We needed a bugout weekend in a bad way. So, much credit to Frontier Airlines, $140 per ticket round-trip got us safely to Las Vegas. Close enough to the desert we were looking for.

Arriving in Vegas pretty late, we rented a cheap hotel room and completed our obligatory night on the strip. Pretty lights, $20 dollar drinks, and an onslaught of bachelorettes tired us out pretty quickly, but we were able to rise early and head towards the wild. To save on checked bag fees for camping gear, we rented a trusty Kia Sorento and treat it like a camper.

Entering the Mojave National Preserve.

Entering the Mojave National Preserve.

I’ve never been in a place more desolate than the Mojave National Preserve. We drove for hundreds of miles barely passing any other soul, let alone a town. The valleys, dozens of miles across, play tricks on your eyes. If you’re from the East Coast like me, your brain isn’t used to processing visual distances like those found in this part of the world. It’s mind-bending.

We drove all day and eventually made to Joshua Tree (the city) for a quick bite before heading in to the park. The city itself is quaint, and clearly focused on tourism related to the park, but plenty of great coffee shops and outfitters.

The park itself… it’s other-worldly. It’s an alien landscape of huge piles of rocks, seemingly placed with intent. The vast valleys are scattered with the eponymous Joshua trees that stick out of the ground like appendages reaching for the sky. The dulcet wind howls and whispers across vast distances. It’s surreal and beautiful and perfect.

The downright other-wordly looking Joshua Tree.

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Joshua Tree is full of attractions of both the hiking and climbing flavors, but for the curious, some of our favorites included:

Cap Rock,  which has iconic and gargantuan rock piles seated in the center of the north valley of the park. Plenty of hiking trails stem away from the central formation, but we spend most of our time climbing upward.

Ryan Mountain Trail was our most aggressive hike, which gains over 1000 feet of elevation over the first 1.5 miles. The wind was whipping so fast that we had to detour multiple times for retrieving lost hats and garments.

Keys View is more of a drive and visit, with not much hiking at such a precipice, but an unbelievable view of the Coachella valley 50+ miles away. On the clearest days, peer through binoculars to spot Mountain Signal in Mexico, more than 90 miles away.

Skull Rock was our favorite for play, because the rocks have a perfect distribution for hours of hopping between trails, over paths, and pretty much any level of parkour you’re up for.

We stayed the first night at the Hidden Valley campground, which was chocked full of crusty climbin’ brethren though we arrived after quiet hours and didn’t aim to be very social. We were pretty tuckered out, but I took the opportunity to take a morning climb up the adjoining rocks for a view of sunrise (mitigated by a surprise morning rain storm, but refreshing in its own way).

Great plains south of Hidden Valley Campground.

I beat the sun to the plains that lay just south of the Hidden Valley Campground for some morning zen.

The second night, aiming to reduce our drive time back towards Vegas for the morning, we drove back through Mojave and sojourned up to Mid Hills Campground. This made me a bit on edge, because the final stretch from the main road was over 20 miles, unpaved, and a long long way from cell reception, so in the event of a vehicular issue, we’d be having a really long day. Of course this time of year, we were the sole occupants of the campground, and the threatened the vehicles upright nature by early morning, but I was still able to enjoy a few photos of the desolate mountain top and get some decent rest:

All alone at the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.

All alone at the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve, 30 miles from the nearest person. Cold, windy, and charmingly desolate.

Joshua Tree deserves its ranking among the top list of breath-taking US National Parks, and thanks to cheap flights and some flexibility, we were able to keep the trip costs around $300 a person, so it’s a perfect getaway for those who are thirsty. Certainly, this is a place to return to.