is located ten feet to the right of the broken area and requires small wires and TCUs. If you are looking for something (or someone) else, "Split Personality" could be it. Start as for Double Dogleg, then stem right into a thin crack, 5.9. Last but not least, finish up with "Smithereens", another 5.9 thin crack. The Shorter Wall will leave your finger tips throbbing for more.(Vogel p.98)

5.10: Wander out into the Wonderland of Rocks and find the Big Horn Mating Grotto, a unique amphitheater of climbs. The Wonderland of Rocks is the most expansive Mecca of domes and walls within Joshua Tree National Park. Days can be spent simply wandering through the formations, catching sight of big horn sheep, and coyotes, and eyeing peerless crack systems up grand walls. Destinations within the Wonderland, due to its size, can be accessed via different trails. The Big Horn Mating Grotto lies in the southern part and is normally approached from the Barker Dam parking area. The Grotto can be somewhat elusive, but Vogelís guidebook gives good directions. The approach can take forty-five minutes to an hour. The trek in passes some standing water, rare in this desert environment, and meanders through wild formations like the Freak Brothers Dome, an enormous rock reminiscent of the Easter Island head carvings. The Grotto itself is a spacious enclosure graced with trees and vegetation. Once inside the arena, challenge the "Dangling Woo Li Master". This circuitous 5.10a up amazing red rock, varies from finger crack to face holds to hand and fist crack. Then get "Caught Inside on a Big Set", linking crack systems with a 5.10b crux. If youíre not out of breath do "The Book of Changes", a 5.10b with a few pins and a bolt protecting crux moves. And finally, if you feel like Zeus, send "Morning Thunder", a 5.10d overhanging system requiring a bit of attention towards protection. When the day is done, having climbed all these spectacular routes within eighty feet of each other, look out into the Wonderland and...remember how to get back to the car. (Vogel p.316)

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