For the most part, Joshua Tree National Park is an easily accessible, friendly place to explore. Hundreds of interesting rock formations and groves of the namesake trees can be reached from the car in a matter of minutes. However, the heart of ‘J’ Tree is a 12-square mile wilderness of granite domes and washes choked with house-sized boulders. Known as the Wonderland of Rocks, it is miles from the nearest parking area and offers a striking contrast to the park’s many roadside attractions. To venture inside its jumbled boundaries requires expert level navigation skills and the confidence to scramble, climb and tunnel for an entire day. True adventures can be found here, as there is no telling how things might turn out.
My first visit to Joshua Tree National Park 15 years ago nearly ended in tragedy. A buddy and I were down from Alaska to climb granite splitters in the desert sun. After a week of constant climbing, we needed to give our destroyed hands a break. A day hike through the spectacular Wonderland of Rocks seemed the perfect ‘rest day’ activity. We had been climbing on the Wonderland’s outer fringe and thought it would be cool to explore the inner workings of this labyrinth of stone. We replaced the climbing gear in our daypacks with a handful of energy bars and a couple liters of water. At the crack of dawn, we headed up a wash and dove head first into the jumbled mess of rocks with the idea that we would magically emerge in Indian Cove before night fall. We didn’t have a map, GPS or route plan for crossing the five miles before us. After all, we were experienced climbers and this was just a “hike.”
It took us a mere 8 hours to run out of water, 12 hours to admit that we were hopelessly lost and 36 hours to find our way back out to the trailhead. I remember my partner looking up through a few hundred feet of boulders, to an airliner jetting across the sky, and rationalizing which way we needed to go because that plane was probably headed to LA. I remember feeling the panic that we were not going to survive this one, that we were going to make the local news as naive tourists that got lost in the park and died.
It was a miracle that we found our way out. Dirty and bleeding in the trailhead parking lot, I sat on the curb chugging water. Seconds later, I would vomit it back up. I repeated this process more than a few times. It took us days to recover from our “hike.”
That was 15 years ago and the beating dished out from that massive pile of rock still measures as one of the most severe I’ve ever received. I have been back to Joshua Tree a half-dozen times, but never ventured back into the Wonderland of Rocks. However, the thought of a return always lingered.
Things finally lined up this spring. My wife and I quickly made plans to cross the Wonderland. I felt that familiar mix of psyche and nerves as I thought about making my second attempt.
Unfortunately, not long before our trip, my wife took a fall while bouldering, leaving her on crutches with a dislocated ankle. As my wife gingerly crutched out the doctor’s office, I thought about postponing the hike, promising myself that I would return next year. It would be so easy. On the other hand, I began to realize that maybe this was something I should do on my own. A solo mission to measure how far I’d come as a person and as an adventurer since my last time in the labyrinth of stone.
The choice was clear. Early that morning, I positioned my pack and laced up my boots. This time I packed a bit more than a handful of food. Most notably I took a GPS and a featherweight, reliable sleep system. The Space Cowboy sleeping bag was light, but I knew it would also provide all the protection I needed during my desert bivy.
I started out from the Indian Cove trailhead, cruising the well-constructed Boy Scout Trail at a good clip. There was an eagerness in my pace. This eagerness took me about eight miles, up over a couple passes, into the Joshua Trees and out to Willow Hole. I filled my water jugs at a perennial spring before continuing on. Finding ample water at the springs deepened my commitment, as it was one less variable that could shut me down. One less reason to turn back. Before me was the heart of the Wonderland, a granite great wall of boulders and spires. I made my bivy on the last patch of flat ground before attacking the craggy ramparts the next morning. My pack had been small and the Space Cowboy hardly took up any room. I rolled it out and crawled in for a night under the stars.
The crux day began at sunrise. My pace slowed as I got bogged down choosing the correct notch in the rocks to dive into. For this to work, each weakness in the wall of boulders needed to lead to another weakness. The rocks become more massive, house sized, the deeper I crawled into the Wonderland. You couldn’t consider this a hike, rather more of a scramble or a climb. I gave myself a one hour time limit on trying to find passage through the most difficult spots. After that, I forced myself to reverse my steps and try a different route. This happened far too often and by noon I didn’t feel like I was making much headway. My GPS confirmed that.
It was much hotter than I expected, 98-degrees in the shade. The heat sapped my energy and the endless puzzle of route finding wore on my psyche.
Traveling solo means that each and every decision, every choice in route, is yours alone. On this particular adventure, those decisions number in the thousands. Add in the fact that a fall or injury could easily turn life threatening. My mind was working furiously to assess the best, and safest route.
Eventually, I reached a steep drop. I looked down at the blank face, knowing that it would be impossible to reverse. I tossed my pack first and then jumped down. If I wasn’t before, I was now committed.
During my descent of the face, I noticed a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. Watching a butterfly struggle in spider’s web is one of those surreal moments in nature that catches you off guard. Your first thought is ‘this can’t be’. But right there in front of me was the beautiful orange markings of a queen butterfly frantically fluttering in an attempt to escape an extensive web. The vibrations must have alerted the spider, which emerged from a crack in the rocks. It was the size of a quarter and effortlessly closed on its prey. Miraculously, the butterfly broke free at the last second, fluttering far away. I breathed easy again. To be paralyzed and devoured by a spider would be a particularly nasty way to go.
My situation wasn’t much better. I was stemming over a dark void, hands and feet pressed against featureless granite, deep in an endless sea of house-sized boulders. A slip up here would drop me forty to eighty feet through the jumble of rocks below. It’s unlikely that I’d be able to climb out from that fall and even more unlikely that anyone would ever find me (or my remains). This also struck me as a nasty way to go. Shivering from the thought, I quickly got a move on.
I punched forward with renewed vigor, adrenaline pulsing. Clamoring, squeezing, tunneling, chimneying; drawing on every technique I could think of to push my body forward. I just hoped it was in the
After several hours, I pulled up onto a large boulder and spotted the unmistakable water carved slot of Rattlesnake Canyon. A sigh of relief coursed through my veins as it signaled an end to the difficulties. It would take an hour more to break free of the Wonderland and another hour in the late sun to return to the trailhead. I sat in the same parking lot, several years older and wiser. Once again, I was dirty, tired and bloody. This time, I remembered to sip my water slowly.