April 9, 2015

Backpacking Joshua Tree National Park, with photos

We planned a short trip for Ethan's last spring break as a high school student. Just the two of us, in the desert somewhere. Never been to Joshua Tree, so a few google searches and we had our plan.

The Original Plan
We started in Vegas, visiting my mom over Easter. So we planned to drive the four hours from Las Vegas to Joshua Tree and hike in that same day. We could do 7.5 miles the first day to Upper Covington Flats, right? Then another 10 miles on Day Two to Ryan Campground, then 10 miles back to Covington, finishing with the 7.5 miles out on Day Four with the eight hour drive home to Walnut Creek the same day.

Then I read that the trail has no water and, in the desert, you should plan to carry a gallon per person per day, just for hydration. More if you want to cook, brush your teeth, or anything else.

You know how much a gallon of water weighs? A little over eight pounds. I thought about what it might be like adding 30 pounds of water to our packs.

The Revised Plan
I cut a day off the trip. We would hike in the 7.5 miles to Covington Flats, then hike to Quail Peak and back to the same campsite, then out the third day. Less water to carry, especially if we left Day Three's water in the car to drink when we get out. And only 25 or so miles over three days. We'd done 30 miles in three days last summer, so seemed achievable, if a little ambitious.

Unfortunately, we left Vegas two hours late so we arrived at Black Rock Campground at 4 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. Still, we had done a 3 mph pace before, so we geared up and headed out with 40+ pound packs.

Ethan with his pack, at the trailhead.
(Note to self: A 40 pound pack feels WAY heavier than a 28 pound pack. WAY heavier.)

The Actual Event
I should back up. We planned on hiking the California Riding and Hiking Trail, but we couldn't through-hike because we had only one car and just the two of us. We acquired our topo map at REI in Vegas, but we knew very little beyond the couple of web sites I'd seen and this map.
Covington Flats was our original destination for Day One.

What I didn't realize was that the first 6 miles of this trail is uphill and also like walking on a very soft beach... deep, soft sand apparently groomed for horseback riding tours. So keeping a pace of three miles per hour with 40+ pound packs uphill in the sand is kind of tough. If you didn't know it.

We got about this far
We got a little farther than this on Day One.

and started feeling pretty exhausted. Additionally, the wind was whipping around and it was getting toward twilight. So we decided not to try to get all the way to 7.5 miles, and we started looking for a place to spend the night. We tried a ravine off to the right of the trail about 4.5 miles in, and it turned out to give us a perfect site, slightly sheltered from the wind and not in a wash, just over 500 feet from the trail (i.e. a legal site). So we set up there. Short of our destination, but early enough to feel confident and prep for bed while it was still light.
Our tents, with our Nepali peace flags strung between.
Yes, they really are from Nepal.

Chilly morning selfie before breaking down camp.
Turns out that was a good thing because even though the forecasts called for the temperature to drop into the mid 40s (which we were prepared for), we actually enjoyed biblical winds and temperatures below freezing. This last part we calculated by observing the frost on our tents and the ice in our water bottles the next morning.

Before getting on the trail, we bushwhacked to the top of a peak next to our ravine to check out the views and see if we could get a cell signal (we couldn't). But the views were worth it.
This really was a view from our little peak

And we could see some random snowcapped mountain in the distance.

I really was there. These aren't just stock photos.

Hey, there's the trail, way down there, heading uphill. Wait. More uphill? Damn.
Our Revised Plan (see above) was to try to make it to the peak of Quail Mountain and back to a campsite in one day. After consulting the map and doing a quick calculation, we realized there was no way in hell we'd make it that far. So we revised the plan again, deciding to get to Covington Flats and see how we felt.

The trail kept going uphill for like a bajillion miles. And I swear the rangers put the mile markers at like 8,000 feet apart instead of the standard 5,280. But we enjoyed more desert scenery, including lots of wildflowers, over the next three miles to Covington Flats. There, we decided we'd go on to mile marker 9 and turn around, coming back for lunch. So instead of going 18 miles into the park and up to the peak, we were going 9 miles in. Fine. Discretion is the better part of valor, right?

A log on which we snacked, about 7 miles in.

Ethan hiking. Typical of the trail from mile 6 to mile 8.

A different random snow-capped mountain in the distance, framed by Joshua trees.

We made it to the Covington Flats trailhead! Someone was parked here, and someone left some water jugs free for the taking. We did not need it because we had plenty, but it was nice to see the generosity of strangers here.


Hard to see, but the trail is framed by wildflowers here.

Typical of the trail in the Covington Flats area.
Turns out we chose our route well because mile marker 9 is just at the beginning of a long, steep descent into a valley. We assessed the hill and our enthusiasm level, and we found ourselves very enthusiastic about not coming back up that hill, so we decided not to go down it. Instead, we turned around and headed back to Covington Flats trailhead where we paused for a half hour for lunch. It was warm when the wind stopped, which happened for a few seconds. Otherwise, it was kind of chilly. But still nice to sit on the rocks and rest.

Around mile 7 you cross an access road,
so there's a trail marker.
We began walking back toward our ravine where we had camped the night before, assuming we'd set up camp there again. When we got there, though, it was still only 2:30 p.m. and we were feeling very good after a hearty lunch and some preventative Advil. We'd made good time (nearly 3 mph) back from Covington Flats to the 4.5 mile mark, so I suggested we consider hiking all the way out and camping at Black Rock car camp instead of suffering through another freezing night in the wilderness. (I'd stop short of calling it "miserable," but it wasn't exactly enjoyable.)

So we double-timed it down to the car.

Interesting thing, hiking. The downhill seemed much less steep than the uphill had seemed the night before. And the sand was no less difficult to walk through downhill than uphill. So keeping a 2.5 mph pace was still a challenge. But we did it, after already doing 9 miles earlier.

We made it to Black Rock Campground about 4:30 p.m, only to find that all the campsites were reserved for the night. Maria, back at the mother ship, did some Trip Advisor searching to find a cheap rate at the Country Inn. A phone call and a short drive later, we were enjoying hot showers and comfy beds and indoor heating and no wind. Which I really appreciate tonight as I type this post since the drive home the next day was nine hours long. Maybe I'm a wimp, but I'd rather do that drive after a night in a comfy motel than after a freezing night on the ground and a five mile hike.

Plus, the motel had complimentary breakfast.
I've had better, but the coffee was pretty good.
Overall, I'd say it was a terrific trip. It would be a beautiful through-hike if you cache water at the trailheads. We didn't see a single other person after the first mile, and the land was really very pretty. If you plan on doing this hike, you'll be tempted to skimp on the water. You'll say to yourself, "A gallon per person per day? That's over-planning. I bet I can get away with three liters. Probably even two!" Don't do it. By lunch on the second day (less than 24 hours into our trip), I'd already drunk four liters, and I don't tend to drink a lot when I'm hiking. AND the temperature never got over the mid 60s. So don't skimp on the water. Seriously.

I also wish we'd arrived a few hours earlier and were able to hike farther in on the first day, and that we'd been prepared for colder nights. I am a little disappointed we didn't camp both nights, but I do think we pushed ourselves. A 14 mile day with full packs is nothing to sneeze at for people who do one trip a year, right?

Finally: No backcountry travelogue is complete without a Blair Witch selfie: