Joshua Tree Backpacking Overview
Over veterans day weekend I wanted to plan a little two day 1-night backpacking trip that wasn't too far a drive from San Diego. I have driven through Joshua Tree National Park once before but never really spent much time there, so I thought it would be fun to check out. Joshua Tree National Park also has a pretty sweet permit system, you do not need to make reservations months in advance, and can pretty much just show up and fill out a permit!
While planning this trip, I used this guide written by Lady on a Rock. Their guide was a three-day trip, and I took a section out of their itinerary while planning my trip.
My Joshua Tree backpacking trip began at the end of Upper Covington Flat Road, which you can find here on Google Maps. There is a kiosk where you can fill out your backcountry permit and be on the trail in no time at all!
My trip took us down the California Riding and Hiking Trail and into a desert wash on the southwest side of Quail Mountain. From there we continued toward the west side of Quail Mountain hiking through a narrow canyon bringing us back out into the open desert on the north side of Quail Mountain, where we spent the first night. On our second day, we slowly routed ourselves up the South East side of Mount Minerva Hoyt and then up a little more to summit Quail peak from the east and then back down to our car at the end of Upper Covington Flat Road.
The entire hike was just over 18 miles.
ℹ️ Pack smarter, not harder, with Don't Forget the Spoon. Our app simplifies trip planning with personalized gear lists, a community gear locker, pack weight statistics, and calorie tracking. Say goodbye to forgotten gear and hello to seamless planning for your next outdoor adventure
Maps and Elevation Profiles
The Map below can be found on Caltopo here.
Day one of the hike was 7.3 miles and mostly downhill:
Day two was the longer of the two days clocking in at 12.32 miles and had all the climbing up to the top of Quail Mountain.
Part 1: Upper Covington Flat Road into the Desert Wash
Having planned most of this hike on Caltopo, I wasn't expecting to see as much vegetation as we did while hiking two days through the desert, Joshua Tree is absolutely beautiful! Starting off at the end of Upper Covington Flat Road we started day one with a descent into the desert.
The trail started pretty flat and was a mixture between hard-packed sand and super soft sand. Little did I know sinking into the first patch of soft sand with my heavy pack (Lots of water weight) was foreshadowing this hike would be a tad bit more difficult than I first thought.
Despite the parts of loose sand, we were hiking along the California Riding and Hiking Trail and it proved to be beautiful and littered with a ton of Joshua Trees!
The California Riding and Hiking Trail proved to be very well maintained and log and stone steps are leading down to the lower desert and wash below.
As you get into the lower desert the trail eventually splits and you can go left or right. We went left to head towards the canyon on the North West of Quail Mountain. You can see the path we took on the Google Earth image above, we could have taken a left into a wash a little bit earlier and still gotten to the canyon we were looking for.
The lower desert had a lot less Joshua Trees but still had its fair share of vegetation. We spent most of this part of the hike, hiking through loose sand in a dried out was.
After a couple of miles from the trailhead, we started at, you can break out of the wash and head into the beginning of the canyon.
Part 2: The Canyon
If you remember the elevation profiles I showed in the maps section above you would see day one is all downhill and short mileage then the second day. With that downhill profile, I thought we would be moving at a pretty good pave on day one. We were moving at a great pace on day one until we entered the canyon. I thought the canyon would just wind through and be narrow but it got pretty interesting.
At first, the canyon was pretty wide and a pretty easy trail.
As we moved forward through the canyon, the walls slowly started narrowing in and the vegetation started to get a little thicker.
The vegetation got thick to the point where there was a mini forest in the narrow canyon, which started to slow us down a bit.
After pushing through the mini forest, we were back on our feet thinking we were going to pick up the pace again... but then it was time to switch to climbing mode down smooth rocks.
Once through the narrow forest and safely down the slick smooth rocks, the canyon slowly begins to widen and open up into a wash again. It was nice to just see one tree here instead of an entire forest to crawl though again.
Not too much further from the tree, we found an interesting bone on the ground which looked like some sort of vertebrae. Not sure what kind of animal it was from though:
Eventually, you break out of the canyon and are back into the open desert of Quail Wash.
