Here’s How We Made The Trip (mostly) Zero Waste
Food: I bought two types of dehydrated soups at the organic co-op which were perfect for cold weathered camping. Combined with vegetables we already had at home, beans, and rice, we were perfectly nourished for all 2 days. For breakfast we brought our favorite, oats topped with peanut butter, bananas, and honey. By bringing what we already had at home, those veggies didn’t go bad, and we spent less money. Plus, our usual plant based diet is not only healthy but also super sustainable as it requires less resources to grow.
Water: We’re fortunate enough to have many camping sites in the area with access to free drinking water. However, that is not the case at Joshua Tree. It’s a very dry desert and you have to bring in all the water you’ll need for drinking, cleaning dishes, and brushing your teeth. We brought along a 5 gallon jug we had at home and stopped to fill it up at a Glacier vending machine on the way there. It costs us 1.75 to fill it up and we produced no waste!
Gear: Between Fernando and I we have quite a bit of gear so there wasn’t a need to buy anything special for the trip. I’m proud to say that most of our gear was bought second hand. We’ve had good luck finding excellent quality sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and pots at thrift shops and Fernando has also found great gear on Craigslist.
Recycling: We did end up with a couple of bottles of wine and a few beer cans, which we were able to recycle at the onsite recycle bins. Otherwise we would have brought back to recycle here.
Organic Waste: I didn’t want our organic waste to end up in a landfill so I didn’t put it in the trash can, and because of the dry environment it’s not advised to leave it to rot there, so I brought it all back in the empty jars that previously held our bulk foods to compost it at home.
Cleaning: We brought all reusable plates, cups, spoons, and forks which we washed with minimal drinking water, a luffah, and biodegradable soap I brought from home. Ash is also a very good alternative to soap for cleaning the dishes. I brought two kitchen towels for drying the dishes and for any other thing that needed to be cleaned.
Firewood: It’s always best to buy it where you burn in, but that’s not possible at Joshua Tree National Park because they don’t sell any there! It’s a desert. We ended up buying plastic packaged firewood from Lowe’s and this is definitely something we could improve on. We’re not the type of campers that need to make a campfire, but it was going to be very cold so we thought, why not? Next time unpackaged, sustainably sourced firewood would be best.
In general, when you’re camping you’re leaving a very low footprint. We used pit toilets, in 2.5 days we used only 4 gallons of water between the both of us, we used no electricity, and used very few other resources. It’s basically off-the-grid eco living! Regardless, it’s always best to leave no trace!
We were going to go to the Grand Canyon, finally! A life-long dream of mine was going to happen. However, it’s the middle of winter and the weather was not in our favor. So 24 hours before we were meant to leave I cancelled it, it was too long of a drive to arrive to a non-stop rain/snow storm with below freezing temperatures. The Grand Canyon will have to wait. Plan B: Joshua Tree National Park! Only 3 hours from San Diego and although still cold, a little warmer than our previous choice. Friday morning we left with a car full of camping gear, 3 days worth of food, and high hopes to get there in time to snag a first-come-first-serve camping spot.
On the way there we lost about 30 minutes due to the terrible navigation skills of the co-pilot (me) and since we forgot to stop and pick up free craigslist firewood we had to resort to store bought. Unfortunately this came in plastic, which made me feel kind of down for buying it. But we were running low on time and our moods weren’t the best at the moment and that’s what happens when you aren’t fully prepared.
Upon arrival to the busy visitor center just a couple of miles from the park entrance, we were unapologetically told by a ranger that our chances of getting a camping spot on this holiday weekend were “zero to none”. Seriously? Hopeless and disappointed we went back to the car with no plan B. We considered going to Anza Borrego State Park, but it was 2 hours away, so I suggested we still go in for a day trip so Fernando could see the park, and then afterwards go to La Quinta (about 45 minutes away) to spend New Years with Fernando’s family. We were both pretty low in spirits at the moment but Fernando agreed to still go in even if we wouldn’t be staying the night. Secretly though I was hoping we could still get a camping spot, which despite what the ranger said, I thought was very possible given my experience two years ago.
We wait in line a bit to enter the park, pay a $20 fee, and then make our way through the expansive desert to the largest campground, Jumbo Rocks. Much to our delight the first spot we see is FREE! Our mood instantly improves now that we get to spend the weekend there. Even if we hadn’t found a spot we had already agreed that we would try to share a camp with someone. Befriend some strangers and offer a bottle of wine and our fire wood in exchange for a small space in their site, I’m sure that would have worked too.
By 1:00 pm we had set up my parent’s large 6 person tent and were ready for some hot food. While Fernando moved us into our mansion I cut up half an onion and two carrots to add to a corn chowder dehydrated soup I bought at the organic co op. Lunch was easy, warm, and delicious. And since I kept the scraps in a jar to compost back at home, it was also all zero waste! A bit later we followed an adventurous Spanish boy and his mom up the boulders and enjoyed the desert view from above with a San Diego beer.
