Explore the Wilds of Joshua Tree in a Mercedes RV
Written byStaness Jonekos
Photographed byMichael Becker
After a solid year of work without a break, my photographer hubby, Michael, and I desperately needed a vacation. While we often enjoy urban experiences, this time we decided to embrace Mother Nature and go off the grid. We zeroed in on Joshua Tree National Park and its 800,000 acres of wild desert landscape.
We reserved our spot at Jumbo Rocks campground, which has zero cell signal, water, or electrical hookups. Just to take the edge off, we decided to make this a “glamping” trip and rented a luxurious camper—a 25-foot Mercedes RV.
The RV was delivered the night before by ChillRV (chillrv.com), and as Michael and I inspected it, we marveled at its many features. It was essentially a high-end condo on wheels and surprisingly easy to drive, handling much like a minivan. We loved the roomy full-size bed tucked in the rear, and the fully equipped kitchen that had two burners, a refrigerator and even a convection oven/microwave.
Our provisioning list included champagne, ingredients for one exotic “cookout” dinner menu, favorite tunes, books and movies.
After the three-hour drive from LA, we entered the park through the west entrance off Highway 62. Some say the Mormon settlers called the signature plants Joshua trees because they were reminded of the biblical story of Joshua reaching his hands to the heavens. But we thought Joshua trees (a type of yucca, not a tree) looked like the main character from Dr. Seuss’s environmental best seller The Lorax.
Joshua Tree comprises two arid ecosystems: the vegetated high Mojave Desert with an elevation above 3,000 feet on the northern side where our campground was, and the lower, hotter Colorado Desert to the south.
Within minutes of arriving at Jumbo Rocks, we were climbing the piles of giant boulders and ended the day with a spectacular sunset.
After hunting for a cell signal without success (just thought I’d try), Michael got the campfire going. The temperature dropped with the setting sun. I knew the day would be a busy one, so I’d packed some frozen meals. I turned on the RV’s generator, brought the microwave to life, and dinner at our fingertips! We giggled as we ate; eating in the RV “salon” was fancier than many restaurants in the area.
After dinner we stepped outside and discovered stars exploding out of the vast darkness. Being hours from a city, the sky was pitch black and the hunter constellation, Orion, was shining in full glory next to the Big Dipper. I was surprised at the massive Milky Way that spread across the black sky like a nighttime rainbow.
We curled up in our cozy RV bed and watched the latest Star Wars movie on a high-tech DVD/sound system. While enjoying the music during the end credits, we went outside to take a final peek at the stars. We could not figure out why we could still hear the movie’s music so loud, until we discovered the RV had exterior speakers! Oops! The entire campground apparently also got to enjoy the audio of Star Wars for two hours. (At least it was a G-rated film.) We were mortified, but tried to make amends in the morning with offers of espressos with hot foamy cream to our tent neighbors.
Michael was up early photographing the majestic sunrise. After potato pancakes, we were greeted by a covey of Gambel’s quail scratching the soil looking for seeds and insects outside the RV door.
It was a windy day, and we saw tents blown off their campsites, but those Jumbo Rocks boulders kept the fabric homes close as their owners scrambled to reassemble their temporary shelters.
Our biggest decision of the day was what to do in this rocky paradise. The boulders seemed to be calling our name again, and off we went to conquer the next rock pile, Skull Rock. It was an easy hike, choreographed by the park with signs that identified the desert vegetation. This trail can get busy, so go early or late in the day.
Michael’s childhood aspiration to be an outdoorsman paid off with an ample campfire. We devoured messy marshmallow s’mores, and fortunately enough fire was left to keep us warm during another stargazing spectacle, replacing our regular evening routine of checking electronic devices after dinner.
RV camping meant we had to keep things charged by running the generator once a day and check water levels for daily showers, but that was pretty much it in terms of running our campsite.
Turns out that a cell signal could be found just eight minutes by car from the campground heading toward the park’s east entrance. So if you had to be in communication, it wasn’t far. But we and everyone else we met at Joshua Tree—particularly the families—felt it was a treat to go without it. After that first day, we kept our cell phones packed and our hearts open—for the day, the moment and the sheer beauty of nature.
A checklist for planning an RV trip
- Joshua Tree is popular: 2.8 million visitors a year. At Jumbo Rocks, reservations are required from September through May. Reserve a campsite at recreation.gov.
- Search online for suggested RV camping checklists for your destination. You don’t want to arrive and spend time hunting for essentials.
- Create a menu. If you are going to cook meals over a campfire, keep it simple. Bring frozen meals in case weather conditions make fire challenging or unsafe.
- Download an astronomy/star chart app such as Star Walk before you leave, so you can identify stars, constellations and satellites.
- If you have a DSLR camera, bring a tripod for long exposures.
- Chill RV Rentals offers a terrific selection of fully equipped Mercedes RVs.
- Free home delivery and pickup; in-person, comprehensive training. chillrv.com
Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!