Part 3: Quail Wash
Quail Wash is just on the north side of Quail Mountain and is where we would spend the night and rest up for all the climbing on day 2.
The Canyon was awesome to hike through and was not anything like I expected, but it felt really nice when we were out to be on some easier terrain. Squeezing through random forest and climbing down rocks can be tiring! Hiking through the wide-open Quail Wash we quickly started to look for our campsite for the night since the sun was starting to set quickly.
Nighttime in the desert is usually my favorite time and place for photography. Unfortunately on this trip, this particular weekend lined up with an almost full moon...
If you are ever planning a trip to backpack in Joshua, it's worth checking out the moon calendar and planning to have dark skies! The stars can be amazing in the desert at night! Due to some work constraints, I couldn't change this trip to another weekend, but it was still an absolutely beautiful night!
After a very good but chilly night sleep (about 35 degrees Fahrenheit), we woke up to an amazing sunrise, had a quick snack and were on our feet continuing along Quail Wash getting mentally ready for our climb up to the peak of Quail Mountain.
We continued east along Quail Wash until we hit another dried our wash that we would follow mostly south slowly climbing up towards the east side of Mount Minerva Hoyt.
This part of the trail I planned using contour lines on my map the previous week to plan a route that would be feasible to the peak.
Part 4: Climbing the Peaks!
In the screenshot of Google Earth above you can see the dried out wash, we took out of Quail wash which headed south and slowly climbed up. The first prominent peak you see we summit is Mount Minerva Hoyt and the second right after that to the west is Mount Quail.
This particular wash that we took south and up, was not to bad, it was pretty easy to follow and it did not have as many difficult features as the canyon the day before had.
While hiking up the wash, the grade was a fairly easy climb and not too taxing on either of us. There were a couple of short scrambles but nothing too crazy, especially when compared to the canyon the day before.
Eventually, you will exit and climb out of the wash as you get closer to the summit of Mount Minerva Hoyt and this is where the climbing begins to get steep and where my quads started to feel the weight of my pack.
Behind us, in the picture above you, you can see the wash we climbed up out of Quail Wash at the desert floor below. It was a slower trudge up to the peak of Mount Minerva Hoyt, but the views once you make it there were stunning! And of course the feeling of accomplishment!
Despite the amazing feeling of accomplishment at the top of Mount Minerva Hoyt, we were far from being done with our hiking for the day. We still had to continue up and climb to the top of Quail Mountain which was higher than Mount Minerva Hoyt, and then we still had to hike down and back to our car before we could go home.
As we hiked towards the top of Quail Mountain, you could see it towering in the distance:
We mostly followed the ridgeline on the left of the picture above, towards the peak of Quail Mountain. It was not as steep as the approach to Mount Minerva Hoyt, but at this point in our adventure, my quads were feeling the burn!
At the top of Quail Mountain, there is some interesting wreckage of a plane crash that crashed into the mountain in 1999. You can read a little more about that on the Quail Mountain Wikipedia article here.
Part 5: Back down to the desert and home!
At the top, we enjoyed another very quick snack before getting ready to head back down. At this point, we had hiked through the open desert, a slot canyon and up two desert peaks in just about two days. My legs were tired but my spirits were high, and we still had a pretty long downhill trek ahead of us.
If you look at a map of Quail Mountain it shows a trail leading from the peak west back toward the desert below. At the start of our hike down this trail was kind of there if you looked very closely you could see a trail existed and there were some signs of footprints. The further we took it down to the desert floor the less it resembled a trail and I had to check the map a lot.
The very tail end of this trail off Quail Mountain right before it hits the desert floor was the most interesting. The "trail" was extremely steep and the map has us right on "trail" but as you can see it looks like a drop off straight ahead:
We followed the map, and the finger we were walking down didn't end in a cliff, it brought us safely to the desert floor.
At this point, we were back on the desert floor that we followed on the first day of our trip that led us into the canyon. From here, we were back on a "real" trail and we were able to move at a pretty quick pace. We had one final little uphill back to my Jeep, but we made it home safely and had an absolutely amazing adventure in Joshua Tree National Park!