Climbing today hardly resembles what it was at its outset - and climbing at Joshua Tree National Park is no exception to the change seen around the sport. That said, climbing in Joshua Tree is a mix of both old and new with modern bouldering right next to run-out trad climbs put up many decades ago. The area’s history of trad climbing and bouldering is the stuff of legend. Wandering around the Park and looking up at old classics is like walking through a museum dedicated to the sport. Some of the oldest climbs, first done without modern shoes or crash pads, terrify the strongest gym climbers of today. This is part of what makes Joshua Tree unique and fun to continue to return to. Because of the epic feats of climbing’s forefathers, the lore of Joshua Tree climbing is part of the sport’s origin story. Everything thereafter is measured against the bold feats of the sport’s first greats, the Stone Masters.
I took to climbing for reasons like many before me have, and many after me will. For me, climbing was an escape (suburbia sucks); and much like those who developed the sport, I found freedom climbing in the hills, valleys, and canyons of Southern California. When I began climbing 14 years ago, the extent of my climbing worldview was Stoney Point. Following the footsteps of the some Stone Masters, I eventually moved onto Joshua Tree and the Sierras for bigger and more epic climbs.
Make no mistake - Joshua Tree bouldering can be miserable and very difficult, yet highly rewarding. Many climbs topout high off the deck, the rock is coarse and shreds skin quickly, and it feels as if everything in the park is trying to kill you (spiny cacti, yucca spears, death bushes and rocks sit at the bottom or in the fall zone of many climbs). Finesse pays dividends over raw strength here, every move matters and the subtlety of figuring out the movement can be remarkably frustrating leading to dramatic meltdowns. Grades tend to be misleading with 5.8 slab boulders feeling like modern day V3s or old hard classics needing an upgrade to balance with modern grades (likely never to occur). It doesn’t matter what kind of climber you are - the crusty dirtbag, the modern gym machine, or some combination - Joshua Tree can, and inevitably will, crush your spirit. But we all come back for more.
What makes Joshua Tree climbing so frustrating, rewarding, and ultimately humbling are the topouts. Yes, not the drop knees or tenuous pulldown moves or insane flexibility sequences, but the topouts in that when you actually send, you feel fully accomplished having climbed a well-rounded boulder. Joshua Tree topouts tend to be terrifying and sketchy. Due to the geology of Joshua Tree granite and erosion, the tops of boulders are usually amorphous, rounded out, and most of the time featureless. Once out from under a roof or face, and over the lip, you’ll find that most boulders become very chossy (jokingly referred to as kitty litter by my group of friends). Many times the crux of a climb isn’t just a hard pull, but is just mental battle of putting yourself through a heinous topout high off the deck. All Washed Up, which tops out at around 20 feet. With its technical face climbing to subtle hand positioning to get the best leverage off pretty bad slopers, it is quintessential Joshua Tree bouldering.
Joshua Tree National Park should always be considered a top climbing destination for bouldering in California, if not the United States. It’s not Buttermilk Country, Hueco, or Southern Sandstone, but it has modern gems, Stone Master circuits that build strength and character, and thousands of boulders (not to mention thousands of routes) . With vast sweeping views, rock outcroppings that look like Fred Flintstone’s home, surreal Dr. Seuss-looking-Joshua Tree forests, and, most importantly, the absurdity of figuring out a climb yet finding it easy once completed, reminds me of why I began to climb in the first place. Climbing is so many things yet nothing at all. For me, the community and climbing being a vehicle to push myself beyond my own mental and physical limits is why I’ll never leave the sport - the friendships and rewards are endless. Joshua Tree National Park is where it all comes together.
Joshua Roth is a professional photographer and videographer who specializes in archaeology and outdoor sports.