A Photographer’s Road Trip Guide to Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

A Photographer’s Road Trip Guide to Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
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It’s late afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park, and I’m watching a grown man scrambling up a rockface, dressed as a dinosaur.

Most people would consider the sport of rock climbing to be hard enough as it is – and it’s a hot day. He must really have a sweat on. Plus, there’s the whole question of why he’s doing this. Around 300,000 people come here every year to go climbing, and to my knowledge, exactly none of them do it in dinosaur onesies.

So maybe that’s it. It’s about the freedom to do something so gloriously ridiculous that nobody else would even consider it. The spirit of true adventure, right there.

(Or maybe it’s just for a bet.)

Rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park
Rock climbing in Joshua Tree…in a dinosaur onesie!

I laugh and shake my head (I’m not judging, mind – I’ve done equally crazy things), and we resume our search for the perfect spot to take golden hour photos of the park. I’m here with my buddy Scott from Bobo and Chichi. I’ve got the car to take me onwards, I’ve got the right tent to climb into when it gets dark – and I’ve got a badass camera on my hip.

This is part of the reason I moved to California. To explore more of my own backyard. There is so much of my own country I haven’t seen, and National Parks abound in this part of the country.

So, here I am at last. And in partnership with Affirm, a company that knows how to make opportunities like this happen, I want to give you a few tips on finding the freedom to have your own adventures, in exactly your own way.

Dinosaur onesie included, if that’s your thing.

“For Freedom!”

Funny word, “freedom.” It seems simple enough – defined as the capacity to act or change in any way that you see fit. But it’s also the opposite of being trapped, enslaved, boxed in. By that definition, freedom is the opposite of a lot of things that constitute “modern life” – principally, paid employment.

Boil it down to its essentials, and it becomes a simple equation:

Freedom = Money + Time.

If you don’t have the time, your window of opportunity to act is small. If you don’t have the money, you have to wait until your cash flow is where it needs to be to unlock the experiences you crave. And if you don’t have either, your freedom is severely curtailed and you’re going to have to get really creative to get anywhere.

It’s also a chain of cause and effect. If you can’t grab that special flash deal at just the right moment, you have to wait for another time – when you’ll probably have to pay more money, thereby losing even more freedom in the future.

The famous Joshua Trees
The famous Joshua Trees

For me, pursuing a life of adventure has meant learning to hack this equation in a hundred different ways. It’s meant learning how to be smarter with my money and conserving my time (more correctly, my freedom to act and to be spontaneous). It’s meant finding ways to move quickly when opportunities fall in my lap. It’s meant building flexibility into the very core of my lifestyle – which isn’t always easy, but has remained vitally important for everything I do.

It’s all about carving out freedom for myself – without which, I wouldn’t be living a life of full-time adventure, and I wouldn’t have done a tenth of the things I’ve done over the last few years. It’s the fuel that keeps me going. Without it, I just stop.

So I’m always on the lookout for anything that gives me more flexibility with my money and time, thereby creating more freedom for myself – and with this trip to Joshua Tree, I’ve found a doozy.

Affirm Lets You Choose Your Freedom

I’d heard of the financing company Affirm before now – but I had no idea the scale of their operation and the sheer power of what they have to offer.

Affirm partners with more than 2,000 top retailers, allowing you to decide how soon you pay for your purchases with those retailers. However, what I didn’t know is just how many travel companies they’re now providing the service for – and therefore how useful it is for travelers of all kinds.

Saving for travel and planning for trips can be really stressful. Affirm’s solution is to provide simple payment options for airfare, accommodation and travel experiences, allowing customers to buy now and pay at a later date to take away anxiety about overspending.

Photographing Joshua Tree National Park
Photographing Joshua Tree National Park

Another huge advantage of Affirm is how transparent everything is up front. It’s a loan – but the kind where Affirm makes sure you’re not overextending yourself, while being absolutely clear up front about what you’re paying back to them and by when. There are no hidden fees and no nasty surprises. It’s never that kind of deal.

