Camping in Joshua Tree

In April 2011 I made reservations at 3 group campsites in Indian Cove Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, hoping that I could convince 50 Girl Scout friends to join my Ambassador troop on a “bucket list” camp trip there March 25-29, 2012. Their vision was that we’d get to go horseback riding (which they had never done as a troop) and rock climbing (which they had loved but had only done at an indoor gym) and that we’d tent under the stars one last time as a troop before they graduated.  This is the story of how we planned the trip and what worked and what didn’t.

Making Plans

Over the summer my troop talked about the trip, planned meals and activities and figured out a budget.  In September I passed a flyer around at a service unit meeting. The girls and I visited a few troop meetings and handed out a tentative itinerary and menu and talked to other girls and leaders about the trip. I figured I had room for 55 maximum and by January 47 had signed up, including my 7 girls and 2 adults; a total of 5 troops and a few extra siblings. We had a meet and greet for the girls who were going a few weeks before the trip and played some “get to know you” games like the M & M game and Trading Places. The girls in my troop led the games with the girls for an hour while I talked with parents and leaders and answered all their questions. I really felt like that meeting helped all the adults feel comfortable about the plans and it helped the girls get to know each other.

Paperwork and Organization

I turned in a money earning proposal in August, and an activity approval at the same time. The activity approval just mentioned what we were planning and didn’t have any of the particulars for horseback riding or climbing. I sent in a more detailed Activity Approval in February once I had waivers and training info from the horseback riding and rock climbing places. (Originally I had planned to ride with Cottonwood Canyon Ranch but they canceled on me at the last minute due to illness and hadn’t gotten proof of liability insurance to council..It was good luck for us because I found a wonderful replacement in Sue Lund with Coyote Ridge Stables. More on her below.)

I  bought the extra “extended trip” insurance from council for each of the 47 people for 5 days. I made out a Safety Management Plan so that I’d know where the nearest hospital and dentist could be found up there, I had phone numbers for our vendors and the rangers and for each of the leaders who were coming.  Each troop had a first aider and one of the dads had Wilderness First Aid training and one of my girls is a city lifeguard with extra first aid training. I collected scans of all the training cards to have with my troop docs.

I sent leaders a registration form early in the process and that gave me information about participant names, ages, and if they wanted to ride or climb, that helped me organize those activities. I wished that I had put “shoe size” on the form because I found out later that I needed that for the rock climbers. I also needed “skill level” for both activities but that turned out to be beginner for everyone.

Later I sent  permission slips, permission to give medicine, girl and adult health histories, waivers for riding and climbing, packing list, itinerary, driving directions, transporting Girl Scouts and menu a few weeks before camp (more details about itinerary and menu coming up).


As I thought through the activities for each day I made out a driving plan so that I knew that we had enough room in the cars for all the girls and enough supervision at each activity.  I also made a riding plan to give to the leaders and the riding instructor, Sue Lund at Coyote Ridge Stables and a climbing plan to give to the leaders and climbing instructor, Mark Bowling of Joshua Tree Climbing School.

They were planning to climb at “Billboard Buttress” in Indian Cove. The riders got a lovely 1 hour 15 minute trail ride through beautiful desert country and enjoyed visiting with Sue’s menagerie at the ranch while they waited their turn.

Besides the horseback riding and climbing we wanted to do some art. We contacted Joshua Tree Art Gallery 1607 29 Palms hwy. Joshua Tree, Ca, and Frederick Fulmer 760 366-3636   arranged to have some artists meet with the girls and show them their work.  My troop figured out some fun art activities to do with the girls. We budgeted sketch pads and pencils, clay and pastels to use on the trip. There’s a neat Artists-in-Residence program in the park and we contacted Caryn Davidson about meeting an artist while we were there but our trip was in between artist stays, so that didn’t work out.

One of the artists at Joshua Tree Art Gallery, named Naomi Parker, talked with me about some of our other plans and she shared a treasure map with us that led us to a secret shaman’s fertility cave off the trail at Barker Dam. Inside the cave was an ancient painting of a woman in red holding what looks like a baby. She had visited the cave with some archaeology students during the solstice and a noon the light poured across the floor and into a deep grinding hole. It was really cool!

We also wanted to hike in the park. On family trips to Joshua Tree we had hiked the trail to Skull Rock from Jumbo Rocks. It’s not too long and the kids always like climbing in the eye holes of the giant skull. We also liked the hike to Barker Dam that has a nice body of water where you sometimes get to see wildlife and some cool

Native American petroglyphs. The
ranger led tour
of the Desert Queen Key’s Ranch sounded interesting, especially since the Juniors and Cadettes on the trip would be studying California history, the 12 and up adult fee was $5 and kids under 12 were $2.50 and we scheduled that several weeks before the trip.

