Joshua Tree Day 1

Black Rock Canyon to just south of Upper Covington Flat: about 9.5 miles

I woke at dawn after a restless night. The massive gusts of wind had finally quieted down around 3 or 4am. Unfortunately, a Boy Scout troop was camped in a cluster of tent sites nearby and the kids were up chasing each other and yelling by 6.30am or so. We stumbled out of our tent scowling, but at least it was incentive to pack up fast and get hiking.

Sunrise at Black Rock Canyon. Imagine fifteen screaming tweens as the soundtrack for this view.

Before leaving Black Rock Canyon, we had to attend to this trip’s #1 priority: water. Because we wouldn’t hit our first water cache until the end of Day Two, we filled up all of our containers at the campground. We began the hike carrying nearly two gallons of water per person, which added about 16 pounds to each of our packs. To put that in perspective, everything else I carried (except food, but including my backpack itself) weighed a total of 13.5 pounds. The water bladders inside my pack sloshed around and I sounded like a walking waterbed.

Hiker dork at the trailhead. It’s hard to dress for freezing wind and blazing sun happening simultaneously.

And we were off! It didn’t take long for the noise of the campground to fade away as we climbed a gentle slope amongst the big rocks. We stopped every few minutes to gape at the landscape, amazed by how remote the trail felt after just twenty minutes of hiking. Little lizards scurried under cacti as we passed, and we saw a few large desert hares between the bushes, watching us as we watched them.

A rare photo of me leading the way. This lasted about five minutes before Cyn resumed her usual position at the front.

The first several miles have lots of intertwining trails, some of which are unmarked, and lots of washes that can look like trails. It would be easy to get mixed up here, and we stopped a few times to check the map. The hiking was also tough here, not because of the elevation gain, but because the trail is like deep beach sand that makes it impossible to get good traction. So we trudged through, our feet sliding with each step, and stopped three miles in for a snack break.

A trail, or a wash?
Morning views southeast of Black Rock Canyon.
Lots of boulders were “striped” like this, making me wish I knew more about geological formations.

Another hiker passed us around here, with a quick hello. We leapfrogged with him a bit and later saw him peel off on a loop trail back to Black Rock. After another mile, we stopped and opened our packs to mix some electrolyte drinks. “Oh no,” Cyn said, “I think my water is leaking!” Augh. We carefully assessed her water bladders and determined which one had the slow leak. She hadn’t lost much water yet, and not enough to endanger the rest of her gear, so we funneled as much water as we could into other containers and she repacked the leaky one upright. When we checked everything again at mile 5, all was well. Water crisis averted. [Either Toby’s underselling this or I did a better job than I thought of hiding my panic. A leaking bladder is NOT a comforting thing to discover in the desert. I kept an eye on my other two bladders pretty regularly but it really did work out okay. -Cyn] [Oh, no, I was totally panicking when you made that initial announcement. -Toby]

About a half mile later, we arrived at Upper Covington Flat Road, a dirt road that the trail parallels for a while, and the beach sand on our trail mercifully turned to packed dirt. I’d almost gotten used to slogging my way through deep sand, but was very grateful to have better walking conditions now. We picked up the pace a bit, eager to hit the Covington Flats backcountry board as a goal for our lunch break.

Joshua trees!
Many of the Joshua trees were in bloom.

As we crossed the road to get to the backcountry board, a pick-up truck arrived and someone got out to drop off two jugs of water. “You guys doing the Riding and Hiking Trail? I just finished it!” she said, before driving off again. There were several water containers marked “FREE” at the board, which was the case at almost every board we passed. We made a beeline for the shade of an enormous Joshua tree, spread out our Tyvek sheet, and kicked off our shoes. We’d hiked 7.6 miles before 1pm, so we agreed to take a nice long lunch break here.

Just as I was swallowing the last morsel of my peanut butter and honey tortilla wrap, two guys drove up and parked at the backcountry board. They called hello to us and wandered around a little bit. I observed a little part of my brain keeping track of them until they left — not because they did anything shady (they didn’t invade our space or even interact with us much, and I’m sure they were just two more people enjoying the park), but more out of a kind of habitual caution. After they drove off, Cyn shared that she’d been keeping an eye on them too, and I lay in the sun for a bit thinking about the fantasy narrative of backpacking, in which you simply leave your daily pressures in the parking lot, blissfully unburdened by the “regular world” while you’re on the trail. Of course hiking can provide a measure of that kind of simplicity to anyone, but the extent to which it is possible to leave behind your anxieties or stressors is shaped by structural factors: sexism, racism, transphobia, heterosexism — and those don’t just vanish at the trailhead, even if the outdoors can sometimes offer respite from them. (I have more to say about this in relation to the National Parks Service’s recent diversity initiatives, but that’s another post.)

Cyn resting at our lunch spot at Covington Flats. [It’s not insignificant that in two out of the three or so pictures of me so far on this trip I am lying down. I am good at resting. -Cyn]
The wind began to blow in again, so we took the hint and packed up. The trail took us through a fun up-and-down section that I recall finding quite beautiful. We passed many clusters of Joshua trees and several blooming or near-blooming cacti. Just at mile 9, we crested a ridge and gazed out at the trail winding below us and stretching out into a flat section until it disappeared in the distance. Time to start looking for our first night’s campsite.

Lovely afternoon views.
An early taste of the flowers yet to come.

One new skill we practiced on this trip was choosing our own campsites. Backcountry camping at this park only requires setting up at least one mile from any road and at least 500 feet from the trail. Up on the ridge, we picked out a large group of boulders below that we thought might offer good shelter from the wind, and headed toward them. When we got there, we weren’t completely sure this was an ideal site: the wind kept changing directions, so the boulders didn’t seem much help, and Cyn was concerned that anyone on the ridge could easily see our tent down below, leaving us a little exposed. But based on what we’d gleaned from our high vantage point, we didn’t think we could find anything better. We set up near the boulders, worrying for a moment about the many, many holes (tunnels?) in the ground all around us. At first we thought they might be snakeholes but decided they were more likely from/for ground squirrels. We’d seen the holes all day long and there was no way to avoid tenting near them, so we crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t have a ground squirrel parade at midnight.

We were all set up before 3pm, and each went exploring among the rocks in turn (I wasn’t keen to leave our food unattended at camp). I saw no animals on my solo trip, but did discover a beautiful wide wash full of boulders. [I on the other hand almost jumped out of my skin when I came very close to a snake on my solo expedition. Admittedly, I was about 95% sure it was dead, but that didn’t stop me from giving it a wide berth. I also startled at a bunny running across my path. Oh, and at one point I heard something and was peering on the ground to see what it was. I absentmindedly clutched the hem of my shirt while looking and then almost had a heart attack when I thought something was hanging on to my shirt. This is why I don’t do solo trips, folks. -Cyn]  We lay in the tent with our hats over our faces as the afternoon sun beat down upon us, then had dinner as it dipped behind the mountains. As we started to eat, Cyn said “Wait! I think I heard voices! Or a bird or something. …Oh. Nevermind, it was just my stomach.”

Nestled in behind the boulders.
My beloved Altra Lone Peaks (more on our new hiking shoes in my post-trip wrap-up soon) and a soon-to-be-blooming cactus.
Lots of fun exploring and climbing possibilities behind our campsite.

I convinced Cyn to leave the fly off the tent for the night, since we had complete privacy and could get a good view of the stars. By morning I would half-regret this campaign, but as the sun set, we were both thrilled to watch the colors streak across the sky in front of us. Then, behind us, the full moon began to rise over the mountains. Desert magic. –Toby

Last bits of sunset.
Moonrise from our tent.


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