Joshua Tree: Trip Logistics

It was surprisingly hard to find good trip reports for the California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT), so I thought a quick logistics post might be helpful for others who want to backpack through Joshua Tree. –Toby

Transportation & Navigation

We opted to hike west to east, even though this meant hiking into the sun most mornings. We drove through to cache our water and left the car at the backcountry board just 0.5 miles south of the North Entrance station (you fill out a permit at the board, which lets the rangers know why your car is parked there). The park entrance fee covers seven days — your receipt lets you enter/exit the park as you wish. We booked a taxi in advance, which drove us back over to the Black Rock Canyon campground (no fee to enter). It was helpful to stay the first night at Black Rock so we could get an early start out the next day. It’s one of only two campgrounds that take reservations, and you have to reserve a site well in advance because they book up early!

Most people seem to do this 38-mile trail in three days, but we took four to have time for exploring. Most of the trail is very gentle/flat in terms of elevation, and the most challenging aspect for us was the deep beach sand at the beginning and end. For navigation we used the National Geographic map of Joshua Tree National Park, and I cobbled together GPS info from here (track from Covington Flats to North Entrance station, which includes a side trip up Eureka Peak that we didn’t take) and here (waypoints from Black Rock Canyon to Covington Flats).

Food & Water

There are no water sources in the park, so once you leave Black Rock campground, that’s it until you exit. We cached water at the Juniper Flats and Twin Tanks backcountry boards, which are easily accessible on the main paved road. We decided not to cache at the Covington Flats board because we weren’t sure about the dirt road out there, but now having seen it I think most cars would be just fine — caching here as well would mean not having to carry two days’ worth of water at the start of the hike. We hid our water jugs under bushes a short walk from the boards, but it seemed everyone else just left theirs right under the board. Write your name and expected pick-up date on the water containers.

We carried water in several containers holding 1-2 liters each, so that if any one container leaked, our entire supply wouldn’t be lost. I packed a small plastic funnel so we could easily pour from our cached jugs into our plastic bottles and bladders (this was a genius move, if I may say so). [Totally agree. -Cyn]

To conserve water for drinking (and avoid carrying the weight of our stove), we opted to bring only ready-to-eat food: tuna pouches with mayo/relish/mustard packets, tortillas with peanut butter and honey, meat sticks (jerky), trail mix, bars, poptarts, potato chips, nutella, and mini-snickers. We also had electrolyte tabs and tried the PCT hiker trick of jolly ranchers, which help keep your mouth from feeling dry in the desert (works like a charm, and good for morale!). We kept our food in odor-proof bags and just slept with it in the tent.

Gear & Clothing

Each of us were trying out some new gear on this trip. I was testing a new backpack and down quilt, both of which worked out great. Cyn hiked in trail runners (Brooks Cascadias) for the first time and had a great experience. I wore Altra Lone Peak trail runners, which I’d done some day-hiking in already, and they are officially a dream come true. They kind of look like clown shoes, but they feel like pillows on my feet. For the first time ever, neither of us had a single blister, and we didn’t even preventatively tape. Cyn had only very minor foot pain, and I had no pain at all. What! Magic! I know this isn’t necessarily a predictor of how our feet will fare in mountainous terrain, but it makes me optimistic. (ps. There’s no way to keep all of the fine sand out of your shoes on this trail, but our light gaiters definitely helped.)

Our main considerations for packing were weight (because we’d have to carry so much water weight) and sun protection (because, well, desert). During the day we wore lightweight long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sun hats, sunglasses, and sun gloves (the sun gloves were awesome). But at night it was often very windy and cold, and we were glad we had our warm sleep clothes, thick socks, and hooded down jackets. Sunscreen and sun-protective lip balm were also key.

All garbage, including toilet paper, must be packed out (this is still our preferred method). Bring a trowel for digging catholes. The trail passes two established campsites (Ryan and Belle) which each have a pit toilet and garbage/recycling bins — we dumped our empty water cache jugs there.

Miscellaneous

We are still little novice baby backpackers, and it was fun to practice some skills on this trip. For the first time ever, we selected our own campsites. And we got some experience dry camping (i.e., not near a water source), which makes me optimistic about finding quiet, secluded sites on the John Muir Trail this summer, since sites by water tend to be more crowded. Carrying all of my water also helped me have a much better sense of my daily water needs, which will be helpful when I do a big PCT section next year (I hope).

This was my first time using GPS on a hike (via the Gaia app on my phone), and it was comforting to have, but I only checked it once, when I wanted to see where the Eureka Peak trail was. The CRHT has markers at each mile point, which was reassuring as we hiked. We also carried an emergency beacon device, which allowed us to send a daily check-in message to someone at home and had an SOS function to connect us to emergency services if needed. We were nervous about backpacking in the desert for the first time, especially since this trail isn’t very populated, and having these tools eased our minds, even though we didn’t actually need them.

Neither of us had ever been to Joshua Tree before, and the CRHT was a great way to experience the park — we got to see some more touristy spots (like Skull Rock) as we drove through to cache water, and we got to explore many different parts of the park up close as we hiked. [We also didn’t have to stress about the first-come-first-serve policy at most of the car camping sites there. -Cyn] Mid-March was a lovely time to be there, with reasonable temperatures and lots of different plants in bloom. Now that this trip is over, we’re focused on training for our next big adventure: northbound on the JMT in July!

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