Justin Wallace and William Nicewonger on pitch one of Breakfast of Champions (5.8) Picture by Chad Butler

The J-tree climbing season is right around the corner, and if you live in or around Southern California, chances are that you’re just as stoked as I am!  Joshua Tree is a 1,200 square mile sea of orange granite with a rich history in the climbing community. Many of the greats cut their teeth (and hands) among these infamous whimsical trees and rock formations, and for this reason, the park keeps a firm grip on its past and traditions.  Before you grab your trad rack and head off into the desert, here’s some beta to ensure that you enjoy your trip:

Joshua Tree trad climbing

  • Joshua Tree is primarily focused on Trad climbing.
  • The trad climbing is not considered easy.  There are many 5.9 and below lines that are difficult enough to keep your butt clenched the whole time.
    • A classic 5.4 equates roughly to a current 5.7 and classic 5.9 can be as tough as a current 5.11 (don’t forget that 5.9 was once the hardest grade in the world!)
  • Be prepared to run it out.  
    • Even on a reasonably well-protected climb, there can be good sections of unprotectable slab.
    • Just because you see a “crack” from the ground doesn’t mean it protects.  There is plenty of flaring seams to get your hopes up and drop them.
  • The slab is scary.  Due to the high friction of the rock, the slab climbing is typically steeper than you’re used to and purely friction based. (No handholds, just rubber and prayers to keep you on the rock.)
  • You will bleed. If you somehow make it out of Joshua tree without making even the slightest blood offering to the climbing gods please email me and tell me your beta.
Casey Vitek and William Nicewonger on an unknown slab Picture by Chad Butler

So what if you’re not a Trad climber?  That’s OK. We all have to start somewhere and you can still find some sport routes to keep you entertained.  Again though, be prepared for it be super slabby and pretty butt clenchy (my first ever lead climb). Some easy classics that come highly recommended are South West Corner (5.6) and Cryptic (5.8) on the Headstone in Ryan Campground. 

Joshua Tree sport climbing

  • Bolts get chopped a lot in Joshua tree. Sometimes a couple bolts from a sport route will be gone, especially the anchor bolts.  Be prepared to build an anchor and find a walk off.
    • The walk-offs can often time be more dangerous than the climb. (The Bong)
  • All bolts have to be hand drilled.  Why is this important?  Hand drilling in granite is a lot of work, therefore, the bolts are typically spaced out a lot.
    • You’ll typically get a “thank god” bolt exactly where you need it.
  • If you don’t want to lead, you can oftentimes make a top rope.
    • Big Moe (5.11a) is one of the best Top Ropes in the park.
    • If you strictly plan on TR’ing, I would recommend a 70m rope.
  • The good sport climbing is typically 5.11 and higher.
  • Overall, if you have zero interest in trad I wouldn’t recommend Joshua Tree to you.

Joshua Tree bouldering

William Nicewonger looking too cool. Picture by Chad Butler

Finally, if you hate ropes and prefer to wrestle pebbles; here’s the beta:

  • Fall on your pad.

Camping in Joshua Tree

Justin Wallace, William Nicewonger, and Casey Vitek stargazing. Picture by Chad Butler

The majority of the desirable sites are first to come first served.  Sheeps pass and Jumbo Rocks may be booked up to a year in advance.  Though all the sites have their own quirks and bonuses, the and all be all climbing epicenter of J-tree is Hidden Valley Campground.  Hidden Valley consists not only of all the climbing history you can imagine, but it also contains 44 campsites, pit toilets, and fire rings for $15 a night. To top it all off, during peak climbing season (mid-October through April) you’ll also be able to receive free coffee and beta at the message board on Saturdays and Sundays.  This happens to be where I purchased my first pieces of Trad protection (read more about it here).  A beat-up old Black Diamond .5, Metolius 00 and some hexes. Hidden Valley, as well as all the sites, have a limit to 6 people, 3 tents, and 2 vehicles.  Please do everything in your power to share as much space as you can, even with strangers.

If you can’t get a spot in Hidden Valley, Ryan Campground is the next best.  Typically Ryan will be full as well and you’re left to fight for the scraps at White Tank alongside the filthy commoners and non-climbers.  

If you’re in a van there are a couple other options if you can’t find camp.

These options tend to be frowned upon or simply not common enough knowledge to post on the internet.  However, If you need the real dirtbag beta on how to do Joshua Tree just send me an email, I’ve got you covered.

Picture by Chad Butler


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