Backpacking Joshua Tree National Park: California Riding & Hiking Trail: East to West

Posted by Adventure 16 | 03.26.2018

This 37.5-mile trail traverses the park between Black Rock Canyon just south of Yucca Valley and the park’s North Entrance in Twentynine Palms.

By Dan Byrnes, A16 Buyer's Assistant
Trip Date: 3/10/18--3/12/18


two people standing near trail sign

At the end of the 31.5-mile backpacking trip near Black Rock Canyon Campground.

As a recent East-Coast transplant, I’m unfamiliar with desert hiking, but as a recent Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, I also have an “I got this” attitude when it comes to backpacking.

So when my friend called me up to see if I wanted to backpack in Joshua Tree, the playground for every Southern California adventurer, I was game. My friend picked out the California Riding and Hiking Trail, a 37.5-mile trail that traverses the park between Black Rock Canyon just south of Yucca Valley and the park’s North Entrance in Twentynine Palms. It seemed like optimal if not ambitious mileage for our weekend getaway. Most reviews of the trail recommend taking two cars and leaving one at either end during your 2-3 day trip and going west to east, finishing at the trailhead by the North Entrance. But we only had one car between us and didn’t want to risk not finding a hitch on a Monday. We rationalized that it would make more sense to do a reverse hike, even though a quick Google search didn’t show any itineraries for a west-bound trip. But we’re both the type to go against the grain, for better or worse, so we decided we would make up our own plan. We’d drive through the park and cache water, park our car at the Black Rock Canyon Campground, hitch to the North Entrance, and start our hike from there.

If you don’t read further, read this: I wouldn’t recommend going this direction. But if you have no choice, have already done this trail eastbound and want to mix it up, or are a little masochistic, here’s one itinerary that could work for you.

Day 1:
Backpacker on desert trail

Hiking the first few miles of the west-bound California Riding and Hiking Trail.

In the morning, drive from the North Entrance and cache water at Geology Tour Road and either Ryan Campground or Keys View Road (but before, look over the National Park Service’s information on backpacking and water caching). Exit the West Entrance of the park to drive to Black Rock Canyon Campground, where you park your car and fill out a registration card for backcountry camping. Desperately try to find a hitch to the North Entrance. This is actually pretty easy -- there are tons of families camped there heading to the North Entrance eventually, and there are super cool locals milling around.

If you’re lucky enough to get dropped off at the trailhead just south of the North Entrance, you’re hiking among the Joshua Trees already. The first few miles hugging Park Blvd are flat and forgiving. Miles 9, 10 and 11 are a gradual uphill. In your rearview is a nice stretch of *I think* the Mojave National Preserve that you don’t really get to enjoy. This is the first of many times you say, “Maybe this is why everyone hikes this the other way.”

At Geology Tour Road, roughly 12.5 miles later, pick up your cache and (try to) make it one more mile to camp (you’re technically supposed to backcountry camp a mile from a road or campground, but you’re wiped out). Rest up because there’s more climbing tomorrow.

Day 2:

desert campsite

Our campsite the second night in Joshua Tree National Park.

Hey! You get to start the day with a slight downhill! The trail flattens out on your way to Ryan Campground and Keys View Road. Since this is your second and likely your final water cache, consider having a hot lunch rather than a hot dinner to avoid carrying more water for later. Drop your trash and recycling at Ryan Campground and maybe if you’re lucky, a car camper left behind a couple Cokes by the dumpsters. Hike on. Another three solid miles of trail after Keys View Road, you experience deja-vu to the earlier constant uphill climb. Turn around and marvel at the view down into the Pinto Basin that traditional east-bound hikers get to enjoy. Think to yourself, “You just had to be different, didn’t you?”

The trail gets really fun from here, as you climb in elevation into some real mountains. You wind up, down, and through them, noting the change in vegetation after every peak, until you reach a valley before Upper Covington Flat. You planned to go further today, but your hamstrings are screaming at you and this looks like an okay place to settle for the night. Fifteen miles for the day ain’t bad.

Day 3:
Dan Byrnes

Somewhere in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park.

With some rest, you’re ready to climb up some more mountains! Really though, this is probably the most beautiful stretch of trail, so maybe you’re smart afterall for going this direction and saving the best for last. The terrain has changed completely, the Joshua Trees have grown taller, and every once in a while you can see some snow-capped peaks beyond the wilderness boundaries. It’s just 10 miles to the campground and whatever treats you left yourself in your car. You left yourself treats, didn’t you?

Now, here’s the tricky part. Oh, it was only tricky for us? Anyway… the last few miles follow a large wash but intersects with other unmarked trails going up into the brush. We earned some *bonus miles* on these side trails, but if 37.5 is enough for you, just keep your map handy and, when in doubt, follow the wash. The trail is well marked, so eventually you see a mile marker.

The last five or six miles through the wash are actually all downhill, so there’s your reward for being unique! Also, when you finish at this end, you run into day hikers who smirk while you’re at your car taking a hippy bath to remove a three-day layer of sand and dirt. So enjoy that, too. From here you should probably treat yourself to a burger and a beer at Joshua Tree Saloon, or anywhere, really. Cheers! You’ve proven you don’t have to follow the “easy way,” and even better -- you never have to do it again.