Outfitter: Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School
Joshua Tree National Park, although named after the alien-looking trees that eke out a living in its harsh landscape, is best known as one of the top rock-climbing destinations in the world. With its monolithic granite towers and massive boulders piled on top of one another, the park looks like the playground of a giant who scattered enormous building blocks across the desert.
It's certainly a playground for humans—many of the park's annual million-plus visitors come to scramble up and over its boulders and cliff faces, which provide seemingly endless opportunities for climbers to test their skills. About 7,000 routes of varying degrees of difficulty have already been named, and new ones are established nearly every day at the height of climbing season.
Most climbers in the park are experienced and climb on their own with personal equipment. However, if you don't know how to climb, or want to take yourself to the next level, the local Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School runs courses and guided climbs inside the park. In business for nearly 20 years, the school has earned a reputation as the outfitter of choice for new climbers—most of the guides have decades of experience as climbers and instructors. At $195 per person, the school's two-day basic rock-climbing course is also an incredible value.
"You don't have to have any experience to climb with us, an average fitness level is all that's needed," says the company's founder, Mark Bowling. "Rock climbing is not a sport of brute strength, it's more about balance and technique. It's physical problem solving, being able to visualize a way up a rock using hand and foot holds."
On the first day of the course you'll learn about climbing equipment, techniques, and safety. Next, you'll practice climbing, first by "bouldering" on rock lower to the ground, then making your way up to easy or moderate climbs of about 100 feet. Day two brings more challenging climbs; you'll also learn about rappelling and special equipment used to anchor your ropes to the rock surface.
The basic course includes two days of climbing in the park, all gear and safety equipment, and instructors. Students must cover their own food and accommodations. Campsites in the park are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and cost $10 to $15 per night.
Classes run almost every weekend and some weekdays throughout the year, except July, when temperatures are dangerously hot. The weather is much more comfortable in the fall, winter, or spring. Joshua Tree is about a three-hour drive from San Diego or Los Angeles.