Agressive Bees, Tarantula Hawks, and Desert Camping in the Summer: My Trip to Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve

This is a brief tale of camping in the desert in 117 °F heat, very aggressive bees, and how I learned about the existence of a giant, terrifying spider wasp called the Tarantula Hawk.  This is my story of camping in Joshua Tree National Park in July.

On the 9th of July 2016, I flew into Las Vegas for a trip which would take me to Palm Springs, California to see an old high school friend for her 30th birthday extravaganza.  My plan was to fly in a day early, rent a car, find a place to camp for the night in Joshua Tree, then roll into Palm Springs the following day bright eyed and busy tailed and with a story to tell of surviving the desert in the summer.  While I accomplished that feat, I feel obligated to write about the experience to provide an idea to future travelers of what to expect.

To begin the story, it’s worth mentioning that I arrived at Cleveland Hopkins that morning with a large pink suitcase, complete with a obnoxious pink tag which reads in a hand painted looking font, “I Love 2 Dance.”  This part of the story is significant, partly because the night before when packing my gear, I came to realize that all of my stuff would only fit into the biggest suitcase my wife and I own, which happens to be hers.  I tried desperately that night to salvage a plan which would conclude in leaving behind the large pink luggage, but eventually I accepted fate and acquiesced, and off to the airport I went, pink suitcase in tow.  The other reason this part of the story is significant is utter miscalculation I made as to the number of people who notice a man in outdoorsy clothes tugging along a large pink suitcase in an airport.  At the very least, I assumed, people would notice, but say nothing, but as soon as I arrived at the airport counter to check my bag, I was greeted with a playful grin, along with the attendant snickering, “hey, I don’t think this bag is your style.”  Maybe it was the juxtaposition, maybe it was just seeing a grown man with a large pink bag, but everywhere I went, from the baggage carousel, to the waiting area for the shuttle, to the shuttle itself, to the actual car rental desk, everyone seemed to notice my pretty pink bag and had to snicker at it.  I’m not bitter.  Really.

Anyway, after landing, navigating my way to the rental care facility and grabbing my car, it was off to my first stop: Mojave National Preserve.

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The Mighty Heat of Mojave National Preserve

A dried up place for the rain to go Mojave. Whenever that is.
A dried up place for the rain to go in Mojave. Whenever that is.

Three quick facts about the desert: First, it is extremely quiet out there (obviously, there isn’t much there).  Second, it is extremely hot (obviously, its a desert).  Third, and what caught me off guard, is that it is a lot more quiet, and certainly a lot more hot than you’d initially expect.  I say this for two reasons: First, I knew the forecast going in, and from that, I knew to expect some serious heat.  Second, and again what caught me off guard, was just how absolutely unforgiving the heat actually is out there.  When I say the desert is quiet, I mean it.  I’ve been on the Great Plains in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska and a lot of the noise there is made from the wind moving (and corn, and cows, and cars, and LIFE). On this day, there wasn’t any wind.  There was nothing – only relentless, abysmal, catastrophic, heat.

I was sure to come prepared.  I brought two cases of water with me and a lot of non-salted foods.  Water, for obvious reasons, is a pretty important supply in the desert. I wanted to have more than enough should, a) the heat be more intense than I expected or b) my car break down in the middle of nowhere and I wind up on one of those stories you hear about on the nightly news:

“Man, lost in desert for week eats tires off of rented Toyota and drinks gasoline to survive.  More at 9:00.” 

One very warm road in Mojave National Preserve.
One very warm road in Mojave National Preserve.

The drive through Mojave felt a lot longer than I thought it would.  Granted, I stopped a few times to take pictures and I also took a minute to walk around to immerse myself in the area.  I’d have loved to spend more time there but my main concern that day was making it to Joshua Tree in a reasonable amount of time.  Camping was my goal, my main option for sleeping, and I’ve heard that their campsites tend to fill up if you don’t make it there by around 3:00 PM.  Wanting to avoid sleeping in the car, I trucked through as fast as I could.

I had called in advance a few days earlier to inquire about camping in Joshua Tree. The Ranger was incredibly helpful and gave me a heads up on the best places to set up and when to arrive, among other things, most notably tips on the park wildlife, specifically, the bees.  According to the Ranger, it hadn’t rained in quite a while out in Joshua Tree.  The park only gets around five inches of rain annually as it is (compare that to upwards of 30 elsewhere), so I’m assuming that any kind of drought is automatically severe to anything that lives out there.  Anyway, the Ranger warned me of the bees being aggressive due to the lack of water.  I didn’t mention it earlier, but that was something else I didn’t expect.  When they say aggressive, they mean it.  I guess when a bee gets that thirsty anything that sweats becomes its drinking fountain.

