The California Riding and Hiking Trail in Joshua Tree National Park offers a thrilling taste of the Mojave Desert that’s perfect for newbie backpackers looking to earn their first thru-hiking notch. This guide will cover all the essential information to help you strategize and prepare for your California Riding and Hiking Trail adventure.
The California Riding and Hiking Trail at a Glance
Trail Location: Joshua Tree National Park
Trail Length: Approximately 37 miles one way
Trail Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: -1100 feet / +3,500 feet
Dogs: Not Allowed
Points of Interest: The California Riding and Hiking Trail showcases the best of the Mojave and high desert environments. You’ll get to saunter through a mesmerizing desert ecosystem that never fails to delight, walk in the shadow of Joshua Trees, and take side quests to famous park landmarks like Arch Rock, Ryan Ranch, and Quail Mountain. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, bring your climbing shoes and crash pad for a spontaneous bouldering session right alongside the trail.
Camping on the Trail: There are no designated camping areas along the California Riding and Hiking Trail. You’re free to pitch your tent just about anywhere along the trail, with a few exceptions. More on that below.
Water Availability: You’ll need to cache your water along the trail, as there are no water sources in Joshua Tree National Park.
Weather Conditions: The California Riding and Hiking Trail is a fully-exposed trail that offers virtually zero protection from the harsh desert sun, heavy winds, and baking temperatures. Layers with UPF protection and sunscreen are a must for this hike, no matter the season.
Trail Accessibility: Eastbound hikers start at the Black Rock Campground backcountry board. Westbound hikers start at the North Entrance backcountry board. There are also several trail access points via backcountry boards and park roads.
California Riding and Hiking Trail Map
We built this map for you here where you can also download the GPX:
What is the California Riding and Hiking Trail?
Towards the end of World War II, state leaders recognized California’s potential as a tourist destination. They wanted to create a 3,000-mile loop trail around the state, not only to boost tourism but also to provide employment opportunities to veterans returning from the war.
While their grand plan didn’t fully come to fruition, some parts of the trail still stand, including a section through Joshua Tree National Park maintained by the National Park Service.
The California Riding and Hiking Trail traverses the seemingly endless expanse of Joshua Tree National Park, giving you a front-row seat to unique desert flora, including the 15 species of cacti that call the park home and thousands of Joshua Tree that dot the landscape.
How To Get a Permit To Hike the California Riding and Hiking Trail
All backpackers must obtain a permit to hike the California Riding and Hiking Trail. The easiest way to do this is to book your permit online through Recreation.gov. The permit fee is $6 per party, with a group limit of 12. Your permit allows you to stay for a maximum of 14 nights in the backcountry.
If you prefer, you can also pick up a permit in person at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center at the park headquarters located at 74485 National Park Dr, Twentynine Palms, CA. You can book your permit up to 6 months in advance online or snag a same-day in-person permit up until 4 pm at the park’s permit office.
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about seasonal quotas when applying for your permit, but you will need to bring your permit with you on your trip. You can either print it or save it to your phone.
When booking your permit, you’ll also have to list which park zones you plan to camp in.
Apply for your California Riding and Hiking Trail permit here.
A few more things to know about backcountry camping in Joshua Tree National Park:
- Secure your food at night to avoid attracting rodents, birds, and coyotes.
- Pack out all trash and leftover food.
- Avoid collecting natural and cultural objects (i.e., wildflowers, rocks, animal bones, native artifacts, etc.); leave everything as you found it.
- Leave your pets at home; they aren’t allowed on backcountry trails in Joshua Tree National Park.
- Leave a trip itinerary with someone you trust in case of emergencies.
- Be prepared for limited cell phone service and have a backup communication plan.
- Remember that search and rescue may take hours or days to reach you, so plan ahead, stick to your itinerary, and stay aware of your surroundings in the backcountry.
Do This Before You Apply for a Permit
Determine the Best Time To Hike
The California Riding and Hiking Trail is best hiked in early spring. Not only will you enjoy cooler daytime temperatures, but the nights tend to stay above freezing (yes, even the desert gets chilly!). Another great time to hike is between November and February, during the winter months. Hiking during this time of year offers milder temperatures, however, the nights can get cold (sometimes dipping below freezing), along with a higher chance for windy conditions caused by the Santa Ana winds.
Choose the Direction of Your Hike
The California Riding and Hiking Trail is typically done as a point-to-point hike, usually from west to east. Going this way involves more downhill hiking than going in the opposite direction.
Find a Partner To Hike With
If the California Riding and Hiking Trail is your first overnight backpacking trip, I highly encourage you to bring a partner along for the journey. Having a more experienced hiking partner by your side not only adds to the fun and camaraderie but also gives you peace of mind and additional protection. Hikers with little experience can struggle to navigate the desert and get quickly overwhelmed by its unpredictable nature. Backpackers and day hikers have gone missing on well-established trails in Joshua Tree National Park, including the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
Need help finding a partner? Facebook groups like SoCal Hikers are full of local adventurers looking for backpacking partners!
Preparing for the California Riding and Hiking Trail
Set Yourself Up For Success
The California Riding and Hiking Trail is an amazing option for those taking their first steps into backpacking. Even so, the trail has its share of challenging stretches! Besides heat and exposure, you can expect a few challenging, exposed climbs and sandy desert washes that’ll give your ankles and feet a run for their money. Check out our dedicated backpacking training guide to get you trail-ready!
