Erik, my son, and I took this trip during the President's Holiday in February. He lives in San Diego and me in Santa Barbara so Joshua Tree National Park seemed like a perfect middle of the road point to meet up for some some camp time. At first glance, I found tons of information about hiking and camping in the Park, but had trouble understanding the size, complexity, and layout of the topography to select a destination easily. There are lots of choices, and all the trailheads are well marked and equipped with parking and a Registration Board. Let me emphasize registering because its the desert, and we all know how unforgiving it can be. I eventually settled on Juniper Flats with our destination to be just outside of the Stub Springs area, with a day hike to Quail Mountain and the Stub Spring loop scheduled for day 2. We met up in the town of Joshua Tree, had lunch, then entered the Park. Our first surprise; no entrance fee in honor of our 1st President! We were on the trail by 2PM with 12 liters of water for 2 days. The second surprise was how well the Park is laid out, and the trails marked. The trail I selected is part of the California Hiking and Riding Trail that runs through the park, and is well marked with mileage markers and trail junction signs.
Selecting a Camp
The rules for selecting a campsite are very straightforward. Get at least one mile away from the road, then off the trail and out of site. No fires, or camping in day use and sensitive habitat areas. There was no rain the forecast, so I left the tent flys in the car and went with mesh only, using the Akto for Erik, and the Big Agnes Platinum Series for me. Cowboy camping is discouraged because of Rattle Snakes and Scorpions, none of which I saw the entire trip. After about 5 miles, we wandered off the trail and found an inviting spot for our base camp. After setting up, we explored our immediate surroundings, cooked a steak dinner with flour tortillas then settled in for the evening, all the while, enjoying the wonderful desert evening colors tinted by the setting sun and rising moon. The evening was mild and I sleeted comfortable in my summer sleeping bag.
This was our day to summit quail Mountain, the highest point in the park and easily seen from our camp. After a breakfast of oatmeal (packaged in wax bags I have been experimenting with) we set off cross country to the base of the mountain, traversing an area that burned extensively in the ninties, then picked a use trail that led up a canyon toward the top. An hour later, we were on the summit, inspecting wreckage from a plane crash, picture taking, and signing the summit register. We followed a different use trail down the mountain that seemed to be much easier than our route up. We were back in camp by early afternoon for lunch and a nap. After our quite time, we decided to check out the Stub Spring loop. This area was unaffected by the fire, and was a beautiful mix of pinion pine and Joshua Tree. The Spring was not much, just a wet area surrounded by some very thirsty bees, then another wet area surrounded by an impermeable stand of the highly invasive Spanish Broom, and lots of bones, including two Big Horn sheep skulls. We decided not to finish the loop since it was getting late in the afternoon and the winter days short. We had another wonderful dinner on chili and beans using cooked tri-tip that I dehydrated. This evening was much colder, and we both got cold in the summer bags.
This was our last day, so we had a leisurely breakfast, then broke camp and readied ourselves for the hike back to the car. Even though it was the same trail, the view was completely different and noticed vistas and details not seen on our way in. When we got back to the car, we exited the park via Twentynine Palms and stopped and enjoyed the many road side views. We also toured one of the large public campgrounds that are in the park. Because it was a holiday, they were packed and made me glad that we decided to backpack rather than car camp.
We saw lots of hikers and backpackers, but never got a feeling of overuse or loss of privacy. Even though it's a riding trail, we never saw anyone on horse back. Bicycles are not allowed on the trails.
Erik on the Quail Mountain summit with wonderful view on the San Jaquintos.