California Riding And Hiking Trail Joshua Tree

California Riding and Hiking Trail (Joshua Tree)

In This Guide
  • Video and Turn by Turn Directions for the California Riding and Hiking Trail
  • Planning Your California Riding and Hiking Trail Backpacking Trip
  • Gear Recommendations and Tips for the Hike
Distance38 miles (61.2 km)
Hike Time2-4 Days (Total)
Difficulty (?)Hard
Total Ascent (?)3,060 feet (933m)
Highest Elevation5,160 feet (1573m)
Fees & PermitsPark Entry Fee
Dog FriendlyNo
Park Website (?)Joshua Tree National Park
Park Phone760-367-5500
Stay In Touch - - -

Backpacking the California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT) is like a mini thru-hike of Joshua Tree National Park. The CRHT takes you through some of the most remote parts of Joshua Tree, away from the crowds, and does it using gentle trails ideal for backpacking. There are some incredible camping sites with breathtaking views, and the 38 mile distance makes it doable as a 2 or 3 day hike. The only tough part is caching water and arranging a shuttle for the point-to-point route. This guide will tell you everything you need to know for a spectacular time on the California Riding and Hiking Trail.

California Riding and Hiking Trail Overview

Crht Overview Map
The California Riding and Hiking Trail crosses Joshua Tree National Park lengthwise and is often hiked west to east.

There are some key points to be aware of when you are planning your California Riding and Hiking Trail backpacking adventure.

Typical CRHT Itineraries

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When you’re planning your CRHT backpacking trip, make sure you allow about 2 hours to cache water along your route. The driving within Joshua Tree NP can be slow when stuck behind tourists.

Most people do the California Riding and Hiking Trail in 2 or 3 days, but you can also take your time and do it in 4 or more.

California Riding and Hiking Trail Permits

The good news is that backcountry permits to backpack on the California Riding and Hiking Trail are free and easy to get. All you have to do is fill out a permit at the backcountry boards at the trailhead. I fill out one for every car I have parked. So if I taxi or Uber, I only fill out a permit for one car. If I do the hike with a friend, we fill out a permit for both cars.

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Permits are located in the small box attached to the backcountry hiking boards. Here is the backcountry board for the North Entrance Backcountry Parking Lot (where you’ll end your hike).
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Take one of the permits out of the box and fill it out.
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Leave the bottom half in the slot in the box when you leave. When you finish your hike, put the other half in the slot to let the rangers know that you’ve completed the trip safely.

Dispersed Camping On the CRHT

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Camping in the middle of Joshua Tree NP is one of the best things about the California Riding and Hiking Trail.

There are no reservations needed when for dispersed camping on your California Riding and Hiking Trail trip. Just hike until you a find place where you want to stop.

I’ve marked some of my favorite camping spots on the map later in the guide, and you can find some images of them in the turn-by-turn directions too. But you don’t need to camp at those sites; there are many more. Those are just some of my favorites.

Caching Water Along the Route

Water is the biggest pain in the butt on this hike. If you’re doing the hike in two days and the temperatures are cool, you can probably get away with carrying all your water. But otherwise plan on a gallon of water a day (the recommendation from Joshua Tree National Park). When it’s cooler out, I generally get away with 3L a day including cooking. When it’s warmer, I plan on 5L. In general, I err on the side of having more water than I need. Usually this means having a full 3L water bladder and two 1L water bottles, one for dinner cooking and water, and one for breakfast.

You can cache water any place that a road crosses the trail. I’ve marked some of the spots on the map with a W (see the maps section later in the guide).

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There are two schools of thought on where to leave your water. Some people leave it by the board, other people hide it.

I highly recommend caching your water somewhere away from the backcountry board with minimal environmental impact. I’ve seen inexperienced day hikers take water caches for themselves, not understanding that people had left them there for later. I’ve also had containers that have been totally gone. Do yourself a favor and hide the water close by, marked with a GPS waypoint.

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Take a Sharpie and write your name, pickup date, and contact info on each water container. The rangers will take away uncollected containers 14 days after the date marked on them.
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Birds and rodents can and will get through the thinner-walled containers, so don’t even waste your time with them. It’s worse in the hotter months when water is scarce, but I’ve noticed lately that animals will break through water containers whenever they want because it’s easy.
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These thicker-walled water containers seem to be effective at keeping the critters out.

You can either crush the containers and carry them out with you, or pick up the empties after your hike by driving back through the park. You can also drop them in recycling receptacles at established campgrounds, some of which are near water cache areas.