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July Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

When I finally parked, I was relieved to finally be at the park after hurrying through Mojave but it still taking what felt like an exceedingly long trip. I wound my way through the park to my camp site to secure my space, stopping as few times as possible to ensure I arrived in time.  I ended up camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground.  My first observation was that the majority of camping spaces were still very much open.  So much for rushing there.  My second, was that in my haste, I managed to arrive at 2:30 pm. It was still the middle of the day and it was obviously pretty hot which I hadn’t thought about originally.

When choosing a camp site, I originally thought I would pick a spot toward the back of a rocky alcove for the sake of privacy.  Within fifteen minutes outside of the car exploring, I realized the better decision would be to find a spot that would provide shade as soon as possible.  I ended up deciding on a spot in front of the eastern side of a large rock, which seemed like the best place for shade as soon as the sun made it that far down in the sky.  Chugging water, I was ready to set up my tent.

Admittedly I had only set this particular tent up once before and it was pretty straightforward to do.  First, you put the skeleton together.  Second, you strap the tent to it.  Third, you anchor it down.  Done. Presto. Fin.  Now, if that seems too easy and if you’d like to add a challenge to a simple process, add in sudden gusts of wind that only kick up when you’re trying to get the footprint anchored down and the tent anchored on it, rocky ground which makes it nearly impossible to anchor down in the first place, two very annoying and persistent bees which keep head-butting you every chance they get, and this weird desert-dragonfly*** that keeps circling around you, occasionally buzzing past your ear.  Now, if you put this whole fiasco together, and play it back all at the same time in 100 °F heat, you’ll understand my frustration.  Alas, I managed to get everything set up.  Now I could wait for the sunset and for the night sky, which I had heard was breathtaking out there.

*** Note: This is important for later.

The Night and the Morning

The sun over some desert brush.
Not only is the sun hot, it is also bright. – Tom’s ProTips.

I fell asleep that night after laying on one of the picnic tables and watching the satellites overhead for a few hours.  Even though it was the middle of the night, it was still scorching hot. I crawled into my tent and onto the top of the blankets I brought with me.  In the dark, I took off what I had on and tried to find some comfort in the thousands of desert insects which were all singing their individual songs at once – completely out of tune.

It felt like moments later, but the next thing I know, I wake up, half frozen.  In the night, the temperature crashed (as I’ve heard it does, in the desert) and left me scrambling for my shirt and my blankets.  Then, what felt like twenty minutes later, I woke up absolutely drenched in sweat and scrambling for my water bottle.

As soon as the sun peeked over the rocks, the temperature was through the roof.  I wanted to sleep in, but it was impossible.  Not to mention the bees, which had given up once I zipped myself in my tent, had gotten up bright and early to harass me so I figured it was probably time to go.

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Pioneer Town and The Tarantula Hawk

It wasn’t until lunchtime that I found out what that desert dragonfly actually was (I told you that part of the story was important above!  If you missed it, look for the three asterisks put together, ala ***).  I stopped at a town called Pioneer Town on my way to Palm Springs and had lunch and a beer (okay, two beers) at a great spot called Pappy & Harriet’s.  It was there that I first heard the words “tarantula” and “hawk” used together to describe one of the nastiest bugs I’ve ever heard of.

I began talking to the bartender while eating a pretty damn good burger and explaining to her how I wound up in Pioneer Town all the way from Cleveland.  During the story I had mentioned the desert critters, the bees, and how I’m glad I didn’t come across a black widow. Shortly after this she mentioned that the “tarantula hawks” were bad this year.  My initial thought was that they were some kind of desert bird, but upon further clarification, I realized pretty quick that what she was describing was the furthest possible thing from a bird.

I inquired about the insect, and she happily explained their life cycle. To quote from Wikipedia:

The female tarantula hawk wasp stings and paralyzes a tarantula, then drags the specimen to a specially prepared brooding nest, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen, and the entrance is covered […] When the wasp larva hatches, it creates a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then enters and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive.

Come to find out, that was the thing that was buzzing around my tent while I was putting it together.  Not to mention these things, while docile, have one of the most painful stings in the world.  Here’s a YouTube Video of a guy intentionally getting stung by one:

Those wasps are absolutely no joke.  I’m glad I got to see one and it didn’t decide to hurt me.

In closing, my trip out to Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve was a great one – not to mention the subsequent party in Palm Springs which was also fantastic.  I would definitely like to go there again, however next time, I don’t intend to go in the middle of summer and I’d also like to bring a great camera so I can take long exposure shots of the night sky.  The desert is an amazing place, and its an easy place to fall in love with.  I just hope next time it’s a bit cooler, and a bit smoother.

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