Campsite Booking Is a Pain. Will These Apps Be Its Airbnb and Yelp?
We tested two apps that claim to make campsite booking a breeze
Camping is fun—once you get there. Prepping for camping, including booking the spot where you’ll rest your head? That can be a pain.
To test them out, I used them for a goofily named popular campground in Joshua Tree, Jumbo Rocks, to see just how helpful the apps could be.
Jumbo Rocks is a fave site amongst Joshua Tree frequenters for its huge, picturesque granite boulders that hover above your tent, but you wouldn’t know that from the government’s online info. The National Park Service website gives us the skinny: the location, the hours, the number of campsites, whether reservations are required, and the fact that campers will be out of luck when it comes to firewood, electricity, and cell reception (i.e., plan ahead).
But it’s hard to tell from the NPS site whether Jumbo Rocks is really a campsite to spend our time currency on. My partner and I only get so many precious camping weekends a year with our busy schedules, and we really want to be somewhere beautiful and fun. Plus, my partner is a rock climber, and we want to know if Jumbo Rocks is prized by boulderers. The NPS site says, “Hammocks, slacklines, and other horizontal ropes must be tied to rocks and climbing bolts, and are not permitted in campgrounds,” but that’s it. Is it great for bouldering? Who the heck knows?!
There are a few photos on the NPS site, and there’s even a Flickr photo album linked (so retro, NPS!), but there aren’t any reviews. I have no idea how the average Joe and Jill stand on this hill of rocks.
Crowdsourcing has its perils, but it can also quickly gather a lot of diverse info in one place. That’s where The Dyrt app delivers. The Dyrt page for Jumbo Rocks has reviews galore—43 to be exact. And many of them mention how perfect Jumbo Rocks is in its proximity to bouldering! “Good climbing across the road and easy access to some amazing bouldering (Big Bob’s big Wedge),” Kelly M. writes. We’re on!
Kelly’s got loads of good tips in her short review that help prep me for my trip. Joshua Tree is packed on weekends, she tells us, but Jumbo Rocks is a little out of the way in a hidden valley. Campsites at Jumbo are a little close together, she says (though she doesn’t say which ones). It’s fastest to enter through the 29 Palms entrance rather than the “mile-long line” at the main Joshua Tree entrance. And the campsite is close to the Cholla Garden which is best viewed at sunrise or sunset, but because it’s on the east side of the hills, the sun sets early. She also mentions it’s a photographer’s paradise—which could actually be a minus for me (because who wants eager ‘grammers invading one’s serene slice of outdoor heaven?). In fact, Kelly’s review is so good that I click on her profile, hoping to follow or befriend her, as you can on Yelp. No dice yet, but I can see the other places she loves, and I bookmark her page on my browser.
Back on The Dyrt’s Jumbo Rocks page, there’s a video of a guy chilling outside his tent, drinking his camp coffee and watching a beautiful sunrise, and a recent photo of a happy pitbull plopped on the dirt, so I’m reminded it’s animal-friendly and make a mental note to send it to my friend who fosters pitties. There’s even a weather forecast if I’m hoping to make an immediate booking and too lazy to ask Siri or Accuweather. The one drawback is that the Dyrt page for the campsite has a question mark when it comes to whether the campsite has water; annoyingly, I’ve got to search for that elsewhere (I’m not leaving something that important up to chance).
After reading a few more reviews, I’m convinced Jumbo Rocks is the place for us to have a low-key couple days scrambling around the rocks, watching sunsets and using their fire rings to make our famous potato and asparagus foil roast. But there’s a problem: there’s no way to book Jumbo Rocks from The Dyrt.
Ay, there’s the rub: a lot of sites are still only bookable on Recreation.gov, the much-hated official site our government runs to attend to our camping and recreational needs.
I head over to Hipcamp to see if I can book from there. Their Jumbo Rocks page (newly available on their just-launched app!) is beautifully and cleanly designed, and there’s a plus here—like Airbnb, it shows you a calendar visual of when campsites are still available for this listing. Aha! There’s ONE campsite left for the date we want. If I click that date, I’m told in a pop-up that I can’t book on Hipcamp, but they’re “working closely with the government to allow bookings here asap.” A big green button takes me directly to Recreation.gov to book, but once I’m looking at the map, I’m just not sure whether Campsite 82 is so much more beautiful than Campsite 1. Thankfully, there’s only one campsite left, preventing my decision paralysis and tendency to over-research. However, I wish these two apps had reviews on individual campsites, or at least a bit of detail on the groupings of campsites.
