Backpacking 500 miles in the Mojave Desert (part 2)

In November and December of 2000 I backpacked from my house in Palm Springs to Lake Mead and back.

Part 1 can be viewed here.

Mohave 500 mile map


Whenever I return from a trip nearly everyone asks me how far I hiked, whether they are backpackers themselves or someone who never hikes. I guess this is how people visualize things; by attaching some quantitative fixture to something that is qualitative in nature.

I really don’t know how far I walked on this trip. But it was over 500 miles, maybe close to 600. It would be too time-consuming to get a bunch of maps and figure it out. 500 miles sounds like a nice round number. I did walk through some towns and cities, so we can say that part isn’t walking in the desert. So the hike will be considered 500 miles.

Most of the hike was on fairly level terrain, and when there was elevation gain it was gradual. The only thing that slowed me down was walking around plants and shrubs when going cross country in higher elevations, or when crossing some washes; neither of which were significant encumbrances to forward progress. Most hikers, when traveling in this kind of environment average 2 to 3 miles per hour. Most days I walked around 10 hours, so I probably averaged around 25 miles per day; sometimes less, sometimes more. It really doesn’t matter.


This is always an unknown. Typically there isn’t much rain in the Mojave in November and December, and if it does rain there is a good chance of snow in the higher elevations, especially in the Mojave National Preserve. I planned for the historic average weather and Mother Nature cooperated. There were two days with a little drizzle, no snow, and I doubt in went below freezing more than a couple of nights. Most days were in the 50’s and 60’s, and a couple probably got into the low 70’s. Overall weather was perfect.


Since I would spend most of each day walking and each night sleeping, I didn’t need much gear. On my back I had my pack (of course) and in it a poncho/tarp, sleeping bag, small foam pad, a piece of painter’s plastic for a ground sheet, a light down jacket, wool gloves & cap, wind shirt and pants, my Svea 123 stove & 1liter pot, a headlight, a compass, two road maps, and a first aid kit. That was about it. Until about 7 years ago, I never took a camera backpacking (too heavy), so there are no pictures of this trip. Most of the time I hiked in shorts and a T shirt.

Before leaving the house I weighed my pack using the old fashioned method: step on a scale wearing the pack, take the pack off, and weigh again. The pack with everything was 26 pounds. Inside was a pint of fuel, one quart of water, and four days of food. So my “base weight” without these consumables was around 14 or 15 pounds – for those who fixate on base weights.


To conserve water, which is the heaviest thing to carry, I did very little cooking. But there is something to be said for a hot dinner and hot breakfast with coffee. Most nights I had a cup of instant soup. I never tire of instant oatmeal, and since it takes very little water to prepare, that and a cup of coffee was my everyday breakfast routine.

Cheese, salami, summer sausages, Snickers, beef jerky and trail mix were the staples. When I bought food and was near an ample water source I would buy foods that could be cooked, so to speak. Instant potatoes and gravy were a favorite. Many backpackers spend a lot of time measuring protein, fat, carbs, and other things to create a balanced diet. On a long hike you have to take what you can find, and it often isn’t nutritious. My experience is that the body will start to crave foods that supply deficient vitamins and minerals. As far as fats and carbs, it doesn’t matter; constant hiking just burns up everything you eat.


Desert Hot Springs is a small town at the base of the Little San Bernardino Mountains about 10 miles or so from my house, and it was my day 1 mid-morning destination. Walking across open desert when possible and sometimes along roads I got there in about 3 hours. Once there I bought another pint of water and walked to the road leading to Long Canyon.

Long Canyon is part of the Wilderness Area of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), and the entrance is along a dirt road about two miles long. This road is not part of JNT. I am not sure who is responsible for the road; the city or the county, but it is often littered with trash, garden clippings, broken appliances, and other discards from the scum of society. Periodically local citizens get together and clean things up, but the low-life people soon return to dump their garbage. Sometimes there are people in the area target shooting, which is probably illegal. Because of the growing influx of these pea-brained people, it had been about 10 years since I hiked the canyon.

