When it comes to rock climbing, I'm a duffer -- struggling to remember knots, never having quite enough time to get good at it. Even novices need a place to get better, though, and for that it's hard to beat Indian Cove at Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree is one of the world's premier places for rock climbing and desert camping, drawing big crowds in the prime seasons of late fall and early spring. But Indian Cove is a quieter backwater, with plenty of elbow room. You can't get to the rest of the park from here, unless you do it on foot. Basically, we're talking about a cul de sac of campgrounds and rocks -- but then, what else do you need?
This has been the routine for the last five years: Punch out of work on a Friday night in late October or early November, meet the others and cruise east on the 10 Freeway.
A couple of hours later we're at the west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. From here you can get to the stuff in the guidebooks -- the best climbs, the most popular campgrounds, the historic features. Joshua Tree was once known as the place die-hard climbers went when there was too much snow at Yosemite. But it's long since become a destination in its own right, offering multi-pitch climbs, chimneys and bouldering. Nothing close to El Capitan's scale, perhaps, but the monzogranite rock here is hard and sticky, and there are more than 4,500 plotted routes to choose from.
We pass right by the west entrance, though, driving 10 more miles to Indian Cove. We arrive by 10 p.m. in the cool desert night, 3,200 feet above sea level. We pitch tents in the clean, hard sand of decomposed granite or stretch pads out on flat rocks, and sleep well.
The next day we saddle ourselves with gear and set out for an island of huge boulders a quarter-mile across the desert floor. We'll have this jumble of rocks to ourselves -- no climbers, no hikers, no picnickers in sight.
We find a spot that will offer both a decent crack climb and a place to rappel, then scramble up the back side to set the anchors for belay ropes. I watch as our expert, Robert Orozco, places his cams, backing up every anchor two or three times to ensure the system will hold if something comes unstuck.
That afternoon, we set up a climb and a rappel above our campsite. The route up is perhaps 50 feet, and easy; one solid hold after another presents itself, and it takes the quickest among us maybe five minutes to scale it, then scramble 25 feet higher to a wide ledge.
The rappel is the real draw. We've set it up on the ledge, which provides a perfect vantage for watching shadows stretch across the desert floor as evening slowly overtakes the day.
From here, it's about a 75-foot fall to the ground. We lock safety lines to harnesses, sling the rappel rope through figure 8s and then walk backward off the overhang, buzzing on the adrenaline rush as we take flight. Then big, cascading arcs off the wall, a bunny-hop or two for variety and, too soon, we're earthbound again, looking for another turn.
The desert is usually an acquired taste, a wasteland you endure on the way to Vegas or Mammoth. See it from the highway, and you see dreary vistas of brown and gray. Now and then you pass a lonely house, landscaped with junk cars, and wonder who could live out here.
Indian Cove will make you see something different. Magical rock formations framed against an inky night sky. Jackrabbits, kit foxes and, if you're lucky, a desert tortoise. Clear skies that let you gaze upon miles of boulders, or see the Milky Way when the moon is hiding.
You can climb all you want. Or not. A good deal, either way.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
THE Indian Cove campground at Joshua Tree National Park offers 101 family sites and 13 group sites. There is no road access to the main park from here, but there is also no entrance charge. It's a good spot for rock climbing, hiking and enjoying the desert at its most scenic.
Where: Joshua Tree National Park is about 140 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Take Interstate 10 east to Highway 62 toward Yucca Valley; the Indian Cove turnoff is about 10 miles east of the town of Joshua Tree.
Camping: Family sites go for $10 a night and hold up to six people. Group rates start at $20 for a 15-person site, going up to $35 for a campground that will accommodate 60 people. There are no RV hookups.
Reservations: Recommended, especially for weekends in the popular fall and spring seasons. Reservations can be made from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily by calling (800) 365-2267, or going online to reservations.nps.gov.
Rock climbing: Good climbs abound. If an area where you want to climb is at an occupied campsite, you must ask permission of the people camping there.
Tips: Campfires are permitted, but bring your own firewood. The campgrounds do not have water. There is a water station at the camp entrance, but it's t better to bring a supply from home.