10 Killer Places to camp in California: Day 1

February 09, 2015  •  1 Comment

Day 1 of California Camping: Joshua Tree National Park:

Last Christmas, my spouse and I decided to be somewhat adventurous (this is normal for us) and we leapt at the opportunity to experience the best camping in California National Parks. My Nikon D800 was out for repair, so I scooped up a bargain priced Sony Alpha a7 full-frame, mirrorless camera, (huge bonus for shopping post-Christmas) and couldn't wait to take it for a test drive! First stop: Joshua Tree National Park!

The holiday travel began in Lake Arrowhead with our family so we booked our return ticket for January 5th out of San Francisco (SFO). Knowing we had to be in San Francisco for our flight home to Asheville, we came up with a rough itinerary that included a huge loop throughout California’s best winter camping sites. We are National Park junkies, so naturally we wanted to cover as many National Parks as possible. We had 8 nights to camp and unlimited miles on the rental. Cory’s cousin Chris and his girlfriend Jade decided to join us on the adventure and let me tell ya- a Dodge Avenger can get quite cozy with camping gear for four people! We prefer to have a rough agenda with options of where we’d like to camp, but we’ve found that the best approach is to just go with the flow. Our plan? Do one. Big. Loop.

I know, you’re probably thinking, there’s no such thing as winter in Southern California. I thought the exact same thing unit we spent our first night camping in the high Mojave Desert at Joshua Tree National Park. Secondly, yes, I thought there was only one tree, and that that one tree was so big and so majestic, they had no choice, but to name an entire park after him. Horribly wrong! California can be damn cold in the winter and the tree called Joshua has a lot of relatives.

Panorama Sunset, Joshua Tree National ParkPanorama Sunset, Joshua Tree National ParkCalifornia Christmas Camping, Sunset over the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

We left our cozy Lake Arrowhead cabin on Dec 27th and after 3 ½ hours of windshield time, arrived! The temp on the dash showed 43 degrees and the passengers showed signs of being smashed in between packs and food bags for 3 hours too long. Antsy to get out and enjoy the last hours of daylight, but just as antsy to find an open campsite, we stumbled upon Jumbo Rocks Campground. Upon passing our first few campgrounds, it quickly dawned on me- we weren’t the only ones who thought of a post-christmas camping adventure! The park was packed!

There is a secret we have picked up in regards to first come first serve campgrounds. First, just because the sign says “campground full,” doesn’t mean it is! Because these campgrounds operate on an honor system (fill out a site reservation card and drop your fee in the box) people tend to leave behind their site cards when they leave. Translation: check the site cards for a departure date, the site could be open! You do have to be committed to checking every site and the time to do this can be lengthy, but the process works wonders. Within five minutes, we found a fantastic site that was private and backed up next to, yup you guessed it, Jumbo Rocks (and apparently, one of the park’s most popular campgrounds)! This was California camping at its finest!


Cory and I did a firewood run (about a 15 minute drive to the town of Twentynine Palms) while Chris and Jade pitched the tents. We did a short hike up to sweeping panorama views and were blown away by the sunset. If you are looking for a mind-blowing photography opportunity, and colors and views that will leave you speechless, this is the campground for you!

The bitter desert chill found us sooner than we anticipated with the overnight lows hovering around 24 degrees! (I'd take it any day over summer highs in the 100s!) The jet-black skies offered unpolluted views of the Milky Way and the stars seemed to stretch to infinity! The ultimate time to view and photograph the Milky Way is under a new moon. Grab your camera and head to Arch Rock, Skull Rock or the Indian Cove Campground. Or, look just look up! A whopping 29 percent of Joshua Tree visitors come just for views of the night sky! Thankfully, we were all prepared from a gear perspective and had a warm night’s sleep that was preceded by a beautiful serenade from the wolves. Success with our first night of California winter camping!

Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park, CaliforniaSunset in Joshua Tree National Park, CaliforniaSunset photography at Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Gear Advice: Weather-sealed 3 season tent with rain-fly (4 season if you can afford it), lowest degree rated sleeping bag (mine was 15 degrees and I didn’t lose any toes), wool long johns, well basically wool everything! If you don’t want your water to explode, grab a HydroFlask water bottle. I picked mine up for $25 at Diamond Brand Outdoors in Asheville, but REI carries them as well. 

Camera Advice: Cigarette powered DC-AC adapter. Got mine at Best Buy for $45. Spare battery, weather coverage- I stuffed my gear inside a stuff sack then kept it inside the tent at night to avoid the possibility of damage due to extreme weather exposure.

Editing Advice: If you haven't heard of BlogStomp, I highly recommend it! For $49, it allows you to upload images, create amazing layouts, AND it does all of the resizing magic so that your images look their best on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, etc. 

(Camping update: Feb 12, 2015): Info from Joshua Tree National Park's Facebook page: "If you arrive at the park and all designated campsites are occupied, a night in Joshua Tree National Park’s backcountry might be the perfect solution. Backcountry camping does require more planning and preparation, but can be an incredibly rewarding experience. 

Stop by any backcountry board located throughout the park in order to pick up and submit the FREE backcountry camping permit. Completely fill out the form, and follow all instructions before setting off into the wild. Your backcountry camp must be located at least one mile from any road and 500 feet from trails. Pets are not permitted on trails or in the backcountry. Campfires are also prohibited.

Leave No Trace ethics should be followed when traveling through the park. This means: pack it in, pack it out and select a campsite on a durable surface in order to protect sensitive vegetation.

For more information about camping in Joshua Tree National Park’s backcountry, visit http://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/backpacking.htm "


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