As many of my friends know, I have been visiting Joshua Tree National Park every Christmas for a long time. 2018 was my 13th consecutive year celebrating the Holiday in the park. Things sure have changed.
Last decade, camping in Joshua Tree was a real treat and a bit of a well-kept secret. I had a particular campsite in Jumbo Rocks I enjoyed camping at, and it was always open and available. I noticed over the years that things were getting busier and picking up.
2018 proved to be a final test of my patience. There were a number of factors that made this Holiday particularly frustrating.
So what did I see? Dozens of illegally parked vehicles. One SUV stuck after driving up a rock to get a parking space. People with drones. People driving insane speeds (like 70 MPH in a 35 zone). RVs parked in turnouts with their units set and camping. Trash overflowing everywhere, to the point that it was blowing around in the wind. I could go on – this was only in a 2-hour period and I bet there was more where these instances came from.
I wasn’t alone, even the LA Times wrote about it: https://www.latimes.com/travel/la-tr-canatparkshut-20181226-story.html.
As I have mentioned, attendance has trended up to the point that Joshua Tree is bringing in numbers that are closing in on Yosemite. This is just stunning.
Next, park attendance jumped because Christmas Eve and Christmas fell on Monday and Tuesday. This gave most people a 4-day weekend.
Finally, the partial Federal Government shut down occurred which meant free entrance to the park. The Department of the Interior was one of the departments affected. While Joshua Tree has kept their gates open in the past for some minor shutdowns, it was evident with the Holidays and political positions that this would not be a short loss of governmental function.
Again, I’ve appreciated the willingness of the leadership of Joshua Tree National Park to keep their gates open in the past, but with all of the factors coming together, the issues that have come up were entirely foreseeable. It was a bad decision to keep Joshua Tree open and it was obviously a bad decision from the start.
There is even an Instagram account dedicated to shaming bad tourists called Joshuatreehatesyou. These are people who illegally park, don’t care for the environment around them, and like to climb on extremely fragile and old Joshua Trees (I bet they don’t even know they aren’t actually trees).
On some level, I don’t totally blame the tourists. I have always found some issue with the paradox in the parallel missions of the National Park Service. They are there to protect our best lands in the country, but also promote tourism in those areas. The inevitable influx of people causes an incredible array of land-use concerns that I just don’t think the NPS is ready to handle.
As these Government shutdowns have been occurring more frequently, it would really behoove the Department of Interior to begin saving some rainy-day funds to allow many of these parks to operate with full staffs for a certain period. The record shutdown was 21 days, and the longest one this century was 16 days. That is a good goal for the Interior Department to ask their parks to build funds for.
Adding Infrastructure Without Damaging The Park
I have been visiting Joshua Tree since I was a little kid, basically 35 years. But in the decades since, especially since popularity skyrocketed after reaching National Park status in 1995, the areas and infrastructure are essentially the same. I can’t even get a campsite reserved in Indian Cove or Sheep Pass 365 days in advance at midnight.
I often hear about the bus system but I have yet to see it in the park. There are two visitor centers on either side of Park Boulevard that shuttle visits back and forth through the most visited area of the park. Why aren’t there posted bus-stops? Imagine being frustrated by the parking situation at Skull Rock, then seeing a sign showing you could have taken the bus and saved the hassle. There is more to running a bus service than just having 2 buses.
Why can’t we charge a lower rate for Shuttle visitors and encourage them to use the bus system? It would be relatively easy to convert several area turnouts into bus stops. Yet there is nothing inside the park mentioning the bus system or promoting it. Create incentives to use it and you will solve many problems.
And the people who climb and sit on the Joshua Trees? Even a few signs asking people to not climb the trees (next to the No Wood Gathering signs you find in every park entrance) would go a long way to educating people and keeping them from those ridiculous Instagram poses. How expensive would that be? If the trees are dying in Queen Valley (and they appear to be), then this would be something that would seem the right thing to do.
Camping could also be solved. We certainly aren’t looking to grade new land for additional campsites. But for those of us who know the park well, there are possibilities. Just to the Northeast of Sheep Pass is a service road that appears to be just a junkyard. There is even a full pit bathroom installed. Most of the junkyard could be easily cleared and converted. South of White Tank is another service road that appears to just host asphalt for paving. While that may be necessary for the park, it is a wide expanse and could easily host another very large campsite area. Why not use the areas already sacrificed and minimize the service areas?
Where Do I Visit Christmas 2019?
After all of the Lord of the Flies behavior I saw on Christmas Eve, I decided to stay out and keep up the tradition. I often sleep in my SUV, and I properly drove South out of the park in the BLM area where you can camp right off the road. But a storm was coming in, and I thought more and more about the irresponsible and unsupervised behavior I saw, and decided I would head on home.
I don’t know if this was my last Christmas in Joshua Tree. It will always be my home away from home. I can’t help but think that the National Park Service needs to seriously and radically rethink how they promote attendance to the park while making a serious attempt at protecting the 792,000 acres they are responsible for managing.
Only time will tell how park conditions improve or deteriorate, but at this point I am not optimistic.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.