Pack Everything You Need
Before you go wandering into the desert, you’ll need to take more than just the 10 Essentials into account. Grab our downloadable backpacking checklist here for a complete list of what you’ll need for your California Riding and Hiking Trail thru-hike. This checklist covers everything from your big three (tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag), to navigation aids, first-aid supplies, fire-starting equipment, and extra clothing.
Trail Access Points and Transportation Options
You have a few options to get from one trailhead to the other on the California Riding and Hiking Trail:
Most people prefer this method for hiking the trail from start to finish. Here’s how it works: plan for both cars to rendezvous at the trail’s endpoint. Leave one car there for your arrival. Everyone can pile into the other car and depart for the starting trailhead. If you haven’t already, cache your water as you drive back through the park. After finishing the trail (go you!), drive back to the starting trailhead to grab the other car.
If you have a national park annual pass, bring it with you to enter the park’s North Entrance. And remember to register your vehicle with your permit; non-registered cars can get towed or ticketed by the park.
If you’re flying solo or you only have one car, another option is to drop your car at the North Entrance backcountry board and hike westbound to Black Rock Campground. Due to its proximity to nearby Yucca Valley, you can usually get a few reliable bars of cell service here. Once you’re there, you can call for a ridesharing service or taxi and arrange for a lift back to the North Entrance. Rates will vary.
You can also try hitchhiking back to your car during the busy season. If you do use a rideshare service to get back to your car, your driver won’t be able to take you past the entrance station, so you may have to cover the last mile on foot.
If you’re hiking alone or want to double the fun, hike to one end of the trail, turn around, and hike back. This is referred to as a yo-yo hike. If you decide to do this, make sure to double up on your water cache.
Navigation Tools and Maps
- PLB Device: Along with an online and paper map, you should also carry a GPS device that pulls double duty as a PLB. Your PLB will keep you on track with precise trail coordinates, weather updates, and help in case of an emergency. Just make sure to pack extra batteries or have a way to recharge it on the trail.
- Trail Guidebook: Tom Harrison offers a comprehensive map of the entire California Riding and Hiking Trail. There’s also a National Geographic map of Joshua Tree National Park that covers the California Riding and Hiking Trail, too.
- Park Regulations and Information: Familiarize yourself with the park regulations and any information provided by Joshua Tree National Park. They’ll share essential details about permits, camping restrictions, water sources, and any temporary closures or trail updates.
Water Caching Strategy
There are no natural water sources within Joshua Tree National Park, and none of the park campgrounds are outfitted with water faucets except for Black Rock Campground (the trail’s western terminus). You must bring all your water and cache it at trailheads and backcountry boards along the trail before you start your hike.
As a general rule of thumb, the National Park Service recommends carrying at least 1 gallon of water per day (or about 4 liters) plus another gallon on hot days. I recommend setting aside 2 gallons a day for the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
Personally, I allocate 1 liter of water for every 5 miles of hiking. And since you’ll be dry camping every night on the trail, you should expect to use an additional 1-2 liters of water at camp for cooking, cleaning and personal care. And don’t forget the extra water you’ll need to make it to your next water cache in the morning.
Here’s where I recommend caching water on the California Riding and Hiking Trail if you’re hiking eastbound:
|Upper Covington Flat||Mile 7.8|
|Juniper Flat/Keys View Rd||Mile 19|
|Geology Tour Rd||Mile 25.2|
|Pinto Basin Rd||Mile 29.6|
Water Caching Tips:
- Stash your water away from backcountry boards; day hikers have accidentally tapped water caches, not realizing what they’re meant for.
- Label each of your water containers with your name and hiking date. If you don’t collect them within 14 days of the marked date, park rangers will take them away.
- Avoid flimsy water containers since birds and rodents can easily chew through them.
What To Expect on the California Riding and Hiking Trail
There are no designated camping areas on the California Riding and Hiking Trail, so you’re free to camp where you’d like as long as your campsite is…
- At least 1 mile from any trailhead
- At least ½ mile from any road
- At least 200 feet from trails
- Outside of Day-Use-only areas
- Away from historic sites, rock shelters, and alcoves
- Away from water sources (seeps, springs, or oases)
- Away from animal burrows or nesting sites
While the desert isn’t typically associated with rain, desert flash floods are no joke. Flash floods, which involve a sudden surge in water depth and velocity, can occur in areas that were dry just moments before. This includes canyons, trails, park roads, and washes. The California Riding and Hiking Trail is not exempt from flash flooding. Flash floods can occur anytime in Joshua Tree National Park, but they are most common during late summer and early fall. Review the park’s safety guidance on flash flooding here.
Additionally, the park is home to a variety of desert animals like rattlesnakes, coyotes, desert tortoises, and bighorn sheep. Encounters with these critters can be an exhilarating experience, but please maintain a respectful distance and do not feed any animal that begs. A fed animal is a dead animal in Joshua Tree.
Don’t forget to bookmark this guide and the helpful resources listed below to help you prepare for your trip!
- 13 Tips For Desert Hiking [Gear, Clothing & More]
- How To Poop In The Woods and Proper Outdoor Bathroom Etiquette
- Blister Prevention And Treatment For Hiking & Other Activities
- How To Plan & Prepare For Your First Backpacking Trip
- Beginner’s Guide to Ultralight Backpacking
- How To Train For A Thru-Hike
- The Complete Guide to Hiking at Night [Gear & Tips To Stay Safe]
- Backpacking Checklist: Essential Items for Camping
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking: Everything You Need to Know
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about