Alien-looking landscape on the park's Barker Dam trail.
  • Alien-looking landscape on the park's Barker Dam trail.
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There are few things as graceless as someone begging for help with pure and unbridled fear in their eyes.

Indian Cove, from the belly of the best.

Indian Cove, from the belly of the best.

Which about sums up my position at Indian Cove Campground during the waning hours of a Friday afternoon, as I peered over the ledge of a house-sized boulder. I needed to make a two-foot step over a twenty-foot drop, and my body had tightened up. Like a clenched fist.

My wife, who’d hopped across without hesitation, looked back and popped the obvious question.

“You forget about your fear of heights?”

The rocks had bewitched me, seeming harmless in their gnarled beauty. An eerie breeze whistled along the cracks at my feet, making the ground pulse and shake. As calmly as possible, I informed her that she would need to get chopper assistance. Or bring me a sleeping bag and a flashlight.

Barker Dam offers bouldering for all skill levels.

Barker Dam offers bouldering for all skill levels.

Buying the Mojave hype

I’ve wanted to visit Joshua Tree for a long time. Finally, after living in San Diego for nearly two years, we scratched out a weekend and made it a priority.

The national park and its surrounding attractions have become synonymous with eccentric artists, climbers, hikers, outcasts, and stargazers, but it’s really suited to anyone who can appreciate solitude, stillness and a bit of dust on their shoes.

Whether it’s an official site, like Hidden Valley and Keys View, or just driving around, you’re constantly fed striking imagery. Even the basics, like the sea of iconic yucca palms offset by those giant rock formations, are an overwhelming source of inspiration and introspection.

Accommodation

Thanks to the area’s diverse resident base, there’s a variety of interesting places to rent close to the park, which goes down well if you’re squeamish about using outhouses or taking bucket baths. There’s a big selection of properties on Airbnb, from bohemian cottages to backyard Airstreams to desert villas with swimming pools and Keurig machines. Budget and taste are your only limitations.

What the campsites inside the park lack in facilities (which aren't bad at at all – just don’t expect fancy showers or heated toilet seats), they more than make up for in views and positioning. The sites at Jumbo Rocks, Hidden Valley and Barker Dam are nestled in and around the rocks, offering shade and a personal experience with the landscape. Even though we had a warm bed to go back to at the end of the day, I was jealous of the people who didn’t have to leave.

Indian Cove panorama.

Indian Cove panorama.

Getting there

It’s an easy three-hour drive (with traffic) from San Diego. We left at midday, arrived at three, and headed straight to Indian Cove (left), a beautiful spot 12 miles away from the national park. There’s no entrance fee if you’re not camping, and the views and walks will rival almost any in the area.

Boulders – and bouldering opportunities – are everywhere.

Boulders – and bouldering opportunities – are everywhere.

We parked, stretched our legs and drank up the setting: the burlesque rock structures arrest your senses. Everything seems three times larger than life-sized, but well within your grasp. With this in mind, we took a sunset stroll along the half-mile loop that starts at the picnic area.

It’s a renowned area for climbing for good reason; you can climb everything, everywhere.

Please, before you climb anything, know your limits – or risk running into problems, like I did. There was a strange irony to the situation that followed: it took me 31 years to visit the Mojave Desert, and I’d managed to have a semi-nervous breakdown within 20 minutes of arriving.

Chopper assistance wasn’t necessary in the end. With a bit of encouragement, I got through it and found a stable seat on our tower of rocks. The fiery sunset that exploded across the horizon was well worth the indignity of my ascent. Splatters of red and gold roiled the once-blue sky above me, bathing the gigantic structures around us in pools of luminescent light.

What to see

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to summarize the best things to see. For people visiting for the first time, I can offer the following tips on how to make the most out of two days:

1) Stop at the visitor center off Twentynine Palms Highway. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly and helpful.

2) All the main restaurants and stores are situated along the Twenty Nine Palms Highway. Pappy & Harriets in Pioneertown is a good bet for dinner and live music, while Crossroads Cafe is excellent for carbo-loaded breakfasts.

Waking up for a Palm Springs sunrise: worth it for shots like these.

Waking up for a Palm Springs sunrise: worth it for shots like these.

3) Do some research before you go, and earmark a few places you’d like to see. There will be detours (you won’t be able to help it), but having a basic plan gets things moving in the right direction.

4) Take side trips. Integratron, Fortynine Palms Oasis, Indian Cove, Pioneertown – there’s lots to see outside the park, too.

5) Wake up to watch the sunrise. You won’t regret it.

Indian Cove Campground

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