Gear for the Trip

Aside from the water considerations, this is pretty much a regular backpacking trip. You’re in the desert, you’ll need sun protection, and sunglasses will help prevent photokeratitis (snow-blindness). You might want long pants if you’re scared of cholla or other cactus, but I always hike with shorts and am fine.

Osprey Exos 58

I use the Osprey Exos 58 Pack as my goto backpack for longer hikes. It’s easiest the most comfortable big backpack I’ve ever owned. It’s actually just as light as my day pack, but bigger. I don’t use it for day hikes because it’s too floppy when mostly empty, but once I have some gear in there, it’s great. It was also the most used pack by AT hikers in 2019.

Rei Co Op Quarter Dome 1 Tent

The REI Co-op Quarter Dome 1 Tent is a super-light, free-standing, dead-simple tent. I take the tent components out of the bag and put them in my backpack individually, and it packs down to nothing. No big tent back in my pack. It’s almost half the weight of similar tents, easy to set up, relatively inexpensive, and durable.

Garmin Inreach Mini Beacon

If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Mini fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing. Read my review and see the lowest prices and reviews at REI (or Amazon).

Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated May 2020.See All of My Best Gear Picks Here

No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.

California Riding and Hiking Trail Maps

Overall the CRHT is well marked and easy to follow through Joshua Tree. There are trail signs that confirm you are on the CRHF, and there are also mile markers in both directions for most of the trail.

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An example of a mileage marker on the CRHT. Most poles have a sign on each side of the pole indicating the mileage both eastbound and westbound.

If you look on some maps of Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll see areas marked off as “wilderness.” Wilderness areas within federal lands are those set aside under the Wilderness Act to be (theoretically) untouched by human development, such as roads and visitor centers.

Click To View Map

California Riding and Hiking Trail (Joshua Tree) Map Downloads

Download the Hike GPX File

View a Printable PDF Hike Map

Fenix 6 Pro

I’m a big fan of GPS watches to follow my GPX track (which I also use as a sleep, wellness, and fitness tracker) and my current watch is the Fenix 6 Pro Solar (full review here). I load my GPX tracks onto the watch to make sure I’m in the right place, and if not, the onboard topo maps allow me to navigate on the fly. It’s pricey but it has a great battery, accurate GPS, and tons of functionality. If you want something similar without the maps and big price tag, check out the Garmin Instinct which is a great buy (prices on REI and Amazon) and does a lot of the same things.

Elevation Profile

Crht Elevation
The first section has the biggest climb, then there are a few ups and downs, and then mainly just a downhill to the end. Overall none of the climbs are extremely steep and the entire trail is generally nice and “cruisey.”

Hike Landmarks

LandmarkDistanceElevation
Black Rock Campground03970
Covington Flat Rd5.85160
Upper Covington Flat7.84820
Juniper Flat/Keys View Rd194440
Ryan Campground19.74340
Geology Tour Rd25.24480
Pinto Basin Rd 29.6 3900
Bell Campground313850
North Entrance Backcountry Lot382980

3D Map

Chrt 3d Map
The 3d map isn’t super helpful but you can tell that there is not too much up and down. Also, the first half has some rocky mountain areas and the second half is mainly desert hiking. There are decent dispersed campsites located along the route.

What Is the California Riding and Hiking Trail?

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Here it is in all its glory, the California Riding and Hiking Trail, originally envisioned in 1944 as a 3000 mile loop trail around California. The CRHT predates the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail)!

Getting to the Trailhead

The trailhead for the (west to east) hike is at the Black Rock Canyon Campground, which is outside of the park entrance gates. What I recommend doing (if you have one car) is

The trailhead address is:
Black Rock Canyon Campground, 9678 Black Rock Canyon Rd, Yucca Valley, CA 92284

Crht Trailhead
The CRHT trailhead and backcountry parking is right by the entrance to the campground, but you have to loop around the one-way road to get to it. So in that sense, it’s right by the exit.
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There’s a small backcountry parking lot by the CRHT trailhead. Note that people doing day hikes from this trailhead use the parking lot too. The North Entrance parking lot is much bigger, which is why I recommend leaving a car there instead of here.

If you leave a car at a backcountry parking lot, don’t forget to fill out your permit with your car and license information.

California Riding and Hiking Trail Directions

Just a reminder, these directions are west to east.

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Heads up, many trails and parks are closed because of the Covid pandemic. Please call the park or visit the website listed at the beginning of the hike to see what the status is.

