A Taste of the Climbing Life

DSC03371-picsay It was a long shot, but one that we decided to look into. I (Five String) have always dreamed of rock climbing, and spending two weeks in the Joshua Tree National Park area seemed the ideal time to pursue that dream. However, as our emphasis is on “family” travel, I did not want to kiss the kids goodbye and head off on a climbing trip with everyone else unable to share in the experience.


The breathtaking Intersection Rock area where we climbed.

Luckily, we found a rock climbing guide that responded to our request for a climbing trip that could accommodate a 7, 5, and 3-year-old. While he regretted to inform us that his insurance could only cover kids ages 8 and up, he would be happy to plan a morning for me that would still be exciting for the kids and allow them to share  in the climb as well. Nelson from The Climbing Life Guides proved true to his word and put together an absolutely unforgettable morning in Joshua Tree National Park, exploring the beautiful rock formations and desert landscape in a whole new way. DSC03305-picsay DSC03309-picsay As I was a newbie to rock climbing, Nelson started with a brief overview of the basics close to the ground. Five of Hearts joined in on the explanation of the gear, anchors, and basic techniques as Five Ball and High Five clambered over nearby boulders. Next he walked through the basics of belaying, where one person climbs and the other person serves as an anchor, and I got the chance to get a feel for how it would work while still close to the ground. DSC03331-picsay DSC03336-picsay Then, the real fun started. I left the rest of the Fives on the ground and followed Nelson up a rock scramble to the base of the first climb itself. He did a wonderful job explaining all the safety procedures, reviewing the communication we would use during the climb, and making sure that I had no questions. Then he began his lead climb up the rock face, placing anchors for safety along the way. When he reached the top it was my turn to climb. After a few nervous first inches, I trusted the equipment and my guide and really started enjoying scaling up the rock. My only real challenge came with remembering how to take the anchors out of the rock cracks as I went, but Nelson was able to clearly (and patiently) give me instructions from the top. DSC03323-picsay DSC03328-picsay DSC03324-picsay The kids, of course, were also having their own climbing adventure far below. After watching me at the start and cheering me on, they soon turned their attention to the many interesting boulders and rock formations that were perfect for them to explore. Upon reaching the top, I was truly surprised to realize how high I had climbed. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to wave to the rest of the Fives, tiny on the ground, and hear their words of encouragement. The surrounding rocks were truly stunning from the top of Intersection Rock, and the feeling of peace and tranquility is hard to describe. I also really fed off of Nelson’s obvious pride in my success with the climb. His smile said it all, the genuine joy of someone who absolutely loves sharing his passion with others. DSC03344-picsay


High Five supervising from the ground.

DSC03348-picsayOf course, what goes up must also come down. Back on the ground Nelson had checked that I would be interested in repelling down from the top (instead of climbing back down), but I must confess taking those first few steps off the cliff into space were not the easiest that I’ve ever taken. Again though, knowing that I was in good hands made all the difference, and halfway down my repel I was comfortable enough to take a timid look behind me to the ground below. Once I finally reached the ground I was surrounded by the other Fives, and it it felt pretty good to hear the kids exclaim, “Wow, Dad, I can’t believe you just did that!” DSC03373-picsay DSC03359-picsay DSC03362-picsayThe second climb that Nelson had planned nearby was crowded with other climbers, so instead we set off for a very brief walk across the parking lot to climb “The Eye.” The kids were excited to have a new place to explore, and I couldn’t wait to climb again. This time the jitters were definitely gone, and I learned a lot about climbing and Nelson’s background as I asked him a ton of questions while we made the climb up into The Eye. This spacious shelter at the top of the formation was a welcome break from the sun, and we spent a few minutes resting before scrambling up the final few feet to the very top. DSC03379-picsay DSC03384-picsay The repel this time would be out away from the rock, meaning that I would be dangling completely free in the air without my feet walking down the rock face at all. Nelson sensed a little bit of trepidation on my part, especially combined with the howling wind. He suggested that instead of using the anchor bolted into the rock for the repel (which would have involved me having to lower myself over the edge before my weight caught on the rope), he could put anchors in a crack a little higher in the rock so that I would already be below the anchor when I started the repel. DSC03393-picsay I really liked this idea, but it would mean that unlike last time, when Nelson went down first, this time I would be entirely on my own. Again, he sensed the slight hesitation on my part and offered to put in a rope break, one that I would keep sliding down the rope to act as a back up anchor. These extra precautions on his part made all the difference, and soon I was lowering myself down, dangling in thin air, and having the time of my life. DSC03396-picsay After two amazing climbs and repels I expected that our time would be over. However, Nelson offered to lead everyone to The Eye by scrambling up the less steep back side of the formation and leading the kids over the more difficult sections. As we climbed he really took the time to connect with the kids and ask them lots of questions, and I appreciated that he was very mindful of their safety as they climbed up the rocks and crawled through some pretty cool caves. The Younger Fives are practically pros given all the free climbing we have done on coastlines from Newfoundland to Baja Mexico, and I think he was impressed with how comfortable they are on the rock. DSC03398-picsayWhen we finally all climbed into the shade of The Eye, I realized that this was my perfect ending to the day. It had been thrilling to climb to this height previously with Nelson, but it meant even more to me to be able to share it with the rest of the Fives. Seeing Joshua Tree National Park from above and trying something completely new as a family: it really doesn’t get any better and thanks to an excellent guide like Nelson it was all possible :)

Deserts in Bloom: Family Hiking and Rock Scrambling in Joshua Tree


At the crossroads of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is perfectly suited for families. From scrambling on rocks of all sizes, to nearly a dozen short and informative nature and history trails, the park packs many opportunities to discover and learn into manageable kid-friendly excursions.


We opted to start at the southern entrance and take the park road all the way through the park, exiting at the western entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Visitor’s Center was a great place to start our day. Inside were some great exhibits describing the animals found in the park, and just behind the Visitor’s Center we took the Plant Walk to learn about some of the cacti, shrubs, and trees we would be seeing.


A cholla cactus in bloom.


Learning more about a kangaroo rat nest.

From there, the road took us through the lower and hotter Colorado Desert, and we stopped along the way to take the Cholla Cactus Nature Trail. The pamphlet at the trail head did a great job explaining about these unique cacti, also known as the teddy bear cactus, and about the creatures who make their burrows using desert debris. While these cacti did look a bit cute and cuddly, we were sure to heed the warnings not to let the barbed spikes get too close to our clothing or skin.

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After finding a tiny scrap of shade cast by the Mazda5 to have a quick snack, we continued through the park, this time climbing in elevation to reach the slightly cooler Mojave Desert section of the park. Visiting in the spring definitely has its rewards, and it was fascinating to see so many colorful blossoms on some pretty intimidating looking plants.

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The highlight of our day was exploring the Jumbo Rocks section of the park. The kids loved this giant 3D maze of massive boulders and narrow crevices. After peering at (and climbing up the side of) Skull Rock, we made our way through the field of massive boulders to explore other interesting formations. Our path was never in a straight line, but figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B was certainly a memorable experience.



Water from the dam was diverted to this trough for cattle.


Unfortunately, park visitors have colored in the petroglyphs so they no longer can be enjoyed in their original form.

Grateful to eventually find our way back to the car and have a picnic in the shade of an oak tree, we pressed on to take the 1.3 mile Barker Dam Nature Trail. This man-made oasis, built to utilize a natural source of water for cattle, was a stark contrast to the parched landscape all around. We spotted many birds and spiders in and near the water, and we also stopped to see a Native American petroglyph site near the end of the loop trail.



One of the many Joshua trees that give the park its name.


In order to make it through to see the sunset and stargaze at Keys View (a peak with a paved road to the top), we took a break from the park and stocked up on cold refreshments in the town of Joshua Tree. We were thrilled to find vegan smoothies and baked goods at the Natural Sisters Cafe, as well as vegan ice cream at the natural food store next door. With the shadows getting longer, we then drove back into the park to Keys View. The sunset did not disappoint, and we enjoyed watching the stars (and planets) come out. All  in all, we could not have asked for a more informative, fun, and satisfying day in a national park.

Palm Trees and Warm Sand


After a combination of snow and sickness prematurely ended our time in the High Sierras, we are happy to report we are in recovery mode in the warm waters and sunny skies of Desert Hot Springs, California. Not only is our home for the next few weeks a great place to pitch a tent and enjoy some family-friendly hot spring pools, but the location just outside of Joshua Tree National Park will give us many opportunities to explore the park itself..




The view of Joshua Tree National Park from our campsite.


Perhaps it’s the mineral rich waters (or maybe just that we are in a set place for more than a night), but the string of stomach bugs is (hopefully) finally coming to an end. We are looking forward to some memorable trips in and around Joshua Tree in the coming weeks, including rock-climbing, star-gazing, date farm touring. and lunar eclipse watching. After moving right along for almost two-straight weeks, it feels great to have some time to catch our breaths and explore the area in and around Joshua Tree at a more leisurely pace.

Jumping Back into the United States


After a long day, we have left the United States of Mexico (the actual official name being Estados Unidos Mexicanos) and are now back in the United States of America, ready to resume our Park Hoppers adventure of visiting national parks. We had a marvelous five months exploring the Baja peninsula and cannot wait to return to Mexico and visit the Yucatan peninsula for several months starting in May.

The border crossing at Tijuana went smoothly, and it really paid off to stay in Tijuana the night before (we were very impressed by the Palacio Azteca), cross on a weekend (no work-week commuter traffic), and get an early start (we left our hotel room at 4:40 AM). From here we will spend three weeks taking in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree National Parks. Before we get into camping mode though, we’ve decided to spend the night in Bakersfield, California (where exhaustion set in) and are making good use of the enormous pool here at the budget-friendly Days Inn.

It will certainly take us a little while to adjust to being back in the States (we’ve gotten some strange looks for automatically saying “Que le vaya bien” to the cashier as we left the grocery store), but we can’t wait to pitch our tent and spend some quality time outdoors. After living in the desert for so long, we can’t even begin to imagine how massive the sequoia trees will be tomorrow. But, in the end, we firmly believe jumping right in is the only way to go.