Joshua Tree National Park: California Riding and Hiking Trail

Clocking in at 36.5 miles, this trail is a fine choice for hikers to see high desert landscapes, mind-blowing rock formations, and absolutely no one.
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Clocking in at 36.5 miles, this trail is a fine choice for hikers to see high desert landscapes, mind-blowing rock formations, and absolutely no one.

The California Riding and Hiking Trail is the premier backpacking route in Joshua Tree National Park, stringing together lonely cacti and pinyon landscapes with iconic Joshua trees, incredible desert overlooks, and rock formations that defy Newton's Law. Backpackers can thru-hike this trail in three days or choose from several accessible trailheads for shorter dayhike or overnight options.

Hike The California Riding and Hiking Trail

SECTION 1

The California Riding and Hiking Trail is best thru-hiked from west to east, so start at the Black Rock Canyon trailhead located five miles south of the town of Yucca Valley at the Black Rock Canyon campground. This 7.5-mile section begins by weaving through low scrubland and past several side trails to a wide sandy wash. Next is a 1,000-foot uphill march and the steepest elevation gain of the whole hike. From the highpoint at 5,130 feet, it's 2 mostly downhill miles to the Upper Covington Flats trailhead.

SECTION 2

The 10.8-mile section from Upper Covington Flats to Keys View is the longest and most remote section of the CRHT. The trail is often overgrown so wear long pants or the woody and thorny underbrush will cheese grade your legs into a scratchy mess. Trace a desert plateau for .9 mile before descending into a sunburnt valley. The trail crosses several dry washes in Covington Flats and climbs again to a panoramic ridge just below 5,000 feet with views over Juniper Flats. Drop, cross washes, and climb again. Look north to Quail Mountain, the highest mountain in the park at 5,813 feet. Now, descend into Juniper Flats where you'll see groves of bushy armed Joshua Trees. Many unique rock formations dot the topography as the trail turns downhill into Lost Horse Valley to Keys View trailhead.

SECTION 3

Since it's near the halfway point, Keys View trailhead is a good place to stash extra water. From the road, head east .8 mile to Ryan Campground. Next, begin a short climb. Near the top, you'll pass junk left by gold miners, including old building foundations, wagon parts, and a mine shaft just south of Ryan Mountain. The trail quickly climbs again and continues to Geology Tour trailhead to end this 6.5-mile leg.

SECTION 4

It's only 4.4 miles from Geology Tour Road to the next major trailhead on Pinto Basin Road. This is a great option for dayhikers and has little elevation gain. Head east across dry washes and highspots with views into a geologial wonder called Jumbled Rocks (think Legoland for rocks). The trail flows in and out of various washes so navigate with caution. The last two miles offer spectacular views of Pinto Basin, a parched zone of sunken rocks that connects the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.

SECTION 5

From Pinto Basin Road the trail swings north and in 1.3 miles passes a sidetrail on left to Belle Campground. Stay on the CRHT. You'll cross a dirt road 1.4 miles later. From here to the trail's end the path becomes faint in spots, so when in doubt, bear due north. You'll climb a small hill with views over the town of Twentynine Palms. To finish this 7.3-mile stretch, continue north-northwest to the North Entrance trailhead.

WHEN TO GO: Temperatures are ideal from fall through spring, and wildflowers bloom from February to April, depending on elevation. Drop water caches before you start and carry at least six liters of water per person per day; more if daytime temperatures rise above 85 degrees.
PERMITS: There is no fee for backcountry camping in Joshua Tree. Backpackers are required to park and register at designated backcountry registration boards. Learn more at nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/bcboards.htm.
MORE INFO: Joshua Tree National Park, (760) 367-5500; nps.gov/jotr

--Mapped by Ben Fullerton, fullertonimages.com

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 58.7

Waypoints

WPT001

Location: 34.075083, -116.387833

Blackrock trailhead: Head east-southeast.

WPT002

Location: 34.074383, -116.3868

Continue straight as another trail joins in from the left.

WPT003

Location: 34.073233, -116.38655

Go left here, following the signs for the California Riding and Hiking Trail.

WPT004

Location: 34.068583, -116.369833

Stay left as the Short Loop Trail goes right, which ultimately joins back in with the CRH Trail up ahead.

WPT005

Location: 34.066967, -116.365017

Short Loop Trail rejoins trail. Stay to the left.

WPT006

Location: 34.06625, -116.364133

Continue up a wide, sandy wash. In a few hundred feet, continue straight, passing the Cliff Trail on your right.

WPT007

Location: 34.064083, -116.358483

Keep left as the other end of the Cliff Trail is on the right.

WPT008

Location: 34.06095, -116.350533

Lots of elevation gain pays off with sweet views of the San Bernardino Mountains.

WPT009

Location: 34.051467, -116.346017

Stay to the right, exiting the main wash as it goes off to the right, and enter a smaller wash.

