With days lengthening, the time has come to emerge into the warmth and shake off the winter rust. Sure, you could head to the gym or that one sunny wall at your local crag. Or, you could go to a real training ground. The place Lynn Hill cut her teeth on before she took on The Nose. The place generations of American trad climbers have been going to master their craft amid moderate crack climbs, thoughtful placements, and high-quality stone: Joshua Tree.
An iconic road-trip stop and an early haunt of Yosemite’s Stonemasters, Joshua Tree National Park boasts a climbing legacy nearly 100 years long. The location—within a three-hour striking distance of both Los Angeles and San Diego—offers one explanation. The park’s geology offers another: Granitic domes provide featured face climbs, endless crack systems, and high-friction climbing. The park is home to some sport routes and thousands of boulders, but Joshua Tree is known first as a classic American venue for slab climbing and hard trad.
And now is the time to go. While the rainy season descends across the Southeast and the Mountain West, March marks the beginning of Joshua Tree’s dry season. It also heralds the last wave of blissfully moderate temperatures (highs around 70°F, lows around 40°F)—ideal for exploring the park’s 8,000-plus routes during the day, and cowboy camping under the stars at night.
A word to the wise: The landscape can be as maddening as it is beautiful. The sparse, uniform sprawl of the park’s eponymous Joshua Tree forest makes the park something of a labyrinth, and it can be easy to lose your way if you venture off trail. That said, there’s a magic in the vastness. The desert landscape is lush with prickly-pear and budding scrub oak. Spend an afternoon (or seven) wandering among desert gardens and the park’s rich history, and you may never want to leave. (For more trad-climbing gear, visit backcountry.com.)
- La Sportiva TC Pro Vibram XS Edge Climbing Shoe. Whether you’re edging on the credit-card crimps of Solid Gold (5.10a/b) or shimmying your way up the offwidth Dolphin (5.7), J-Tree demands a protective, versatile shoe. The TC pro’s high, padded ankle, stiff sole, and neutral geometry make it a favorite for the zone. Crack climbers will particularly appreciate the light padding in the toe, which provides serious relief while hard-torqueing up thinner lines.
- DMM Alloy Offsets. Flaring cracks and odd placements are a fact of life in Joshua Tree. DMM Offset nuts have become a local favorite for their asymmetrical shape, which provides a match-fit in tapered slots. They’re offset along both axes, so you can place them in either orientation to get a better fit. Bonus: the groove on the wider face provides extra security in uneven or crystal-studded rock.
- MSR Dromedary Bag. This is the true desert experience: There’s no water in the park, so you’ll have to haul in your own. Dry as it is, you’ll need a fair bit, too—as much as a gallon per person per day. We recommend the MSR Dromedary, which offers both great carry volume and great packability. The 1000-denier exterior fabric is rugged enough to withstand rubs with the park’s coarse quartz monzonite or prickly pear cactus. One of the bag’s two spouts is small enough to create a jet—ideal for a quick hand wash or flushing a scrape. The other is big enough for refilling friends’ bottles or gulping straight from the bag after a long day in the sun. (We’ve never experienced a leak with either.)
- Sterling Marathon Pro Single Rope – 10.1mm. Abrasive rock, lower-angle terrain, sand, and sharp monzogranite edges are all rope-eaters. As such, you’ll need a real workhorse. We recommend Sterling’s beefy Marathon Pro. At 10.1mm it’s not the lightest, but we can all but guarantee it’ll last you a hard season in the desert, no matter how many pitches you throw at it. And without having to worry about little snags, you’ll be free to focus on your climbing—and staying on the rock long into those iconic J-Tree sunsets.
- La Sportiva TX4 Approach Shoes Men’s and Women’s. To wear meshy trail runners (or, heaven-forbid, sandals) in the desert is to flirt with podiatric peril. The TX4s, however, are ready-made for rough country. This rugged approach shoe offers a full rubber rand and a sturdy leather upper that deflects against cactus run-ins and boulder-field stumbles alike. The climbing zone in the front edges and smears well in easy technical terrain, and the Vibram sole provides serious grip on scrambling approaches.
- Garmin InReach Explorer+. Standing amid a veritable sea of rock sounds like heaven—until you can’t remember which direction you came in from. Trails in Joshua Tree are usually well-established, but they can be easy to lose in the rocky, sandy terrain. We recommend carrying a GPS device as a safety backup. The Garmin InReach Explorer+ is slim and lightweight, but offers a generously sized screen for easy map reading on the fly. The device also enables two-way satellite texting and an SOS feature, so you can call in a rescue fast if something goes wrong—with or without cell service.
- Trango Flex Cams. Flexible-stem cams are a must for building anchors and protecting routes where angled cracks and horizontals abound. The Trango Flex Cams tick that box, and provide even more convenience in wandery terrain, thanks to the extendable webbing on each one. The generous thumb loops are ideal for fast, one-handed placements. The cams also have decent range, a relatively light weight, and reliable security—all at an unbeatable price.
- Trango MTape. Whether or not you commit to hand jammies, you’re still going to need tape for the inevitable finger nicks, split tips, and wrist abrasions that come from toughening up early-season skin. Trang’s MTape is sturdy enough for building crack gloves, and it comes in a number of bright colors—ideal for stylish climbing, and for spotting scraps before you lose them in the sand. #leavenotrace