jumbo rocks cactus joshua tree national park

Review: Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

By Heather

The camping 2014 season has officially kicked off for us, and it can only go uphill from here. I mean… on our first trip, we left 24 hours after we got to our campsite.

Oh, and if you’d rather just get to the campsite details, scroll down to the bottom! I know I blather on sometimes.

Friday morning

Darren and I woke up at 3 a.m. Friday to load up the car and head to Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree. This is an unbelievably popular campground that also happens to be first come, first served. Do you know how I feel about that? This is how feel about that.

Because we left so early, we got to Joshua Tree in just about three hours, with one stop for supplies at Von’s (on your left heading east on the Twentynine Palms Highway) in the town of Joshua Tree. This Von’s is huge and well-stocked. I challenge you to not find something you need! Within reason!

And then it was on to Jumbo Rocks. The place was packed, as expected, but we drove around for about 10 minutes and eventually found what was one of the last sites remaining: No. 65.

It was right next to a bathroom.

bathroom jumbo rocks campground joshua tree national park site 65

At first, it wasn’t great. The wind would blow in our general direction and give us a nice whiff of Eau de Vault Toilet. Eventually, the wind changed direction and it was completely fine.

The worst part about staying next to the bathroom was actually the people waiting to use it – they had no problem watching us camp in our natural habitat.

Weather strikes

We set up the tent and the rest of the campsite, then had breakfast. A couple of hours later, it had gotten so breezy that we had to put on the rainfly to support the tent because the poles were buckling.

When Steve and Regina arrived, Steve told us rain was in the forecast. That must have been a recent change because we obsessively checked the weather for several days before leaving.

The rest of the day was nice. Darren and I took a hike. The four of us sat around the campfire during the day, drank and chatted.

That evening, we attended a ranger talk on desert wildlife, where the ranger appointed Nabby the Desert Wildlife Representative. Nabby didn’t seem too impressed with her new title, since she fell asleep during the talk.

nabby napping corgi joshua tree national park

It gets kind of bad…

By the time we returned to camp from the talk, the weather had become so cold and windy that Darren decided to sleep in the back seat of my car to stay warm. Nabby and I slept in the tent.

In the middle of the night, Darren shook me awake. “I need your help. It’s raining and our stuff is getting wet.”

The wind was at Defcon Gaviota and the rain was whipping around all over the place. And, of course, why wouldn’t we be in the desert the one time it’s raining there?

We had moved some things and closed some bins earlier when we heard there was going to be rain, but it was way heavier than we expected it to be. But still. We should have moved things better and earlier, because the inside of our tent got soaked while we scrambled. Bad planning!

The next morning, we woke up to a further trashed tent and campsite. At times like this, conversation isn’t even necessary. We knew it was over and started loading up the cars, and good thing because that wind went for days. Packing up and heading out when it’s just not happening for you is also one of our camping rules.

The specific and spectacular ways in which the tent was trashed is covered in Darren’s tent review.

Jumbo Rocks details

Okay, enough about us. Let’s talk about Jumbo Rocks.

You will see why it’s so popular when you go. It’s beautiful. As the name implies, there are huge, marshmallowy-looking rocks everywhere. People climb them, do yoga on them, meditate or just gaze at them.

campsite 65 jumbo rocks joshua tree national park

Our campsite, before El Nino swept in.

The rocks also give the campsites some of the best privacy in any campground I’ve seen so far. There is really no “best” site – this is one place you can go and pretty much anywhere you land will be wonderful.

If you can’t nab a site at Jumbo Rocks, there are several other campgrounds nearby and you may have some luck with those. We also stayed at Cottonwood once, which is about 45 minutes away from Jumbo Rocks on the southern side of the park. It’s a beautiful campground, but very different scenery. Cottonwood is also much farther to the stores, since there’s pretty much nothing on the south side of Joshua Tree. It also would have been a bad bet on this weekend, since the wind wouldn’t have been buffered by anything.

Lesson learned. If wind is in the forecast, we’re cancelling the trip. It’s not worth it.

Other Tips

Some other stuff you should know:

  • Getting there heading east on Twentynine Palms Highway. Take the west entrance of the park until you see signs for Jumbo Rocks. You’re going to drive for long periods without seeing much of anything, so don’t worry that you’ve missed it. I’m pretty sure you won’t, unless you’re texting the whole time or something.
  • Getting there heading west on Twentynine Palms Highway. Take the Oasis entrance into the park and follow the signs to Jumbo Rocks.
  • Supplies heading in from the west (driving east). There are a couple of options, but we always go the Von’s on the left. It’s clean, fully stocked and you’ll find firewood, ice and water. There’s also a bathroom located in the back center of the store.
  • Supplies while camping or on your way from the east (driving west). The town of Twentynine Palms is about 25 to 30 minutes away from Jumbo Rocks. Although the nearest store that will come up when you search is likely to be the Save-a-Lot, they don’t Have-a-Lot. No firewood, no deli for lunches and generally just a weird, depressing vibe. Drive up the road heading west until you see the Stater Bros. on your left – it has everything you need at decent prices.
  • Gas, drugstores. There is a Rite-Aid on the left after you pass Save-a-Lot, and you will pass several gas stations while you’re driving around this area.
  • Water. Jumbo Rocks does not have water. In fact, most campgrounds in Joshua Tree don’t. Bring at least one gallon per person (and dog) per day.
  • Toilets. As mentioned above, toilets are vault (non-flush), so hold your nose! A ranger came by to clean and stock them regularly.
  • Amenities. Every campground has a picnic table and a fire ring with a grate.
  • Sites. Most sites are pretty big, but there are some that would be tight quarters with more than one tent. I recall a disabled site wedged in between two huge rocks with barely any room for a tent, let alone a wheelchair.
  • Important site tip. Take the first site you see unless there is some huge reason why it won’t work for you. If you want to continue looking, have someone get out of the car to hold the site while you look. Drop off a bin or two stake a temporary claim while you search for a better site. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Darren did, however, see two people fighting over a site at one point, so it can’t hurt to make it look a little more taken in case someone challenges you. This is what we wound up doing, by the way, but every site was taken.
  • Sightseeing. There are plenty of hikes you can take from this area. We did the one to Skull Rock, a fairly easy and short hike to a rock that looks like… guess. There is also Cap Rock, which has a morbid backstory involving Gram Parsons that you should read about here. Scroll down to the death section. We didn’t make it this time, sadly.