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JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

Vacations are not supposed to be painful.

But here I am, on my third rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree, the desert national park about an hour northeast of downtown Palm Springs. I stand at the foot of the 5.5-skill-level climb Wilson Regular Route, looking up at an impossibly tall rock in Lost Horse Valley and tightening the laces of the secondhand climbing shoes I got a couple of years ago.

The little piggy on my right foot jams into a bump near the shoe tongue that I never quite managed to file down. It's my first injury of the ascent, and I haven't even set foot or fist onto the rock yet.

Not a promising start, especially considering that Black Tide awaits.

I fell in love with that difficult route on a previous trip, even though it bested me the first time I tried to conquer it.

This year would be different, I told myself. All my other climbs at Joshua Tree would be about building strength for this climb.

I had a plan. It just didn't work out quite the way I hoped.

Weird trees, hot desert

People have strange perceptions of Joshua Tree, known for its Dr. Seuss-esque plants with spiny tops. Every time I talk to someone about heading to the park for winter camping and relaxation (ha!), I get a ton of questions.

"Is it cold or hot there?"

"Does it have just one weird tree?"

"Is Joshua Tree a town?"

Joshua Tree National Park is a former U.S. National Monument (since 1936) turned National Park in 1994. It hugs the borders of two California towns, the hippie-arty town of Joshua Tree and the military town of Twentynine Palms.

And it contains not one but two deserts, the low-lying Colorado and the high-desert Mojave, the latter of which is home to thousands of the sometimes majestic and oftentimes odd-looking Joshua trees.

Because the park is mostly desert, it gets hot -- really hot-- in the summer. Like way more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on some days. In the spring and fall, the park has an average high of 85 degrees and low of 50 degrees. During winter, the park is about 60 degrees with freezing nights. Winter and spring are the busiest seasons.

A favorite for bird-watchers, the park has more than 250 species. Car tourists, hikers and naturalists love it too, especially in the spring when the flowers are blooming.

During the winter, the park is a magnet for all skill levels of rope rock climbers and boulderers (who execute short climbs without ropes), mostly because it is too hot to climb the park's attractive rocks during the summer. Also, many climbers' favorite northern mountain climbing routes are snowed over in the winter, while Joshua Tree gets only occasional snow.

Preparations begin

It's noon on a mid-December day. Waiting at the base of Wilson Regular Route, I am warm in my long-sleeve cotton shirt and wishing I had brought along a T-shirt.

I stare at the rough quartz monzonite rock in front of me as if it were a long-lost friend.

I love climbing the rocks at Joshua Tree. It amazes me how I can stand straight up on a nearly flat wall of rock. The texture of the rock seems to ease this clumsy, skill-less beginner up it, even when my weak muscles are struggling.

My climbing partner, Ralf Burgert, a veteran climber of 20 years, suggests I start at a skill-level 5.5 climb, which is on the easy side. I have to build strength for my favorite route, a 5.7 climb called Black Tide or Stichter Quits, depending on which guidebook you're reading. I prefer the name Black Tide because it describes the black ribbon of rock that defines the route and gives it texture.

The route also comes with a story. The first time I visited Joshua Tree National Park for winter camping in 2004, my climbing partner and I were literally snowed out of climbing. We were freezing cold. It rained incessantly. When we woke the first morning, a thick layer of snow covered the place, which is unusual for the park.

On one of our walks, we passed by Black Tide and I fell in love. I wanted to climb the route, but it was too cold and too icy to attempt.

My thoughts about Joshua Tree during the next year were all about Black Tide.

When I returned the following year, I tried climbing it. I stumbled. I fell. I cheated. I wept.

This year, I am going to do it without any trouble. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Climbs under belt

With some difficulty, I climb the three-pitch Wilson Regular Route. I am sure my whining is heard 'round the valley as I turn a steep cliff corner and struggle to get up the rock.

I am exhausted by the end of the route. My knees are bleeding, and I feel very aware of each muscle in my body. I decide right then that I must go to the gym more often when I get home.

The day turns into night, and Ralf and I meet more climbers. Some, such as Ralf's friend Tad, a San Francisco bartender, have made an annual winter pilgrimage to this park for more than a decade. They know the routes by sight, name and difficulty number. They can tell you stories about the crazy things that climbers do when they mix ropes with alcohol and New Year's Eve merrymaking.

Then there are the first-timers, gym climbers who have never had to hold all their body weight on one foot jammed painfully into a crack in the rock. Often, first-timers become old-timers.

Ralf is the former, a black-beanie-wearing mountain man who can look at six routes on one rock and name them all because he has done them all. He'll place safety gear for me like a pro, hold the rope tightly as I follow him up the climb and encourage me when I am on a particularly difficult route.

Wilson Regular Route is done, and I am off to my next climb, two 5.3 routes named Beginner 1 and Beginner 2. I get up these routes with little difficulty and practice the rock climbing techniques of stemming, jamming, crack climbing and chimneying. I even do a technique called chicken-winging, where I press my elbow and palm against two sides of the rock and pull up.

I am getting stronger by the day and looking forward to meeting Black Tide again.

Plan gone awry

The fourth night I sit around a campfire, where fellow campers suggest I attempt the Bat Crack, a 5.5 route at Intersection Rock that is known for its generous deposits of bat guano in the handholds. It is a difficult chimney climb, one where I would have to squeeze my body against two folds of rock and shimmy up the sides like Santa Claus. My newfound chicken-winging skills will get me far here, I think.

I change my mind as I lace up my shoes, my toe hitting that terrible bump. I can't do it. I just can't.

