Hiking & Climbing Safety in Joshua Tree National Park

Hiking in Joshua Tree - Safety Tips

Water: JTNP is a desert park, and currently experiencing a prolonged drought. All drinking and washing water must be brought in, there being no reliable sources of water within the park, including campgrounds. While your need for water may be obvious in hot weather, it does not diminish greatly as temperatures fall. Since the air itself is very dry, insensible water loss can be quite substantial and catch you by surprise. Always have adequate water supplies with you on any hike or excursion. On extended hikes in warmer weather, especially, be sure to have salty snacks, energy bars, or electrolyte gels with you as well, to replace the salts you loose in sweat, as water alone will not be adequate to maintain your well-being. A general rule of thumb is 1 quart for each 2 hours of hiking.

Plan Ahead: Cell coverage in the park is spotty at best, and there are large areas with no coverage Do not assume you will be able to call for help in an emergency, but rather, plan ahead to avoid having an emergency. Having a map of your route, a compass or GPS, and the knowledge of their use is highly recommended, as is adequate food, water and clothing. A flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries can be the difference between spending a cold night out, or a warm one in bed. Finally, be sure your cellphone battery is fully charged before you head out, and consider turning the phone off until it is needed to conserve battery life.

In Case of Emergency: If you do call for help and reach someone who tells you to stay where you are until help arrives, please do not move! It takes time to assemble a rescue team of people, who must come from outside the park, and time for the team to hike out to you. Your rescue will be even further delayed if you are not where you said you were, and the team has to look for you. Because of terrain and other environmental/weather factors, helicopters are often not available for quick responses and pickups, especially for non-life-threatening situations.

Hiking Gear: Sturdy footwear (not sandals) is recommended for all travel off pavement, due to the presence of cacti, thorny plants and rocks, as well as several varieties of rattlesnakes. Low gaiters are often useful for keeping loads of sand out of the boots, and the higher, stiffer gaiters offer protection against vegetation and snakes. Leather gloves can be a godsend if bushwhacking off-trail in the Queen Mountain or Wonderland of Rocks areas. To help avoid snakebites, do not place hands or feet where you cannot see them, and do not attempt to play with any rattlesnakes! 

Hats, scarves and other heat and/or sunblock protection are critical as the sun is stronger in the desert, especially when elevation is higher.

Except in the summer, nights can be quite cool/cold, necessitating clothing for both extremes. Due to the high risk of wildfires, campfires are not permitted outside of the campgrounds.

Willow Hole Trail...Hikers Beware! Every year we have several incidents on the Willow Hole trail, hikers often becoming lost on the way back. This is a 3.5 mile trip one-way, the last mile of which follows a sandy wash first south and then east, becoming quite wide toward the end. There are several large willow trees, but no sign “Willow Hole”, so some have walked through the area rather than turning around, only to find themselves in a no-man’s-land of boulders large and small, unable to either proceed or find their way back to Willow Hole. Others have turned around at Willow Hole, but took one or more wrong turns onto subsidiary washes on the return, missing the defined trail back to the Boy Scout trailhead. Beware!

Wonderland Caution: The “Wonderland Connection” as described in a popular Joshua Tree hiking guide is a cross-country course with scant trail and much scrambling over boulders large and small. Because some of these are quite large and expose the hiker to disastrous falls, this route is not for the faint-of-heart or ordinary hiker. It is easy to lose the correct route and find yourself in even worse terrain, so best to go with an experienced guide or at a minimum have a good map and GPS with you and know how to use them. Since you are likely to work up a good deal of heat on this strenuous undertaking, go in cooler weather and take plenty of water and a headlamp for each person in the party. Many parties will carry some climbing rope and wear shoes with climbing rubber soles for added security. Because of the terrain, rescue attempts are generally not feasible at night, so good to have a little extra food and water along, and some warm clothing. Get an early start on the hike to Willow Hole, as the scrambling and route-finding can take longer than expected.


Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree - Safety Tips

Words From the Wise ...

"I’ve spent a lot of time climbing (outdoor, sport, gym , SAR), and one of the biggest problems I’ve witnessed is …. complacency. Yep, good old 'I’ve done this a hundred times no big deal.'

Tying in properly is a big deal. Just because you’ve done it all the time doesn’t mean it’s correct this time. ALWAYS check your partner's tie in, and make sure they check yours. I have looked down at my harness more than once and found my buckle was not doubled backed! How did this happen? I became distracted before finishing. When I’m in a group and there is a lot going on, people talking, questions being asked and answered, this is a perfect time to step back and finish what I started. Don’t become distracted when you are tying in or finishing the buckle on your harness.

Rappelling is another area of frequent accidents. Before you load the system, check to be sure that the carabineer is locked. If you are new to rappelling, a trick I learned to help me was to tie a knot in the rope about three feet below my belay device. This will stop you from falling if you lose control of the rope. Check to be sure you have threaded the rope properly through your belay device. Now, go ahead and load the system; observe the setup: 

1) Is everything in inline?
2) No twists in the rope or belay device?
3) Harness secured?
4) Is your brake hand set to the proper side?
5) Do you have an auto block or other back up device?
...If you’re ready to descend, untie your safety knot and enjoy the ride."

Checklist & More ...

  • Check your knots
  • Always wear a climbing helmet
  • Remember to check the rope and belay device
  • Always use a long rope
  • Make sure you pay attention
  • Always bring enough gear
  • Climb with the rope over your leg
  • Properly clip the rope
  • Always use safe anchors
  • Know and use your safety commands clearly and loudly
  • Use gear that is in good, working condition.
  • Check to ensure your harness is double-backed.
  • Never climb alone.
  • Watch for falling rocks and be careful about dropping rocks on people below.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Be able to identify the species of venomous snakes here. Be careful where you reach. Snakes may hide in crevices in rock faces. 
  • Open cliffs are very dangerous during a lightning storm; seek safe shelter away from the rim and tall trees.

NPS suggests you plan ahead and prepare:

  • Know and follow all park regulations.
  • Research climbing routes in advance of your visit.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Check out weather forecasts.

Please help protect your national park:

  • The use of top anchors decreases impacts on cliff-top ecology.
  • IT is against the law to use tree trunks or other vegetation for anchors.
  • Do not "clean" the cliff top by removing moss, lichens, leaves, and other natural materials. This destroys critical wildlife habitat.
  • Defacing, damaging, or altering the natural rock surface is prohibited.
  • Use "Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics"