The California Riding & Hiking Trail traverses over 35 miles of Joshua Tree National Park backcountry, making it a terrific 2-4 day weekend backpack trip. The 35 mile trail is a point to point – between the Black Rock Canyon Campground area in the north west portion of the park and ending at the North Entrance near Twentynine Palms.
If you have access to two vehicles, most of the reviews I found online suggest leaving one at each end and starting your hike from Black Rock Canyon heading east. This route gives you mostly gradual downhill hiking throughout the majority of the trek.
However, since I was hiking solo on this trip I chose to do an out and back starting near White Tank campground (approximately mile 7) and heading west. A couple of rangers at the visitor center told me this is their favorite portion of the trail, so good enough for me!
Full disclosure: I’m training for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (edit: now planned for spring 2021) so you’ll hear me reference the PCT as well as my gear decisions a lot in this video. If you’re also training for a long thru-hike or just getting started with backpacking and not sure what gear you want to be using, I hope you find some of this helpful.
If you’re ready to take on the California Riding and Hiking Trail yourself, there are a few things you should know about backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park. Plus, I’ll share a bit more about my gear, itinerary, etc.
I drove into the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park and stopped at the visitor center for one last “real restroom” break and a quick chat with the park rangers. Since I have a National Parks annual pass and for backcountry camping you can just self-register, I didn’t really need to stop, but I always try to at least check in with the rangers to see if there’s anything I should know about going on in the park with weather, wildlife, etc. I continued north on Pinto Basin Road to the Twin Tanks backcountry parking and registration, just north of White Tank campground.
After filling out the yellow registration slip, I made some small gear adjustments – putting on more layers because it was super windy and taking some extra food out of my bag since I had gotten there so late in the day – and headed west on the California Riding & Hiking Trail just as the sun went behind the mountains. This parking lot is at approximately mile 7 of the trail and you’ll soon notice numbered mile markers at every mile.
One of the great things about backcountry camping in Joshua Tree is that you can pretty much camp anywhere as long as it’s at least one mile from any trailhead or road and 500 feet from trails. Try to find durable surfaces and minimize your impact on the soil and surrounding plants. I chose a site about 1.5 miles in since it was already dark and set up camp. I probably won’t recommend this particular spot. It was SUPER windy in this particular area and I woke up several times throughout the night to the sounds of my rainfly aggressively beating against the tent. I’d suggest making it at least 2.5 miles from the Twin Tanks parking lot and there seemed to be some much better campsite options.
I work up to a beautiful sunrise and thankfully a lot less wind. It was still quite cold – somewhere around the mid 30’s so I slowly made some coffee and oatmeal and packed up camp.
The first few miles flew by, gradually ascending through open desert with Joshua Trees, cactus, scrub and pretty hard packed sandy trail. There is almost no shade throughout this section so beware if you’re hiking during warmer conditions. Before I knew it, I’d reached Ryan Campground (about 8.5 miles into my day). Ryan is a great place to stop for a snack break and quick rest since it has picnic tables, outhouse and trash cans.
After lunch, I continued along the trail eventually gaining in elevation, but all-in-all this trail is pretty flat so it’s easy to make quick miles and still be able to look around at the scenery. Since I had planned my trip as an out and back with about 15-17 miles each way I started scoping out potential camp spots around mile 13. As I got closer to mile 15, the area off the trail became a lot more dense with brush and bushes so I decided to turn around and head back a bit to some better camp spots I had seen.
Remember, I started at mile 7 of the actual trail so if you’re looking at trail markers this would be around mile marker 23. If you’re continuing on as a one-way thru hike, the next mile or two seemed to go more uphill then steeply downhill and you might need to push on a bit further to find an easy flat spot to camp.
I settled on this spot with a few boulders to help block the wind, set up my tent, put on all of my additional layers and settled in to watch an amazingly gorgeous sunset.
If you’ve been winter camping you probably know it’s impossible to hike all day and still eat dinner before it gets dark (unless you really like dinner at 4pm) so of course I enjoyed my ramen noodles by light of headlamp and a ton of stars, then turned in for the night.
Another beautiful sunrise, quick breakfast and I was packing up and on the trail again. I had 15 miles of hiking ahead of me then a 6 hour drive back to Phoenix so I was pretty motivated to move quickly. Plus, when you hike and out and back there’s a lot less time spent on the “back” taking photos and pausing to enjoy the new scenery.
I stopped for early lunch/snacks at Ryan Campground again then for a second snack break at some awesome rock formations that would make a great camping spot just about 7 miles west of the White Tank backcountry board.
Overall, I really enjoyed this 31.5 mile backpacking trip. It was certainly cold at night, but December is a great time to explore the park and not be as concerned about caching water or sweating to death as you hike. The California Riding and Hiking Trail was really well maintained, easy to follow and would make for a great beginner backpacking trail that’s doable on a long weekend. I saw very few people (like maybe 4 people in 3 days on a Mon-Wed) but I would expect there are probably a few more on weekends.
Joshua Tree Backpacking Gear List:
Here’s what I took with me for a 2 night, 3 day backpacking trip for 31.5 miles in December.
- Backpack – Hyperlite Mountain Gear (3400 Junction)
- Tent – Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 Tent with footprint
- Sleeping Bag – REI Co-op Magma 17
- Sleeping Pad – NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad
- Pillow – Nemo Fillo
- Stove & Cook Pot – MSR Pocket Rocket and GSI Outdoors Microdualist (recently replaced with the Toaks Titanium 750ml)
- Silverware – Sea to Summit AlphaLight
- Headlamp – Black Diamond Cosmo 225
- GPS – Garmin inReach Explorer (not totally necessary for this trail, but since I have it I bring it in case of emergency)
- Trekking Poles
- First Aid Kit
- Pocket Knife
- Toiletries & TP Kit
- Battery pack & charging cords for phone and watch, dry bag
- Visor, winter hat, buff & gloves
- Rain Gear – Northface jacket & pants
- Trail Runners – Altra Lone Peak
- Gaiters – Altra
- Clothing (some different than what I had planned on when I took the above photo) – but just remember layers!
- Puffy – Mountain Hard Wear Phantom Hoody
- Puffy Vest – Patagonia
Know before you go:
There is an entrance fee associated for Joshua Tree National Park. It’s currently $30/car and valid for 7 days, but find out more at the NPS website. There is no additional fee for backcountry camping in Joshua Tree, but you do need to register (more on that later).
Cell Service & Navigation:
For the most part, there is no cell service once you enter the park.
- Make sure you plan accordingly. Leave your trip itinerary with family or friends.
- Download offline maps to your phone. AND – take a paper map with you (I know it sounds old-school, but it’s an important backup tool and available at all visitor centers).
- Download enough music or podcasts to entertain you through cold dark nights in your tent (speaking from experience) if you’re traveling alone in the winter.
If you’re headed out into the backcountry, you must register you and your vehicle at one of the various backcountry boards throughout the park. Only leave vehicles at these approved backcountry parking areas. Many of them are paved lots right off of the main road and accessible for any vehicle. Some are more remote and accessible with high-clearance or 4-wheel-drive vehicles only so make sure you do your research ahead of time.
Water & Leave No Trace:
There is NO drinking water available within Joshua Tree National Park. You must carry all water with you while hiking throughout the park. Keep in mind, it is dry and hot for much of the year so make sure you’re prepared with enough water for current conditions (which may change rapidly).
You may cache water along the trail for personal use. Caching water basically means leaving jugs of water at select points you’ll cross on your hike to replenish what you’re carrying with you. According to NPS rules, you may cache water in Joshua Tree for up to 14 days. Tag your cache with your name and email or telephone number as well as the date you plan to retrieve it so that park rangers can contact you if they need to remove your cache.
On my trip, I carried all of my water with me as I did not have time to drive to other parts of the park to cache water. I started with 7 liters, camped 2 nights and hiked 2 full days (started after sunset the first day) with temperatures in the mid 30’s to mid 50’s. I finished with about 1 liter to spare which is generally my “safety net” amount in case something happens.
If you do cache water – please remember you need to pack out ALL of your trash. There are some trash containers available at the established campgrounds you’ll pass, but do not leave any empty water containers out on the trail.
While we’re talking trash – the desert ecosystem is fragile in Joshua Tree and human waste is gross. Straight from the NPS website: “Bury human waste in “cat holes” six to eight inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water sources, campsites, and trails. Don’t leave human waste under rocks or in alcoves where it decomposes slowly, and is unsightly and unsanitary. Plan ahead to pack out used toilet paper in a plastic bag.”
I also try to use available outhouses at established campgrounds as I pass by them just so there’s less waste buried out there in the desert. Do your part to keep nature nice for everyone!