California Riding and Hiking Trail

The California Riding and Hiking Trail was part of an ambitious 1940s California State Parks project to create a statewide trail network. Due to land ownership issues, it was never completed. However, the sections within Joshua Tree are complete and provide an excellent opportunity for experienced hikers to explore the park's vast scenic backcountry and do some backcountry camping if desired.

The trail is divided into five sections within the park, from trailhead to trailhead. Which I've labeled A through E. I chose to focus on the three middle sections (B, C, and D) because they have the most wilderness character and make up the heart of the trail. These sections are Covington Flat Trailhead to Juniper Flat Trailhead (Section B), Juniper Flat Trailhead to Geology Tour Trailhead (Section C), and Geology Tour Trailhead to Twin Tanks Trailhead (Section D). The total length of these sections is 22 miles. The whole trail is 35 miles, making it the longest trail in the park.

These trips are all one-way shuttle hikes requiring a car to pick you up at each trailhead.

This hike can be done in a single day, but I wouldn't recommend that. Instead, it should be done in two days. Covington Flats to Juniper Flat (Section B) can be done on the first day with an overnight stay at Ryan Campground (or in the backcountry). On the second day, hike from Juniper Flat to Geology Flat and continue on to Twin Tanks (Sections C and D). White Tanks Campground is nearby, or you could camp in the backcountry. Remember to check with park rangers for current backcountry permits. There is no reliable water source along the trail, so bring your own.


Directions

Overall Trail

  • Hike: 22 miles, 1800 ft gain, one-way shuttle. 10+ hours. Strenuous

Section B - Covington Flat to Juniper Flat

  • Road: 11.4 miles, High Clearance.
  • Hike: 11.1 miles, 1290 ft gain, one-way shuttle. 5-6 hours, Moderate to Strenuous

To reach the Covington Flat Trailhead and Backcountry Board, head east on Highway 62 from downtown Yucca Valley, at the intersection of Highway 62 and Highway 247, for 2.7 miles to La Contenta Road, and turn right (south). After a mile, La Contenta crosses Yucca Trail and becomes a graded dirt road. Continue on it and watch your odometer. The road travels through a residential area for 1.8 miles and then curves southeast towards Covington Flat. Follow the road to a junction at 7.7 miles, where a spur road heads over to a picnic area. Turn right at this intersection. At 9.5 miles, the road forks. Follow the left fork to the Upper Covington Flat Backcountry Board. There is parking for about a half dozen cars. 

This challenging section is perfect for a full-day hike. It immerses you in the park's untamed beauty and wilderness, and it's unlikely you will see anyone else on the trail for the first six miles. The trail begins by winding through pinyon and juniper-covered hills and then drops down into the upper reaches of a little valley. Most of the geology here is granitic granodiorite or quartz diorite from the Cretaceous era. At 1.6 miles in, you will pass a trail junction, which heads down to the Lower Covington Trailhead, but you will want to continue straight ahead on our trail, which climbs the rest of the valley to a pass. Quail Mountain (the tallest in the park) looms to the east. The trail then drops 800 feet into a dry, unnamed valley, turns east, and climbs 600 feet back out. At 6.2 miles in, you will emerge onto the Juniper Flats woodland. The trail becomes much easier from here on out.

Once on the flat, you will soon cross the old Juniper Flats dirt road. You can actually follow this dirt road (by turning right) to the Juniper Flat trailhead, but our trail offers a more remote and scenic feel. In 0.9 miles (and 7.5 miles from the trailhead), a side trail heads south as part of the Stubbe Spring Loop trail that spurs off of this trail. There is little to no water at Stubbe Spring. Continue on. At 9.4 miles in, you'll cross the other end of that loop trail. From here, it is a quick 1.7 miles through some dark gneiss hills to the Juniper Flat Trailhead.

Section C - Juniper Flat to Geology Tour

  • Hike: 6.4 miles, 470 ft gain, one-way shuttle. 3 hours, Moderate

The Juniper Flat Trailhead and Backcountry Board are on the paved road to Keys View, about a mile south of Cap Rock and 1.3 miles north of the turnoff for the Lost Horse Mine. The gravel parking lot has enough room for over a dozen vehicles.

The trail heads east across the flat desert and touches the very southern tip of Ryan Campground in 0.7 miles. (This makes for a great starting point if you are camping.) From here, the trail climbs up a broad canyon between Ryan Mountain and the Lost Horse Hills. The geology noticeably changes here as you cross into the hills. Dark metamorphic gneiss formations, probably of Precambrian era, predominate, with a few outcrop spires of White Tank quartz monzonite (like those seen at Ryan Campground). As the trail begins to climb, at 1.26 miles in, watch for the remains of the pipeline that once carried water from Lost Horse Well to the Lost Horse Mine.

At 2.5 miles in, the trail summits a scenic low pass and drops by an old stone cabin ruin. What prospector lived here has been lost to history. The trail winds around the hill and passes another mysterious prospect and cabin site in 0.2 miles before emerging into the more open terrain of Queen Valley. The geology here again changes back to the lighter White Tank granite. In about 1.5 miles, the trail crosses a sandy wash; from this low point, the trail makes a long, slow, and straight 2.2-mile climb to the Geology Tour Trailhead.

Section D - Geology Tour to Twin Tank

  • Hike: 4.4 miles, 50 ft gain (-610 ft loss), one-way shuttle. 2 hours. Easy

Geology Tour Road is off Park Blvd. It is 1.6 miles west of Jumbo Rocks Campground or 6.5 miles west of Hidden Valley. Drive south down the graded dirt Geology Tour road 1.5 miles to the Geology Tour Trailhead and Backcountry Board. There is room for four or five cars.

This final section of the hike is by far the easiest of the three trail sections. The trail traverses the vast expanse of Queen Valley, providing views of the wide-open desert vistas as it transitions from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert. The vegetation shifts from Joshua trees and junipers to creosote bushes and cholla cacti. This segment ends at the Twin Tanks trailhead and Backcountry Board, with the White Tank Campground located just a half mile away.

Map

To download waypoints and routes, open the Map in CalTopo, click Export (in the top left corner), and change the format to KML or GPX.

  • Covington Flat Trailhead: 34.00962°, -116.30589°
  • Juniper Flat Trailhead: 33.97675°, -116.16509°
  • Geology Tour Trailhead: 33.98529°, -116.08208°
  • Twin Tanks Trailhead: 33.98953°, -116.02293°

Photos - Section B - Covington Flat to Juniper Flat

Photos - Section C - Juniper Flat to Geology Tour

Photos - Section D - Geology Tour to Twin Tank