Last spring, I went to Joshua Tree National Park and it did not go as planned. The weather and other factors conspired to cut our trip short, and my husband and I ended up only seeing a tiny little corner of the park, far removed from the well-trafficked areas with all the iconic rock formations and clusters of other-worldly Joshua trees. Now we have an adventurous baby girl (I was pregnant with her during our last trip), and couldn’t wait any longer to take her on her first visit to a national park. My brother was coming to visit us, and we decided it would be the perfect time to take a day trip out to Joshua Tree. What we didn’t realize, was that the day we picked also happened to be a national holiday, which naturally meant the park would be pretty crowded. Even better, it was one of this year’s Fee-Free days, making it one of the busiest days of the year.
I love the idea of fee-free days because it encourages more people to get out and experience the beauty of America’s National Parks, but I’m also rather selfish with my nature; I want it to myself. When I’m hiking, I want to encounter as few people on the trail as possible. If a trail is too crowded, especially with hikers who don't follow good trail etiquette, it can really threaten to ruin the experience.
So we drove out eastward, over the mountains and into the desert toward Joshua Tree National Park. We knew as we approached the park that it would be a really crowded day, but we were excited to get to see the park’s iconic landscape, nonetheless.
And then the car started to overheat.
We were less than a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the park, and our car’s engine temperature suddenly started to spike up. It was an issue we’d dealt with before, and had just had the car in the shop to fix it less than a week before our trip. It had been fixed. Until now.
The desert is the last place you want to be with an overheating car, but had we really come all this way, within spitting distance of Joshua Tree, just to turn around and spend the day in a repair shop?
Heck no. And the only reason we were still able to salvage the expedition without recklessly forging onward, deep into the park (and the crowds), was because of my secret weapon.
That Secret? Topographic Maps.
How can a map be so special, you ask? Why pay for a map when you can get one for free from the National Parks Service at the gate?
The official maps you can pick up at a national park’s gate or visitors center are great resources. They highlight the park’s main roads, popular landmarks, history, wildlife, and ecosystems and are a concise introduction to the park. But these maps are relatively small and lack a lot of detail.
Now, here’s where I have to pause for a moment.
If you are the kind of traveler who just wants to see the famous landmarks, snap a few pictures, and move along, then this advice probably isn’t for you. The official national parks maps probably provide all the information you need to check the boxes off your national parks bucket list.
But if you like to get out of your car and really experience what makes these places unique, if you trek to national parks hoping to spend some quality time in the wild, unplugged from the demands of modern society, and expanding your horizons, then you’ll love the way a good topographic map can change your experience!
How so? Topographic maps, such as this one from National Geographic, are called "topographic" because they are designed to show the topography of the land (as in, the rise and fall in elevation, which makes it possible to identify mountains and canyons and other features of the landscape). Topographic maps are packed full of details you won’t find on the official park maps, showing lots more trails, roads, and environmental details that can make or break your adventure.
This was unquestionably the case with my last trip to Joshua Tree; we made it to the park entrance, but before turning around to find a repair shop, I remembered that I had seen a network of trails on the topographic map, right next to this entrance. We parked, but didn’t see anything that looked like a trailhead, and even the volunteer ranger didn’t know there were trails that crossed the road at that spot. She had to ask the ranger in the gatehouse, who pointed us back down the road to a trail marker we never would have seen if she hadn’t told us exactly where to find it.
We ended up spending the entire afternoon hiking this web of trails and we never met a single hiker along the way. We had the whole area to ourselves the entire time. It was glorious! And this was one of the busiest days of the year, where it would have been a nightmare just to try to find parking in the main areas of Joshua Tree National Park.
Moral of the story: without the topographic map, we never would have known those trails were even there, and our trip would have been a complete bust. But with the map, we were not only able to salvage the expedition from sabotage by our car, but we had the privilege of hiking for hours on a crazy crowded day with no one else around. Plus, we got to explore an area of the park that the vast majority of Joshua Tree’s visitors will never see or even know about.
Topographic maps, along with a compass, are a good tool to pack on any hike, anyway, as they give you much more information to work with should you ever become lost or disoriented. Their precision in representing the natural features of the landscape and the contours of trails make them far more reliable than the basic park maps for navigation purposes, and they even have the perk of opening your eyes to trails and landmarks far off the beaten path - and away from the crowds.
But what if you still want to see the popular spots, too?
How can you avoid the crowds and still see the landmarks that make each park famous? I have a couple of ideas. First, if you can plan your trip to avoid weekends and holidays, especially those fee-free days, it will make a big difference in avoiding crowded days. The other thing you can do to avoid crowds at National Parks (or any popular outdoor destination) is to get there early, even before sunrise. Very few other visitors will make the effort to get out that early, plus you’ll treat yourself to some fantastic sunrise views!
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