Inside Scoop: Joshua Tree

If you’re like most climbers, you pore over guidebooks for weeks or even months when planning a climbing trip. You educate yourself on routes, descents, gear, and camping. But what about the local ethics, issues, and challenges at your destination crag? Part of being a responsible climber is knowing how to tread lightly—both socially and environmentally. In the Inside Scoop series, we connect you with local climbing access leaders at some of the country’s top climbing destinations for valuable insight into local ethics and issues.

Desert bouldering in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Destination: JOSHUA TREE, CA

What challenges does the Joshua Tree climbing community face?
Our proximity to large urban climber populations can make it difficult to keep traditional ethics in a national park environment.

How would you characterize the local ethics at Joshua Tree?
Since the 1970s, a trad ethic has prevailed at Joshua Tree, and locals have a minimalist attitude toward bolting. For example, if you can walk or scramble off a formation, don’t install rap rings or chain anchors. This is true even on popular formations throughout the park and may catch some climbers by surprise. Visitors are encouraged to embrace the adventure of climbing at Joshua Tree and respect the ethic to leave no trace.

Are there any threats to climbing access or any major access issues?
Not currently. A few years ago, some rogue climbers grid bolted and “enhanced” a crag called Underground Chasm, which sits in a designated Wilderness area within the park. There also were damaged trees and stashed gear. All of this was in violation of the park’s Wilderness climbing policies. The park service led an investigation into the violations, and for a while it looked like we could lose access. The Friends of Joshua Tree have worked for decades to establish a positive relationship with the park, and egregious Wilderness violations by a few rogue climbers almost jeopardized access to Joshua Tree Wilderness for all of us.

How is the relationship between climbers and land managers now?
Cooperation between climbers and land managers at Joshua Tree National Park is at an all-time high. We have an official memorandum of agreement that establishes a partnership with the park. We also host a regular climbers coffee with park staff, have donated a search and rescue vehicle to the park, and host the annual Climb Smart event to mitigate climber impacts. However, there are still awareness and perception gaps around regulations for Wilderness bolting, particularly from new climbers to the area.

What are the regulations for Wilderness bolting?
Fixed anchors may be replaced, anchor for anchor, in Wilderness. A permit is required to place new fixed anchors in Wilderness. All anchors in Wilderness must be placed with a hand drill. You can request a permit application by calling 760-367-5545. The Friends of Joshua Tree are currently working with the park on a new simplified permit process that will shorten the length of time from application to approval.

What’s the best way to dispose of human waste at Joshua Tree?
Use the vault toilets or pack it out in a bag system like RESTOP. Pretty simple. Desert soil does not biodegrade human waste, so it’s not appropriate to dig a cat hole.

What’s the camping situation in Joshua Tree?
The park has great camping. If you arrive midweek, you’ll usually be able to get a site, even during the peak season (October through May). If you arrive on a weekend, you’ll want a plan B—the dry lake bed north of Highway 62, Section 6, or Joshua Tree Lakes Campground are good options.

Any final words of wisdom for folks visiting Joshua Tree for the first time?
The ratings are a bit sandbagged. Stay on designated trails so that you don’t tread on cryptobiotic soils—they anchor plant life throughout the ecosystem. Look for wildlife in the early dawn and dusk hours, and don’t forget your camera!

How can people support Friends of Joshua Tree?
Many ways! Donate time, money, or both. Engage with us on social media and share content about climbing at Joshua Tree. You can connect with us at www.friendsofjosh.org.

Photo courtesy of ©R. Tyler Gross