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Elizabeth Dengler | 03.17.2022

Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible place to visit. With a moon-like landscape, seemingly amorphous rock outcrops, and the bewildering Joshua Trees, the park is, without a doubt, visually stunning. Plus, with hundreds of miles of trails and roads, you can spend the better part of a week exploring and not see the same thing twice. 

That said, this region can be pretty unforgiving. In the heart of the Mojave Desert, the park truly is an arid environment. The best times to visit are fall and spring, when temperatures range from up to 85F and lows of 50F. Winter can be pleasant as well, but temperatures might dip a bit lower than you’d like if you’re looking to get out backpacking. If you’re hoping for a splash of color in this barren landscape, aim for February to April, when the wildflowers are blooming. Summertime backpacking trips are not recommended as temperatures can skyrocket into the hundreds.

Photo by Tyson Gillard. Mojave Poppy in the desert. 

Backpacking this barren landscape may seem a daunting feat, but as long as you come prepared with the appropriate gear and knowledge, it’s quite manageable. For any backpacking you plan to do, you’ll need to park and register at a backcountry camping board. Dispersed backcountry camping is allowed as long as you are 1-mile from a road, 500 feet from a trail or water, and not within day-use only areas. 

Water is tricky here. You must carry everything you need (generally six liters per day per person) or drop a water cache before hiking. You can cache food and water for up to 14 days in the park (make sure you tag it with your name, number, and date dropped). Record your GPS coordinates so you can find them again. You are not allowed to drink the water found on the trail as this is reserved for wildlife in the park. 

Boy Scout Trail

Intermediate

8.3-miles (one way distance)

199 feet of elevation gain

The Boy Scout Trail is one of the more popular backpacking options in the park. There are a couple of options for backpacking this trail that can change the length and experience quite a bit. A one-way trek is the most popular option, but you’ll need to set up a shuttle to get it done. If a shuttle isn’t an option, you can always do it as an out-and-back. The trail generally descends as it winds through the Joshua Tree forest and past large monzonite outcrops. Though you can see town towards the north end of the trail, it feels incredibly remote. To extend your trek, check out the Willow Hole Trail along the way. The trail ends at a small stand of willow trees, making it a nice shady spot to camp. 

Black Rock Canyon/Warren Peak

Intermediate

5.8 miles (round trip)

1116 feet of elevation gain

This is a popular day hike but is equally lovely as an overnight backpacking trip. The first part of the route is pretty mellow as far as grade—you gain less than 1,000 feet in elevation over 2.7 miles. You’ll start on a wide trail with softer sand, but the trail narrows into a canyon as you climb. It’s only at the end that the trail becomes steeper as you ascend the flanks of Warren Peak. Make sure to watch your feet as the scramble up can have some loose rocks. The views from the summit of Warren Peak are stunning, and since you can see all directions, it’s great for both a sunset and sunrise summit. On your way back, take a spin on the Panoramic Loop Trail to add on a few extra miles. You’ll be afforded some excellent views from the top of the rim along the backside of the loop.

California Riding and Hiking Trail

Intermediate

37.6 miles (one way distance)

2,819 feet elevation gain

Riding and Hiking Trail is the main backpacking route through the park. Even though the route is 37 miles, the trail is generally easy, and most people can do it in about three days. However, there is no harm in taking your time and enjoying the park along the way. The trail crosses numerous other trails and roads, making it easy to enjoy some of the park’s highlights on the way. Take a side trip to Eureka Peak, Quail Mountain, Ryan Ranch, and Arch Rock. The route has a bit of climbing in the middle but is relatively easy after that, as you follow an old water pipe for some of the trail. Backpacking the route, you won’t see many other people except near trailheads. This is a great trail to visit during the wildflower season as you get to see so much of the park. 

 

Stubbe Springs Loop From Juniper Flats

Intermediate

12 mile loop

1,188 feet of elevation gain

The loop from Juniper Flats to Stubbe Springs is a longer route that backpackers can easily take for a couple of nights. Take off on the popular California Riding and Hiking Trail, climbing a few hundred feet over a couple of miles. Turning onto the Stubbe Springs Loop, the trail begins to descend until about halfway through the hike. Here you can enjoy a view of the verdant valley that hosts Stubbe Spring. It’s a bit of a scramble down to it, and it’s best to enjoy it from afar and let the wildlife have it to themselves in this sensitive environment. From there, climb another couple of miles to reach the Fan Canyon View Trail, which will take you to incredible views of the Coachella Valley. Given the distance, the Stubbe Spring Trail is much less traveled than other areas of the park, and you’ll probably have a bit of quiet the whole time you’re out.

Lost Palm Oasis and Mastodon Peak

Difficult

7.3 miles (round trip)

1,012 feet of elevation gain

The far side of the park is a more remote trek that is well worth the trip. The Lost Palm Oasis route is a great overnight backpacking trip and leads to a beautiful spot in the southern hills. From the parking area, you head out through Cottonwood Spring Oasis to begin the hike. The shade is so refreshing you may have a hard time pulling yourself away! But carry on through the desert heat as you climb to your destination. Rocky gullies and outcrops become more common as you climb. Before heading down into the oasis, there is a nice overlook about 3.3 miles into the hike where you can get great views of the oasis. The palms of the Lost Palm Oasis are a relaxing place to have a picnic, but you can’t camp near here. You’ll have to head back out of the oasis and set up camp outside of the day-use-only area. On the way back, if you have a bit of time, take the side trek up Mastodon Peak, a great trail that leads to sweeping views of the area. 

Photo by Jeremy Small. Wildflowers in the desert along the Lost Palms Oasis trail. 

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