Above all, Affirm wants you to have the freedom to get out there and have the adventures you want to have, on a timescale that suits you absolutely perfectly. This is the key to unlocking the kind of freedom that far too few adventurers get to play with.

If you know what you’re doing and you’re wise with your purchases, it’s a real game-changer.

How To Photograph Your Way Through Joshua Tree National Park

Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park (often abbreviated to JTree) is what you get when you smash two deserts together.

To the west, the high Mojave desert brings its dry landscape of bare, sweeping rock, powerful winds and occasional torrential downpours – and meets the warmer edge of the Colorado desert ecosystem, filled with low scrub and cacti, in a 3,200 km2 expanse of parkland that’s half made up of designated wilderness.

Expansive Joshua Tree Sunset
The vast expanse of Joshua Tree National Park

When to Go to Joshua Tree National Park

It’s a dry desert environment – but at certain times of the year, it’s a surprisingly wet one. (During my trip it rained on me around 90% of the time – which is why bringing the right kind of backpacking tent can be the difference between a triumph and a total washout.)

Your chosen time of year to visit really depends on the experience you’re after. If you want to avoid the crowds, grab the best camping spots and are equipped to deal with the cold weather and occasional rainstorm, head there in the winter.

If you want mild temperatures suitable for long-distance hiking, March and April are a good bet – and for spectacular lighting conditions when the sun is low in the sky, October and November will give you a pick of stunning sunrises and sunsets.

Joshua Tree Sunset
Sky on fire in Joshua Tree National Park

How To Get To (and Get Around) Joshua Tree National Park

The bottom line is, you’re going to need some wheels.

Luckily for you, Affirm partners with Expedia—one of the largest travel booking sites on the planet—and offers financing on everything from flights, hotels and, yes, even rental cars. I could book the car through them, and arrange for payment at a later date using Affirm.

The same goes if I decided to stay somewhere outside of the park after roadtripping my way through it, since Expedia’s really great for accommodation as well.

There are two roads running through the park – Park Boulevard, which passes through the Mojave side, and Pinto Basin Road, running across the edge of the Sonoran desert (of which the Colorado desert is a smaller part). It depends which direction you’re coming from, but essentially, Park Boulevard is the main road here.

Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip
Joshua Tree National Park Road Trip

Whatever your chosen route, due to Joshua Tree’s vast size, I’d recommend having your own ride to get around in. Yes, even if you’re here primarily for the hiking: a car will allow you the freedom of spending at least a full day just driving and exploring, marvelling at the eerie, boulder-strewn scenery of rock sculpted by the wind into all sorts of otherworldly shapes, before you strap on your walking boots and take a slower pace.

What To Do in Joshua Tree National Park

First and foremost, it’s a haven for rock climbers of every variety, from bouldering to highlining. There are quite literally thousands of routes to choose from, solid rock to clamber over (quartz monzonite, for you geology nerds) and a local climbing culture that goes back decades.

Almost as obviously: hiking. This is terrain you only really understand by pulling the car to the side of the road and getting your feet dusty. Pretty much everywhere is accessible (although you must always follow the code of ‘Leave No Trace’), and trekking across this vast, weird landscape is a fine way to make some great memories.

Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is famous for its rock climbing

There are horseback rides, geology-hunting road trips, artist’s & musician’s communities to visit, birds and animals to see by day, stars to plot by night, and an overarching sense of complete weirdness to bask in.

However, I’m a photographer – and my friend Scott, my companion for this trip, is an expert in shooting video. Give us the dramatic sights and the crazy skies and we’ll have full memory cards and even fuller hearts. That’s our chosen thing here – and at Joshua Tree, I decided to put my own skills to the test with some of the best photo equipment on the market right now.

KEH Camera also uses Affirm to offer financing options on their range of 55,000 pieces of photo gear, and I’m here with the hottest camera of the past year, the Sony A7iii mirrorless camera. I’m testing it against the desert’s sumptuous natural beauty, in the hope of capturing a few shots that really do the place justice.