Then I start thinking of all the other things I can't do. And I get angry. I stand, stare up that chimney and start climbing.

Three quarters of the way up the route, pain tingles in my right triceps. It starts as a little pain but gets bigger and bigger as I inch my way up.

I make the summit of the first pitch, and that's where I decide to quit. It is just too painful to go on. I can no longer use my right arm to pull myself up.

Undeterred by my injury, Ralf takes me to Trash Can Rock on the outer edge of the park. Here are a bunch of beginner routes and a beautiful 5.7-plus slab climb named Tip Toe, one that requires careful footholds but only minimal work from my arms.

I climb the route, the hardest I have ever done, with little grace but lots of determination. I reach the summit, knowing that Black Tide is next. My arm even feels a bit better as I look around the park from the top of that rock.

Finally, Black Tide

Fast-forward a couple of hiking days across the desert floor and a couple of rest days for my arm and Ralf and I get to Black Tide. A couple of guys who are new to Joshua Tree are there, along with their experienced travel partners.

I wait for my turn at Black Tide, harness on, shivering a bit from the cold morning.

Ralf shoots up the route. I look wearily at the rock, trying to find footholds and admiring the ribbon of black rock that ascends before me.

I get my feet up the steep wall and, footstep by footstep, I start to climb Black Tide again. Then, I reach up to grab a horn at the edge of the tide, and I feel it. My triceps rip. Pain slices through my arm. I try to continue but can't.

I kick off my harness and whine like I have never whined before in my life. I am embarrassed, angry, frustrated -- and in pain.

As I walk away from Black Tide, my spirits are crushed. But I have hope.

Black Tide isn't going anywhere. Because Joshua Tree is a national park, the route hasn't changed much since I first fell in love with it. Likely, it will never change.

And so, I will come back, year after year, and try my luck on this beautiful route again. I hope next time it and my arm won't get the better of me.

Reach Laura Casey at lcasey@bayareanewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO

  • WHERE TO STAY: Camping -- There are nine campgrounds in Joshua Tree. Per-night fees range from $10-$15, and most camps are first-come, first-served. Hidden Valley campground is the haven for rock climbers and boulderers and accommodates tent and small RV campers. Call 877-444-6777 to reserve a site in Hidden Valley or nearby Black Rock. There is a 30-day camping limit each year and a 14-day limit from October through May.

    Hotels -- For affordability and comfort, visit the Joshua Tree Inn, which has been a favorite of musicians and other artists. Located in the arty town of Joshua Tree, the inn's rates start at $85 and include a continental breakfast. Reservations: 760-366-1188, http://www.joshuatreeinn.com.

    For fun and luxury, visit Americas Best Value Inn & Suites-Oasis of Eden in Yucca Valley, eight miles from the park's entrance. This hotel offers theme rooms, such as Jungle and Cave, the Rockin' '50s and Safari. Prices start at about $130 for theme rooms. Reservations: 800-606-6686 , http://www.oasisofeden.com.

  • WHAT TO DO: Joshua Tree National Park officials suggest bringing at least a gallon of water per person per day to enjoy the park and avoid dehydration. Park entrance fee is $15 per vehicle for seven days of access; annual pass is $30.

    If you have five hours or less to visit the park, confine your sightseeing to main park roads. These roads have several pullouts with exhibits on park flora and fauna, rocks and other curiosities. Take the short walk around Cap Rock and see where country-music legend Gram Parson's body was burned by his friends after his death in 1973 at age 26. There are also several short nature walks off the road in both the Colorado and Mojave desert areas.

    If you have a full day to visit, stop at one of the park's four visitor centers and to see if there is a bird-watching tour or class on wildflowers, pollination or the night sky. On most winter days, the park offers tours of the Desert Queen Ranch for $5. Here visitors learn about the homestead ranch of Bill Keys and how he managed to raise a family in the desert wilderness.

    For multiple-day visits, consider taking a guided rock-climbing class, starting at $120 per day. Guided tours can be purchased from several groups including: Uprising Adventure Guides, 888-254-6266, http://www.uprising.com; Joshua Tree Guides, 877-686-7625, http://www.joshuatreeguides.com/phil.htm; and Vertical Adventures, 800-514-8785, http://www.verticaladventures.com.

    After enjoying the park, take a drive to Palm Springs and visit the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway located off Interstate 111 at the North Indian Canyon Drive exit. The rotating tram is an engineering landmark that climbs almost 4,000 feet to the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness, where snow falls until about April. Tram rides are $21.95 general, $14.95 ages 3 to 12 and $19.95 ages 60 and older. Information and tickets: http://www.pstramway.com.

  • WHERE TO EAT: Near the park -- Crossroads Cafe and Tavern, 61715 29 Palms Highway, Joshua Tree. This cafe offers an assortment of meals from salads to burgers in a comfortable environment with art on the walls and games and books.

    29 Palms Inn, 73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms. Since 1928 this inn has offered respite and food to travelers and visitors of the nearby military base. The restaurant serves homemade sourdough bread (baked daily), vegetables from the inn's expansive garden, and fresh and sustainable meats.

    Near the Tram -- Peaks Restaurant atop Mount San Jacinto offers fine California food for reasonable prices. Reservations recommended: 760-325-4537.

    Sherman's Deli & Bakery, 401 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs. Sherman's Deli & Bakery specializes in kosher-style family food. Enjoy chopped liver or herring, cold beet borscht or a hot corned beef sandwich in a location convenient to both the tram and the Palm Springs International Airport.