It wasn’t planned. It’s never planned. Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend, the weather was in a perfect sweet spot between absurdly freezing and hellish hot. Summer was coming, and the heat would soon be on. It was time for something new, something cheap, something easy — car camping. A first for car camping, and a first for Joshua Tree. “How hard could it be,” I said to myself. I had no idea what I was in for.
Quick research showed free camping is allowed just outside the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. That became the destination. The Jeep rumbled to life and backed down the driveway. First stop, Stater Brothers to stock up on water, snacks and fire wood. Because what’s camping without fire?
Miles of endless road stripes now stood between a peaceful night under the stars. It was already 11 p.m. I was tired. I was nervous. But mostly, I was excited. Would the campsites be easy to find? Would they be full? Would a mountain lion or rogue cowboy attack in the middle of the night and eat us for breakfast? Maybe. Probably.
Off Interstate 10 in the middle of nowhere, a brown sign pointed the way toward the park entrance. We must be on the right track. Just go South, it said. So, I exited the freeway and made a right turn onto a pitched-black road. Where in the hell do I camp?
A few dirt roads passed by. Then a few more. It was eerie. Not a soul was in sight. No fires. No cars. No people. I turned off the highway and onto a tiny dirt road. “I guess this must be it,” I thought to myself. I talked to myself a lot on this trip.
The turn was a terrible idea.
Fortunately, I drive a 4×4 Jeep Wrangler. I’d need it for the mess I just drove into. The dirt road quickly turned into a sand wash. Then it morphed into a desert bush jungle. Did I mention it’s 1 a.m. now? This couldn’t be the free campsite, could it? I decided no. But to turn back, a trek through the desert jungle stood in front of the car and the road. It was the only way out. Sadly, my beautiful Jeep got it’s first scratch thanks to this horrible-no-good-very-bad idea. But I’m not bitter.
In a flurry of dust, it was back on the highway heading toward the interstate and park entrance. Still dark as shit.
Up ahead, the prettiest sight in hours came into view — humans! I was ready to give into the obvious alien invasion that must be sucking me into a black spaceship on the other side of the road. But these people, sleeping in their ultra-hipster Volkswagen bus, made me re-think the crazy mind games going on in my head. This must be the place. We’ve arrived.
Now, if you ever try this adventure for yourself, don’t be afraid to head off the road. Going straight and past the “Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park” sign will only do one thing … it will take you into the park. And you won’t find campgrounds near the South entrance for many miles. So before you get to the welcome sign, turn right or left down the dirt roads. You’ll probably see people. I loved seeing people, with their cars and their fires.
About a mile down the road, the perfect campsite appeared. It was just to the left of the main road complete with not one, but two magical rock fire pits. We parked the Jeep, hopped out and started a fire. Then it was time to fold down the seats and setup the bed. This was the worst part. If you ever plan to sleep in the back of a Jeep and you’re 6’4″, be prepared to sleep sideways, and very little.
I tossed and turned all night, probably getting only three or four hours of sleep in total. That sky, though! It was all worth it to spend a night under the stars and wake up to a stunning sunrise in one of the most beautiful desert parks California has to offer.
It’s time for you to pack your bags.