On the first night, Scott and I hiked up to Arch Rock to take advantage of unexpectedly clear skies. We were like giddy schoolchildren, shooting the stars in this wild place, in the calm of the night, in complete solitude under an endless sky…

Starry Skies at Arch Rock
Beneath starry skies at Arch Rock

Where To Stay in Joshua Tree National Park

When they say “desert,” they’re not kidding.

You know how some famous locations around the world – for example Petra, in Jordan – have developed their own satellite settlement, complete with hostels, hotels and rentals of all kinds? Joshua Tree isn’t like that. Within the designated wilderness areas, there’s you and the land and the sky, and that’s basically it. In the wild desert you’re looking at:

  • No water sources
  • No electricity (and no WiFi, cell reception or street lighting)
  • No food
  • No indoor lodgings

If you’re sticking around for more than 24 hours, you’ll be camping out under the stars, and you’ll need to bring everything you need with you. That’s the deal you make with this incredible place.

For my tent I needed something really light with loads of space that was still tough enough to withstand a proper battering from the elements (this is not a place to come with a low-quality tent that explodes on you in the middle of the night).

Outdoorplay is another Affirm partner from whom you can purchase outdoor gear—like camping equipment—and pay for it monthly. They provided a Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2-person top of the line backpacking tent. It did a fantastic job of giving me loads of headroom and storage space while easily withstanding big gusts of wind and heavy downpours of rain.

There aren’t many tents this roomy and stable at the same time – I’m used to trading off one with the other, but the pole framework and cunning wind profile kept it sturdy at all times.

Our shelter beneath the famous Joshua Trees didn’t hurt, either.

Joshua Tree National Park Camping
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park, thanks to Outdoorplay

Finding Your Campsite

Finding a campsite shouldn’t be too difficult – there are over 500 of them across the entire park. However, finding the best ones will take longer, since the vast majority of smaller sites are very much first come, first served and/or ad hoc in nature, and will fill up quickly during peak times of the year. In contrast, the big established campsites will be rather more reliable.

My top three picks are:

  1. Hidden Valley Campground: you’ll find it on the edge of the aptly-named Wonderland Of Rocks, and it consists of 44 campsites that are open all the year round.
  2. White Tank Campground: it’s not big (just 15 campsites here, making it the tiniest campground in the park) but it’s delightfully out of the way, and you’re unlikely to be sharing with many others even at peak times. This was where I based myself during my trip, and I felt lucky to have picked it. However, note that this campground is only open between October and May, and plan accordingly.
  3. Jumbo Rocks: at the other end of the scale to White Tank, this is the biggest, with a whopping 124 campsites on offer. It’s right in the middle of some epic terrain with some great boulder scrambling opportunities, and it’s open all year round. The safest of safe bets.

Affirming Your Freedom: How To Use Financing To Unlock Your Dream Trip

It’s a common scenario. Your income is in transit, your cash is in the financial cloud somewhere – and it’s not in your bank account when you need it the most.

If you’re chasing a life of engineered serendipity and seized opportunity, you need the flexibility to buy the right things at exactly the right moment.

Take my photography road trip to Joshua Tree National Park, as described above. I would have needed to pay for:

  • Food and drink
  • Campsite fees
  • Car rental
  • Hiking clothes
  • A backpacking tent
  • A camera to capture all the best moments

Apart from the few dollars you’d be spending on food, drink and campsite fees, you can use Affirm to cover literally everything on this list. It gives the freedom to choose your moment for adventure, instead of waiting for when all your financial stars align – which is often the difference between an epic, once-in-a-lifetime experience and an adventure missed.

So what kind of freedom-based adventure are you going to have this year?


READ MORE:

16 Epic Stops for Your California Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway

The 20 Coolest Campervans for Rent in California

Your Ultimate Guide to Road-Tripping the Death Valley National Park

19 Best Adventure Vacations in the USA

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