WPT010

Location: 34.028533, -116.336233

Continue straight; Eureka Trail goes off to the right.

WPT011

Location: 34.027217, -116.335

The trail parallels Upper Covington Road.

WPT012

Location: 34.02685, -116.333917

Stay straight as an unnamed trail goes left.

WPT013

Location: 34.024885, -116.332469

Highpoint. The climbing is over, for now, and there's a flat grade and well-packed trail ahead.

WPT014

Location: 34.024352, -116.331525

Go straight across a dirt road, and continue down the trail on the other side. This upper plateau can be quite windy.

WPT015

Location: 34.016526, -116.318135

Stay straight and a unnamed trail crosses your trail.

WPT016

Location: 34.010088, -116.306119

Keep your eyes open for the trail to take a hard right, even though the current wash you're in continues straight, and then finish up the last few hundred feet to the next trailhead.

WPT017

Location: 34.009717, -116.30585

The trail passes Upper Covington Flats trailhead.

WPT018

Location: 34.008067, -116.291267

Start descending into a valley; take in nice views too.

WPT019

Location: 34.00835, -116.288467

Beware as the wash you're in goes left, but the CRH trail goes to the right.

WPT020

Location: 34.007433, -116.285517

Cross a wide, dry wash, and pick up trail on the other side.

WPT021

Location: 34.00745, -116.282417

Cross another wash.

WPT022

Location: 34.007333, -116.281683

At the trail junction for Lower Covington Flats, continue straight.

WPT023

Location: 34.00045, -116.2674

Cross another wash.

WPT024

Location: 33.99875, -116.267133

As you crest the ridge, take in the beautiful views of Juniper Flats, then begin your descent into the valley.

WPT025

Location: 33.991417, -116.26485

Caution: The trail takes a sneaky, sharp switchback to the left.

WPT026

Location: 33.991167, -116.264217

Go straight across another wash.

WPT027

Location: 33.981383, -116.2565

Cross another wash.

WPT028

Location: 33.97925, -116.255317

Pause for a nice break and enjoy the views of the valley floor that you've just crossed.

WPT029

Location: 33.98055, -116.248

Continue straight past a rock cairn, as another major wash comes in from the right side.

WPT030

Location: 33.981617, -116.24255

Finish the steep climbing and take a break to enjoy the giant valley behind you.

WPT031

Location: 33.982383, -116.240533

Go left, up a small hill not down the wash.

WPT032

Location: 33.98305, -116.2396

See first views of Joshua Tree's main valley.

WPT033

Location: 33.98495, -116.232233

Continue straight across another wash.

WPT034

Location: 33.9814, -116.227267

Cross another wash.

WPT035

Location: 33.9784, -116.219

Continue straight as the Stubbe Trail goes off to the right.

WPT036

Location: 33.979483, -116.211917

When crossing this high plateau, you get great views of the many unique rock formations of Joshua Tree.

WPT037

Location: 33.978433, -116.205917

Get ready for the long, slow descent towards Keys View Road.

WPT038

Location: 33.97025, -116.190233

Goes straight through an intersection with Stubbe and Johnnie Connector Trails.

WPT039

Location: 33.9727, -116.173433

Cross another wash.

WPT040

Location: 33.97755, -116.166083

Where the trail splits, go straight if you wish to hike the next section, or pitch a tent at Ryan Campground, or go to the right and hike 500 feet to finish this section at the Keys View trailhead.

WPT041

Location: 33.977767, -116.164933

Here the trail crosses Keys View Road and heads toward Ryan Campground. Since it's easily accessible by road and approximately halfway, this stretch of trail is a great place to stash water ahead of time if you plan on hiking the whole trail.

WPT042

Location: 33.9769, -116.165117

Hike past Keys View trailhead.

WPT043

Location: 33.981617, -116.15425

You will see the Ryan Campground on your left, and when the trail makes a sharp right, the smaller trail branches of left to take you to the campsite.

WPT044

Location: 33.977867, -116.14985

Go left here, instead of letting the larger wash sucker you off to the right.

WPT045

Location: 33.976633, -116.148467

Go straight across a wash; a few hundred feet later, the trail drops into another wash, and actually follows it to the right for about 50 feet, then goes left, up the other bank.

WPT046

Location: 33.973717, -116.146233

Straight across another wash. For the next mile, keep your eye on the sides of the trail for ruins of old mining camps.

WPT047

Location: 33.9627, -116.134017

Cross a wash.

WPT048

Location: 33.96615, -116.119417

Near another highpoint, there are good views in all directions as well as some odd-shaped rock formations.

WPT049

Location: 33.96855, -116.116017

Cross a large wash.

WPT050

Location: 33.974217, -116.1077

Enjoy the views and the flat terrain as you finish out this section to the Geology Tour Road trailhead.

WPT051

Location: 33.985283, -116.082033

Pass the Geology Tour Road trailhead.