At 7:00 pm we went to the campground amphitheater for a presentation on light pollution. It was informative and quite entertaining, mostly due to a drunk audience member who made unsolicited comments. Props to the ranger giving the presentation for having such a good sense of humor and going along with it. Just as the presentation was ending it started to rain, and it didn’t stop until hours later. Since we didn’t have a rain cover and didn’t join any New Year’s Eve camping parties, we went inside our tent and played two rounds of Rumikub. I won the first and Fernando the second, which reminds me we still need to play the tie breaker! It was still raining when we fell asleep at around 9:00 pm. The rain was non stop and water slowly started creeping into the sides of our tent. I’m such a worrier so I kept waking up to keep an eye on the water. After attaching a second rain fly over our tent, Fernando was confident we would not get wet and just fell back asleep anytime I expressed signs of panic. What seemed like an eternity after we had fallen asleep we woke up to cheers and Happy New Year exclamations from our neighbors. Fernando and I sleepily congratulated each other as we both thought the same thing, it’s only 12? We both get up to go pee and saw the chaos that was outside. Small rivers had formed at various points in the campground and on the street and many of our neighbors had to sleep in their cars and move their tents onto the pavement. Although I was happy for the plants and animals that were getting their much needed water supply I couldn’t help wishing for it to stop raining soon, and eventually it did. Fortunately we both stayed dry and needless to say it was quite an eventful night.
The next morning we had breakfast of oats with peanut butter, honey, cinnamon, and bananas and a warm ginger peach tea that had been at my house forever. Although there was no water at the campground we did not use disposable anything. We brought along a 5 gallon water jug that lasted us all weekend for drinking and cleaning. Washing dishes is never fun, especially in the cold, but it only takes a couple of minutes and when you think of the overall impact of disposables, it’s totally worth it.
After breakfast we got in the car and drove to the Mt.Ryan trail head. It was a moderate hike up to the highest point in the park. We brought water in Fernando’s backpack and made the 3 mile round trip in about 2 hours.
We headed back to camp for lunch. Fernando started a fire on the campsite grill and I heated up frozen beans we brought from home, white rice, and cooked up the remaining half of an onion with one chopped tomato and one cubed zucchini seasoned with all purpose seasoning and salt. Simple, plant based, filling, and since we are rice and beans kind of people, delicious. The only downside of cooking over the fire was getting soot all over the pots. Nothing a good wash couldn’t get off.
The rest of the day was spent napping, exploring the nearby boulders, climbing up the boulders to the see the sunset, lighting up a campfire, sitting by the fire eating leftovers from the pot, and drinking wine and beer. When the firewood ran out we got into our tent and sleeping bags and read. Fernando was fascinated with a 2001 National Geographic and I read all about corn in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. At this point it looked like it wasn’t going to rain again but it was very windy. Perhaps it hasn’t that windy but the noise the rain fly made when hitting the tent was frighteningly loud. I tried to ignore it and eventually I fell asleep. A few hours later I woke up to the wall of our tent literally being pushed by the wind onto me, it felt like the poles were going to snap and it was all going to collapse. I had never felt the wind so strong and got up in a panic. I had left some jars, a luffah, and the 5 gallon water bottle (1/5 full) outside and I was afraid it had all blown away. I shake Fernando up but he just sits there not fully grasping the urgency of the situation. I repeated, we have to do something! As I go collect everything I had left outside and bring it into the tent Fernando gets up. double stakes the tent, places some heavy rocks on the corners, and ties rope all around. I would have preferred to put everything in the car and set up the much smaller two person tent that wasn’t 6 feet tall, but Fernando thought this was the best option. We go back into the tent and it’s still shaking and making ridiculously loud noises. I fell asleep but soon woke up with my heart exploding out of my chest as a wind gust shakes the tent . Since it was only 11:30 and I didn’t want to keep waking up in fear every 15 minute I made the choice to sleep in the car. Even though I slept in the front seat it wasn’t all that bad, it was a lot warmer, and no more worrying about the wind.
We overslept and did not get up in time to catch the sunrise, but it was overcast anyway so it’s all right. We packed everything up and drove out the Key’s Point to get a last glimpse of the area from above. From there you see the nearby San Jacinto Mountains, the Coachella Valley, and part of the San Andre’s fault. We had thought about making breakfast up there but it was too cold and a warm restaurant meal sounded much better. We said goodbye to the park and had breakfast at the Natural Sisters Cafe in Joshua Tree.
After breakfast we went to La Quinta to visit with Fernando’s dad and his wife. It was really nice to see them, tell them about our weekend, and enjoy hot coffee with coyotas from Sonora. We left with coyotas to go and local dates.
Even though the beginning of our trip was a little stressful we were both so glad we didn’t give up and just went home. We spent two full days disconnected from our phones and enjoying time in nature. Joshua Tree National Park is a beautiful place we’re lucky to have.