Meal Plan

I hadn’t cooked for 50 people before, but I like a challenge. My troop suggested some favorite camp meals and we asked for input from the other troops. We evaluated each according to:

  • We’re looking for meals that don’t take much refrigeration because ice chest space will be limited (so things like milk are really hard to keep cold enough),
  • They have to be easy to prepare with primitive cooking facilities (we’ll have a few 2 burner stoves, open fire pit with grill, small box oven, dutch oven and solar oven available.)
  • They can be either quick to prepare when we get home from a day full of activity or long cooking so that we can put them in a solar oven or dutch oven in the morning and leave them all day. We’ll get as much prep done before we go as we can to streamline the process. Some processed foods may be necessary but we have to balance prep time with cost and nutrition. (We can’t afford to eat Mountain House dehydrated meals all week, they’re too expensive. Kraft Mac n’ Cheese may not be as healthy as homemade but it’s much easier to prepare at a campsite. Fresh fruits and vegetables take a little time to prepare but they are less expensive, taste better and better for us than canned. As long as they won’t go bad in the heat we’d prefer to use fresh whenever possible. Oranges and apples will keep better than berries and salad greens for instance.)
  • The suggestions should be practical to prepare and serve to 50 people (individual pizzas are out because they take too long in the box oven).
  • We want the most number of people to be happy with the meals. It’s great if you can think of things like make-it-yourself-burritos, or a salad bar, so that girls can choose from fillings, toppings or ingredients for their own portion. That insures that the most number will be happy with something in the meal.
  • We’re looking for foods that are healthy and hearty, not too much sugar or salt, with enough calories and protein to fortify us for hiking, climbing and riding without a lot of junk and empty calories, but they should be “kid friendly”. We don’t want to prepare something that girls won’t want to eat.
  • We have a budget of $3 for breakfast, $4 for lunch and $5 for dinner that we’re trying to stay within (those are the council guidelines for camp cooks). We will try to buy in bulk and buy from Costco/Smart & Final/Walmart and the food distributor for council if possible. (So salmon, lobster tail and steak are out..)

We settled on a menu for each day and I figured out how much I needed of each of the ingredients (with plenty of guessing and reading of “serving sizes” on the container) and made a master shopping list then broke down the list into an individual sheet for each meal. I put detailed notes on each sheet after the meals so that I could improve my planning for the next trip.

Sunday Dinner – hot dogs, homemade mac and cheese, salad and lemonade

Monday Breakfast – bagels with cream cheese, baggie omelets, hot chocolate, coffee

Monday Dinner – Sloppy Joes, hash browns, salad and lemonade

Tuesday Breakfast – french toast and pancakes, link sausages, hot chocolate and coffee

Tuesday Dinner – Chicken & cheese burritos, beans and rice and salad

Wednesday Breakfast – breakfast burritos – scrambled egg,  home fried potatoes, bacon and cheese.

Wednesday Dinner, – Taco Salad- fritos, lettuce, fresh tomato, seasoned beef, refried beans, salsa, cheese, sour cream, lemonade

Thursday Breakfast – coffee cake, ham & cheese quiche, sausage onion and pepper quiche, vegetarian tomato, spinach, mushroom, onion & pepper and cheese quiche.

Photo Gallery

The trip was really successful! The rain and wind on Sunday night were unfortunate and unavoidable; fortunately there was nice weather the rest of the week. The bouldering around the campsite was one of the favorite things for all the girls. Some of the girls got cuts and scrapes from the granite but no one got seriously hurt. There were a few times when someone climbed someplace and then got scared but they always climbed in packs and someone would come tell an adult and the rest would spot her as she made her way down.

We saw some snakes but no rattlers. There was one desert rat at the campsite, cleaning up after us at night but we didn’t have any other critters in camp that I heard.  We saw some coyotes when we were in the center of the park, that was exciting.


The horseback riding, climbing and Key’s Ranch tour were really great. It was a first for many of the girls and the vendors were excellent. I went on two of the three Key’s Ranch tours and each one was very different. The rangers were great at sensing the interest level of the girls and talking to that.  There were all kinds of interesting pioneer stuff at the ranch, there was a love story, lots of tragedy and humor. I think the adults enjoyed it as much as the kids did and I would heartily recommend it to you.


Finally, some of our favorite moments were around the campfire. We sang songs one night, did skits another night, did a lovely “Scouts Own” the last night and looked through Shawna’s telescope at the moon. The girls loved making s’mores and I could hear them singing songs in their tents as they got ready for bed. The stars were so amazing. If you were lucky enough to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you were treated to an amazing display that was simply breathtaking. We combined ashes from Halie’s troop in Virginia that had been at a campfire with Juliette Gordon Low with our Sunnytrails ashes that have been all around the world and at the World Centers and at a campfire with the Baden Powells.

Here’s a slideshow of some of the highlights. I’ll add more photos as leaders send them to me. I hope we’ve inspired you to take a trip to Joshua Tree too!

  1. sm 280The horse stable had a nice menagerie of animals that we enjoyed.
  2. My husband, Bob, cinching down the sack full of sleeping bags.

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