Video Directions

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Turn by Turn Directions

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The hike starts at the backcountry board in Black Rock Campground.
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Right from the start the trail is easy to follow. And although the terrain changes often during the hike, the trail is always evident and well-marked.
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A few minutes after you start you’ll come to this trail intersection. Keep hiking straight.
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The trail starts to gently climb. Your biggest climb on the whole hike will be these first miles. The climb isn’t too tough, 1000 feet in 5 miles, but the sandy trail can make it tougher than the elevation profile suggests, especially with a full backpack.
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Look left for some nice views of San Gorgonio, the highest point in Southern California.
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The first mile marker! Most of the CRHT has these etched metal mile markers.
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At the intersection with the Fault Trail, go straight.
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Shortly after that you’ll encounter the Eureka Peak Trail to your right; keep hiking straight.
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The climb continues on as you pass the 2-mile marker. The climb is sandy and follows a wash for most of the way to the top.
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Continue straight as the Cliff Trail branches off to the right.
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By the time that you hit the 3-mile mark, the wash starts winding through granite canyons with some lush vegetation.
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At the split with the Bigfoot Trail, bear left to continue on the CRHT.
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Just after the 5-mile marker you’ll crest the highest point on the hike at around 5160 feet. It’s all downhill (well, a little up and down) from here to the end.
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Shortly after cresting the ridge, you’ll see the other end of the Eureka Peak Trail on the right. Continue straight.
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And then you’ll see a big sign as the Upper Covington Flat Road approaches from the right.
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And right after that big sign the road is right next to the trail. Continue on the trail as it follows along the road for a stretch.
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Continue straight past the Deer Horn Trail on your left. If you ever want to do a rarely used trail at Joshua Tree, the Deer Horn Trail is your move.
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After the first five miles of climbing, the trail now becomes level and easy to follow as you cross Upper Covington Flat.
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At this point the trail crosses the Covington Flat Crossover Road. Just cross over the Crossover Road! Double cross!
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Our next stop is the Upper Covington Flat Backcountry Board, about 2.3 miles away.
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This section of trail follows the road and is flat with downhill portions. Overall it’s mellow and nice.
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A little after 7.5 miles you’ll reach the Upper Covington Flat Backcountry Trail board, just across the road.
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You can cache water here, but as you saw from these pictures, the road to the board is a bit primitive. The other caching points ahead on the trail are easier to access.
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Shortly after the last trail board you’ll reach the 8 mile marker. The trail is level and mellow as you enter one of the more remote parts of Joshua Tree National Park. From here until the next trail board at Juniper Flats, about 10 miles ahead, there are no roads or traces of civilization. YES!
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Soon the flat portion of trail will end and you’ll see (lower) Covington Flat below you, and Quail Mountain in the background.

Quail Mountain is the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park at 5,816 feet, and is also the highest point in the Little San Bernardino Mountain range. Some maps show a trail to the summit off of the CRHT, but it’s more of a suggested path to use with a GPS; there is no defined trail to the summit. The side of Quail Mountain is barren because of a fire started when two single-engine planes crashed into the west side of the mountain in 1999.

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You have a nice descent down the ridge as you pass the 9-mile marker. You’ll be continuing up Covington Flat to the right, through the pass in the distance.
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When you get to the bottom (Covington Flat), make the right turn.
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Here’s a closeup of the sign at that junction. Juniper Flats is the next point where you’ll cross a road.
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The trail gradually goes uphill along Covington Flat as you pass the 10 mile marker.
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Look off to the left in the bushes after mile 10 for the whitewashed mule dear skull.
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Soon you’ll come to the end of Covington Flat and reach the ridge.
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From this ridge you get great views down into the valley and Juniper Flats. In the distance you’ll see Coachella, the Salton Sea, and on a clear day, Signal Mountain (El Centinela) in Mexicali, Mexico.
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This is one of my favorite places to camp because of the views, but it can get a little breezy. The GPS waypoint is Dispersed Campsite 1.
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From here head down the ridge for a nice downhill.
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This is one of my favorite parts of the hike as the trail makes it’s way down along this ridge in the middle of the valley.
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In the middle of the descent you’ll pass 11 miles in.
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At the bottom you’ll cross a few washes. Also notice the old wooden marker post. There are a few of these old CRHT markers left at random spots.
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And now you climb back out of the valley. The climb is the steepest on the CRHT, but it’s short, and it’s also the last climb of note on the whole route.
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There are nice views of Mt San Jacinto in the distance as you climb.
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After about 1.5 miles of climbing you’ll crest the ridge. And that’s it, no more long climbs!
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Welcome to Juniper Flats. You’ll generally be descending to Keys View Road from here.
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At the intersection of Stubbe Springs Trail, go straight.
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The trail is flat, easy, and lined with many Joshua Trees.
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Dispersed Campsite 2  has some great views and a nice clearing to set your tent.
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Shortly after that, Dispersed Campsite 3 has some boulders offering cover.
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The views from Dispersed Campsite 3 are also superb.
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Soon after that you’ll reach the trail junction with the other end of the Stubbe Springs Loop. Keep going straight.