WPT052

Location: 33.979367, -116.068217

Take in views of the valley below as you descend.

WPT053

Location: 33.969717, -116.047033

Watch out here, the wash you're in continues ahead, but the trail swings left.

WPT054

Location: 33.973517, -116.039883

Cross a wash; in 200 feet, the trail joins a wash going to the right.

WPT055

Location: 33.983417, -116.027317

Stay sharp here; the trail turns faint as it crosses more washes.

WPT056

Location: 33.987388, -116.023178

A trail goes to the left, right before the road that goes to the parking lot for the Pinto Basin trailhead. If you wish to finish the section, go left, or continue straight to hike on.

WPT057

Location: 33.989467, -116.022933

Pass Pinto Basin trailhead.

WPT058

Location: 33.988159, -116.021976

After crossing Pinto Basin Road, get into a deeply trodden, narrow wash which will be the trail for a while.

WPT059

Location: 33.99915, -116.01585

Continue straight as a dominant wash crosses the trail, which faintly exits the other side.

WPT060

Location: 34.001683, -116.0163

A trail goes left that will take you to the Belle Campground.

WPT061

Location: 34.006317, -116.016333

Cross another wash, then in a few hundred feet, be careful when a deep wash goes right and the trail ducks to the left behind a large bush.

WPT062

Location: 34.020683, -116.015967

Cross road, then go right in about 200 feet when road continues straight ahead.

WPT063

Location: 34.022033, -116.015983

The trail opens up into a very large dry riverbed, and virtually disappears, except for lines of small rocks that outline the trail edges.

WPT064

Location: 34.022267, -116.014717

The trail enters into a low basin, where the trail dubiously winds through loose sand.

WPT065

Location: 34.02415, -116.0124

The trail heads up a small hill, which represents almost all of the elevation gain for this section, then drops down into another basin. From here, you can see all the way to the town of Twentynine Palms and across to the mountain far on the other side.

WPT066

Location: 34.02575, -116.012617

This is one of the rare occasions that you don't go directly across a wash. The trail joins in for about a hundred feet, heading to the left, and turn right to exit (not well-marked).

WPT067

Location: 34.0424, -116.019617

Trail fades; continue due north when in doubt.

WPT068

Location: 34.05, -116.019833

Trail joins and follows wash; don't cross it.

WPT069

Location: 34.05675, -116.020267

The trail leaves the wash.

WPT070

Location: 34.068467, -116.020083

Views into Twentynine Palms valley.

WPT071

Location: 34.069583, -116.020133

The trail takes a hard left turn, crosses another wash, and heads to the final trailhead.

WPT072

Location: 34.07435, -116.031767

The route ends at the North Entrance trailhead.

Black Rock Canyon trailhead

Location: 34.075424, -116.387401

Joshua trees

Location: 34.072509, -116.380663

Map check

Location: 34.072107, -116.37959

Walking the wash

Location: 34.060979, -116.350408

Sandy wash

Location: 34.043817, -116.342039

More J-trees

Location: 34.039017, -116.339765

Trail junction

Location: 34.028549, -116.336203

Hiking southeast

Location: 34.018744, -116.321654

Rest spot

Location: 34.010123, -116.30599

Upper Covington Flats trailhead

Location: 34.009661, -116.305432

Start descent

Location: 34.008499, -116.291099

Curve

Location: 34.007289, -116.28243

Trail sign

Location: 34.007076, -116.281443

Cross wash

Location: 34.000482, -116.267195

Long desert views

Location: 33.979275, -116.255136

Spiky shadows

Location: 33.980817, -116.249042

Cairn marks trail

Location: 33.980414, -116.247926

Sun reflection

Location: 33.983664, -116.230545

Long downhill with views

Location: 33.977816, -116.204152

Easy walker

Location: 33.977543, -116.202908

Keys View trailhead

Location: 33.977638, -116.166043

Ryan Mountain

Location: 33.964125, -116.139007

Mushroom rock

Location: 33.966759, -116.118364

Geology Tour Road trailhead

Location: 33.98523, -116.082358

Well-established trail

Location: 33.983984, -116.075706

More great views

Location: 33.973521, -116.059313

Trail swings northeast

Location: 33.969773, -116.046824

Confusing trail

Location: 33.983688, -116.026998

Pinto Basin Road

Location: 33.987353, -116.023264

Pinto Basin trailhead

Location: 33.989417, -116.022792

Jet streams cut across the sky

Location: 33.988349, -116.02159

Deep sand

Location: 33.998917, -116.015797

Cairn

Location: 34.00155, -116.016183

Cross road

Location: 34.020617, -116.015797

Scrublands

Location: 34.030197, -116.015754

Continue north

Location: 34.042703, -116.01953

Trail marker

Location: 34.057139, -116.02026

Views to Twentynine Palms

Location: 34.070045, -116.02159

North Entrance trailhead

Location: 34.074346, -116.031289