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Hike of the Week: Joshua Tree National Park

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Welcome back to our weekly series where we highlight a marvelous day hike or backpacking trip! We hope to provide some inspiration to help you get out and experience these places for yourself. We want to serve as the extra push to get you outside!

This week's hike is the California Hiking and Riding Trail in California's Joshua Tree National Park.

Why this hike?

Going to Joshua Tree National Park is like stepping foot on another planet. Complete with incredible rock formations and out-of-this-world plants, the entire reserve offers an experience like no other. Hiking through the mounds of boulders for this three day, three night trip is just magical.

  • Total distance of 36 miles
  • Easy access from Black Rock Campground
  • Well-known, well-mapped area with a maintained trail
  • Friendly hiking with very little elevation gain, aside from scrambling over a few boulders
  • Many different camping areas and options, from backcountry sites to designated camping areas

However, keep the following in mind:

  • Long hike in the hot, barren desert - bring plenty of WATER
  • Fires are prohibited unless specifically allowed at individual camping areas
  • Beware of the wildlife, especially the spiny plants!
  • Not a loop trail, need to arrange transportation back to Black Rock Campground from North Entrance

How do I get there?

In order to have the most options to getting to Joshua Tree, flying in to LAX is your best bet. Once you get off the plane, you can take the EPLA Limo Express to Indio, and a bus from there to Joshua Tree. However, as always, renting a car is the most convenient option, especially since Joshua Tree is a large desert and having your gear in your car is also a convenient home base.

The trickiest part about backpacking through Joshua Tree is getting back to where you started. Some hikers hope for the best and catch a ride back through the park. However, we recommend what most do; snag a lift from the MBTA bus. Be aware that this mode of transportation goes around the park, not through it. Also note that there isn’t much cell service in the park or near the borders, so having your transportation figured out before you head out on your journey is a good idea.

Spend your first night at Black Rock Canyon Campground. There is potable water there and parking for your car. You can also make a fire here and the site is equipped with a picnic area, dumping facility and restrooms, making this an ideal place to get ready for your trip.

Map

California Hiking and Riding Trail - Joshua Tree National Park

Source: National Park Service - Joshua Tree National Park

We suggest a three day, three night itinerary, each day packed full of hiking across the extraterrestrial terrain. With the extra night at the beginning of the trip, you will be able to get the first 12 miles in and have time to relax and enjoy the desert sunrises and sunsets over the course of the trip. This will also give you plenty of extra roaming time to scramble around the boulder fields and hang out with the quirky Joshua Trees. The total hiking distance of this trip is about 36 miles.

Start your trip out by parking near the Black Rock Canyon Campground and spend the first night there. From here, you will be following a distinct trail toward Juniper Flats the next morning, but don’t forget to admire the desert sunrise first!

  • Day 1 - Black Rock Canyon to backcountry camping in Juniper Flats near Keys View Road (12 miles)
  • Day 2 - Juniper Flats to backcountry camping near Geology Tour Road (12 miles)
  • Day 3 - Geology Tour Road to the North Entrance Station (12 miles)

Remember that fires are not allowed in the backcountry!

Trail Description

What’s great about Joshua Tree and the California Hiking and Riding Trail is that although you are following a trail, you still feel like you are wandering the desert. The path is distinct enough that you won’t lose it along the way, but it is not so blatant that it disrupts the nature that you are trekking into throughout the hike.

The trail traverses flat land and winds between mounds of boulders and crumbled rocks. Between you and these formation are scattered alien-like Joshua Trees, skimpy pinyon pines, and squiggly junipers, crouching over spiny cactus bunched on the loose sand. No plant in this lower part of the Mojave Desert looks the same, and they are all equally willing to quill you if you get too close. Hiking through this desert is reminiscent of the museum days, Mom reminding you over your shoulder, “Look, but don’t touch!”

As the sun sets behind the large piles of rock, the sky is left with streaks of pink and orange welcoming the moon for the evening. Slowly the stars will poke out and glitter bright enough that headlamps are almost unnecessary. You really won’t miss the fire, because you know that the flame’s light would deter the stars’ shine. There is truly nothing quite like sleeping under a guardian Joshua Tree, branches arm-like and stretched toward the Milky Way.

What will I need?

Thankfully, Joshua Tree is a desert, which means that mountaineering gear is not necessary. That being said, though, what you don’t bring in mountain gear, you will have to bring in layers of clothing. During the day, the desert can get sweltering hot. During the night hours, the temperature can drop drastically, depending on the time of year that you plan on visiting the park. In the fall months, the air will be cooler. In the spring, the plants of the desert might get a bit more water, so you are more likely to see the yellow blooms of Acton’s brittle bush. However, spring is rattlesnake season, so brush up on your rattlesnake safety and awareness if you plan to go during this time.

As always, check out our Ultimate Backpacker’s Packing List which is full of recommendations for overnight trips in the backcountry. It also includes an easy, printable checklist.

Do I need a permit?

While you don’t need an official permit, you do need to register, especially if you plan to do some backcountry camping. Registration is available at the backcountry boards, and luckily there are two backcountry boards along your hike. One is at the Keys View Road and another is located right near the Geology Tour Road. Here, you will need to fill out a self-manifest form and also register which backcountry lot you’ve parked your car in. By registering to backcountry camp, you are able to set up camp anywhere, as long as it is at least one mile away from roads, parking lots and other campgrounds. The idea is to stay away from other people. If you do this, you'll get to experience the swaths of cosmic stars that cover the park at night.

Resources

El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express
Morongo Basin Transit Authority
Black Rock Canyon Campground

Have you spent any time in Joshua Tree National Park? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

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