Later, when we arrive at Jumbo Rocks, we discover that not all campsites are created equal: ours is right next to another campsite, whereas others are more set apart. The campsites near the entrance seem to be busier than the ones on the east end. All good info to have, but unavailable on either app. We’ve put out our fire and cocooned ourselves into our Marmot 15 degree mummy bags by 9 p.m., but the campsite next to us is unfortunately occupied by three rowdy guys who keep us up all night, cooking and gossiping loudly about The Avengers until 2 a.m. We were hoping to find community interactions via The Dyrt or Hipcamp, but not ones like this. We could’ve stayed in L.A. for this conversation.
But here’s something cool: both apps list other campsites near Jumbo Rocks, and turns out, they list totally different ones. I’m not sure what each app’s algorithm is, but these recommendations provide even more info for us should we arrive and hate the campsite, or the loud folks next to us. Of those, on The Dyrt, White Tank Campground has a really cool arch that I’d like to check out, and it allows RVs, a vehicle I’ve been considering for years, so we might talk to a couple RV’ers while we’re nearby. We end up borrowing a pump from an RV’er and having a nice chat with him about that mobile life.
On Hipcamp, the nearby campsites are private campgrounds that are bookable, which seems to be their focus right now. In case you haven’t noticed, Airbnbs in Joshua Tree are getting super pricey as everyone rushes out to take their desertgrams and enjoy the artsy atmosphere and yoga fests. For those who don’t want to shell out $200 a night for the perfect boho oasis, a $30 community-oriented hipster campground called The Bird Line, run by a guy named Micheal—who, according to reviewers, will build you a fire, tow you out of a ditch, and provide you with a warm bathtub—sounds pretty great. I’d love to cap a grubby (read: shower-free) outdoor trip off with a hot bath and a community of nice folks to cook and learn about local history with.
We pull up there the afternoon after our Jumbo Rocks camping experience. At The Bird Line, Micheal wants to offer an oasis to thinkers and explorers. After eight months of running The Bird Line, he’s about to host his very first art resident. “The desert has always been a place for people to break away from the system for a little while,” he says.
That breakaway feels total when you can’t see another soul with your naked eye from anywhere on his property. Out here, there’s a feeling of simplification. There’s no complicated calculus to do in the extreme desert when it’s 100 degrees—except staying cool and hydrated, and thinking about who you really are when everything else is stripped away but the need to survive the afternoon. It’s that hot. In May. Because it’s so simple, he says people are afraid to stay out in the desert alone, and need some kind of tether to civilization, which he offers.
With his camp land and artistic intentions, Micheal has created a community that feels a world apart from Joshua Tree, overrun as it is with Angelenos shooting desert selfies and album covers. Six campsites are spread widely across his five acres on mostly bare land, but all are in sight of the main house, where campers can come in to cool off, use a flush toilet, chill in a corner, cook on a makeshift kitchen camp stove, or share dinner in a corner with a lover. Small wooden birds that Micheal carved hang from the ceiling in his whittling corner. This is a place away from time, where whittling isn’t a lost art and there’s time to polish a wooden bird until it’s smooth. Desert relics fill the house. “The desert is known for collecting people’s garbage,” Micheal says, pointing to a hip, refurbished industrial metal chair that could sell for $300 at ABC Home.
A few yards away, Micheal has built a concrete block structure with a private outdoor shower perfect for feeling the breeze and the sun and the water together. There’s an open-ceilinged small shack with two hammocks, where you can stargaze at night.
The Bird Line is the opposite of the typical rustically luxe, Instagram-ready Joshua Tree Airbnb, but these five acres are what you make of them. Walk along the long gulch at sunrise, looking for roadrunners and rabbits. Put your sleeping bag under the stars and count them until you fall asleep. Take an outdoor shower at hot mid-day, talk to a new friend over camp coffee, or find a scrap of metal or wood to sculpt.
We wouldn’t have ever stumbled upon Micheal or The Bird Line if it weren’t for Hipcamp, and we’re grateful for such a unique perspective. How many more spots like The Bird Line (and the cool nearby saloon Micheal recommends, The Palms) would Hipcamp reveal, if we used it all over the West? We’re ready to find out, but for now, we’ll have to use Recreation.gov to book our government-operated campsites, and The Dyrt and Hipcamp to crowdsource our information and find some funky private campgrounds. Once camping goes even more Airbnb, with sites like Tentrr also working to cover that territory, we may find ourselves doing more private camping than public camping, venturing to public lands like Joshua Tree and Yosemite mostly for day hikes and seeking the quiet of private campgrounds at night.