We arrived at Joshua Tree National Park on Christmas Eve day (2018) after having spent a peaceful, away-from-the-crowds night at Red Rock Canyon State Park the previous night. We continued on past the Joshua Tree Visitor Center knowing it was closed because of the government shutdown. At that time it was only day 3, little did we know that the shutdown would continue for so long.
We were excited and eager to find a campsite and start exploring the park. So, so naive we were! We had not anticipated the kinds of crowds we encountered on this holiday. We spent the next few frustrating hours driving from one campground to the next looking for a site, any site to spend the night at the many first-come, first-served campgrounds. We had no plan B, and no park ranger who could point us in the right direction. Dejected, we stopped to take a break after driving through White Tank campground and coming up empty. This was serious, it was break out the chocolate serious!
During our breather, my hubby noticed we had intermittent internet connectivity and somehow managed to get to the nps website and read about BLM dispersed camping areas south of the park. We had always talked about trying dispersed camping, but we were accustomed to getting reservations at a campground at a national or state park. It’s just what we knew. However, this situation forced us to try dispersed camping… and we absolutely loved it!
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages public lands that offer free dispersed camping south (and north) of Joshua Tree. Camping is allowed in the indicated areas (see image from nps website below) except within 300 ft of roadways. There are no facilities, that means no restroom, water or trash collection, and campfires require a permit. You have to be prepared to be self sufficient.
Burea of Land Management camping
Following the map above, we made our way to the BLM lands on the south side of Joshua Tree NP and checked out the area closest to the park on the left side of Cottonwood Springs Road (see google map below). There were other RVs, campervans and even tents spaced out in this area, so we knew we had found the right place. The roads were not in the best condition, but were drivable if you went slowly. Sometimes the roads were washed out and not passable, some even had a drop off into a river bed. It’s better if you don’t have to drive these roads in the dark. Once you find a spot to camp, it’s important to make sure you park your vehicle on hard packed ground rather than soft sand so your vehicle doesn’t get stuck.
What I liked about dispersed camping was all the space between campers. We could see each other in the distance, but it really felt like we were by ourselves in nature. This area south of Joshua tree was surrounded by mountains and the sunsets and sunrises were incredible. At night you could make out the headlights of cars traveling on I-10 in the distance, but nothing bothersome.
We woke up to an incredible sunrise on Christmas morning. We’re not early risers, but for some reason this morning, without any alarms we were compelled to look out the window at the exact time the sun was peeking out. Just in time for a desert sunrise, complete with interesting clouds and colorful landscape. What a great Christmas present!
After marveling at the sunrise, and a quick breakfast, we took the opportunity to visit the park in the early hours. For about an hour we had the park to ourselves, not a car or person in sight! Around 9 am we began to see other cars on the roads and people at the points of interest. It took hiking to get back our solitude again (I will post about it soon). The special feeling from the morning stayed with us all day, it will be another family holiday we won’t forget.
By the time we finished exploring the park for the day and returned to the BLM lands, it was dusk already and we parked the van using the last of the light before the sun went down.The next morning showed us again how great camping here was and how interesting the desert landscape is. Unfortunately, all too soon it was time to leave this place and head west to visit family.
After having tried dispersed camping, we will for sure be looking out for more places like this. It’s a great way to camp and feel like you’ve gotten away from it all! Just remember there are no facilities, so you will have to plan. Keep creating those memories!