Stubbe Spring is named after Henry Stubbe, an early cattle rancher who “discovered” the spring in 1900.

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The trail descends as you approach Keys View Road in the distance.
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On the last mile or so to Keys View Road, you’ll really appreciate how flat Juniper Flats is.
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When you get to this junction by the road, go straight to continue on the CRHT, or take the spur to the right to hit the Juniper Flats Backcountry Board and water cache.
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Cross Keys View Road, the first paved road since you started, and also roughly the half-way point.
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Once you cross the road keep left on the main CRHT trail. A spur to the parking lot joins from the right.
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Soon you’ll see the granite boulders surrounding Ryan Campground. The one to the left of the picture is called “the manure pile.”
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Okay, here we are, the edge of Ryan Campground. If you need to hit a toilet or drop off trash/recycling, you can do it in the campground. Otherwise make the hard right here to continue on the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
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The trail is well-worn here from campsite hikers.
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At the junction with the Big Trees Loop Trail, keep straight.
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There’s a minor uphill grade (about 200 ft) to the top of the ridge. The water pipe you see on this stretch goes to Lost Horse Mine.
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And then at the top of the ridge you descend through a rocky area.
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At the intersection with the Squaw Tank Trail, keep hiking straight to head toward the Geology Tour Road.
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There’s some good camping amidst the boulders here. This is Dispersed Campsite 4.
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Continue on the hard-pack sand as the landscape starts to transition to a more wide-open desert feel.
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Shortly after the last campsite is another, Dispersed Campsite 5. And a reminder, these are not official campsites, just good dispersed sites in scenic spots where folks have camped before. The ground is flat and clear for you already.
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The trail crosses a big wash.
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And then you arrive at Geology Tour Road, another option if caching water.
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Cross Geology Tour Road and continue on the trail past the backcountry trail board.
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For the next few miles the trail is sandy and flat through the middle of the desert.
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About 1.5 miles after Geology Tour Road there are some nice boulders off to the left that you can camp next to (Dispersed Camping 6 on the map). The boulders have a “Wonderland of Rocks” feel to them.
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Here’s some of the camping at that site. The boulders offer good cover if the wind is whipping across the desert plain. There are also great views to the east into the Pinto Basin.
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The boulder fields at the campsite also offer some great sundown scenery.
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From here the trail starts it’s long, sandy, 10-mile descent towards the North Entrance.
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The CRHF mile markers confirm that you’re in the right place.
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Next you reach Pinto Basin Road, another good place to cache water. To the left is the Twin Tanks Backcountry Board and parking lot, and about 0.5 miles to the right is White Tank Campground, which has vault toilets and trash collection.
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Once across the road, go straight to do the last 7 miles to the North Entrance terminus of the CRHT.
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About 0.3 miles after Pinto Basin Road is another good dispersed campsite, Dispersed Campsite 7.
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Another mile marker as you approach the east side of Belle Campground (on the left).
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Keep straight at the intersection of the access trail to Belle Campground. Belle Campground is your last chance for a toilet or trash before the end of the CRHT.
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Cross over the road to the parks service facility.
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Cross the flat Pinto Wye area toward the last rise over darker rock in front of you.
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Descend down the darker rock toward the valley floor and more sandy desert.
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From here to the end, the trail is sandy and follows several washes as it goes downhill. Look for rocks, posts, and cairns pointing the way at splits and junctions.
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This section has a decent amount of small stakes that mark the trail.
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In the distance you’ll start to see Twentynine Palms, the cars, the malls, and the civilization that you had escaped on the CRHT.
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The last mile-marker, mile 37!
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Follow the rock guides across one last wider wash area.
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And soon the end of the California Riding and Hiking Trail comes into site, the North Entrance Backcountry Board.
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That’s it, you did it! Grab your photos by the CRHT sign, pick up any water caches you left, and start planning your next trip back. A special thanks to my old friends Jon (left) and Chris (middle) who did the trip with me during this report.

Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.