Soon the dirt road was barricaded by a steel cable, where the road turned into the wash, indicating the Wilderness boundary. Once inside the official Wilderness I felt much safer as I walked the length of the canyon, which is maybe 8 miles long. The end of the canyon requires scrambling around a pour-over, just below a plateau that is populated with large yuccas, Joshua Trees, and pinion pines. It is the transition from low desert to high desert. A short distance from the top of the canyon, I made my night camp since it was getting dark.


I didn’t sleep well and woke early. It would take a few days (as it always does) to get used to sleeping on a thin foam pad versus a soft mattress at home. Still dark, I walked east along a dirt road. As the sun rose I was at the gap north of South Park Peak, meaning it was a short, easy jaunt to Black Rock Canyon Campground. I filled out a permit at the backcountry board and got some water, giving me one gallon to last the day and the next.

Heading east, along the Wilderness boundary, I was soon in Lower Covington Flats, which leads to Juniper Flats and the California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT). I would walk about 30 miles of the CRHT, the only trail I hiked the entire trip.

The Lower Covington Flats area had been burned by lightning-caused wildfires in 1995 and 1999. Unlike forests and wooded areas that benefit from fires, desert plants are not adapted to fire. In the past, when lightning struck a Joshua tree the tree would burn without affecting the surrounding area because the plant life was sparse. Unfortunately, our deserts have been invaded by non-native cheatgrass and brome grasses that create a carpet on the desert soil. In dry years a lightning strike on a Joshua tree now can result in a large wildfire. The 1999 fire consumed 14,000 acres. Because of these invasive grasses, some scientists predict that in 50 or 100 years there will not be any Joshua Trees in JTNP. The walk through Covington Flats was disheartening. In the past I had spent many days hiking the area and the burn damage was hard for my mind to absorb. As a result, I haven’t been back. However, it is on my 2015 hiking list and hopefully it has recovered somewhat.

The rest of the day was spent on the CRHT and I made camp a couple miles past Ryan Campround.


The day’s plan was to hike out the north entrance of the park and then down to the visitor center in Twentynine Palms to get water. I wasn’t going to buy food because that would add another 4 or 5 miles. I had intentionally brought enough food to avoid this.

Another restless night of sleep. I am a side-sleeper, and my hips get sore during the night the first few nights of a trip when using a thin foam pad. So I was up and walking well before sunrise.

I got to Belle Campground around 10am or so. A camper stopped me to chat and gave me a gallon of water, which saved me about 12 miles round trip to the visitor center!!

Heading south from Belle Campground I walked cross country to White Tank Campground and then through a long wash in a gap through the Pinto Mountains, which put in the Pinto Basin. For the rest of the day I walked along the southern edge of the Pinto Mountains, crossed the Old Dale Road and made my night camp just as the sun was setting.


Finally a good night’s sleep. I was acclimating.

My shelter, when I used it was a 5′ X 8′ poncho/tarp. It also did double duty as rain gear. I only set it up two or three nights the entire trip. So my end of the day routine consisted of laying out my plastic ground sheet, placing my foam pad on top, then fluffing up my down sleeping bag. Just a couple minutes of time. Same thing in the morning. My morning routine was to sit up, boil water for instant oatmeal and coffee, which I would eat while still in my sleeping bag. Behind my head was my pack, supported by my hiking staff, which made a nice backrest to sit against while I enjoyed my coffee and usually watched the sun begin to rise. Once breakfast was done, it only took a couple minutes to pack everything up and start walking. Day 4 started like this, and after a night of uninterrupted sleep I was getting into a grove of efficiency.

The entire day would be a traverse of the remaining part of the Pinto Basin. Once I got near the Coxcomb Mountains I would head north until I reached the northern boundary of JTNP, cross Highway 62 and enter the Sheephole Valley Wilderness.

As the day progressed, my pace would allow me to reach my food and water cache in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness. Good thing too, as I would run out of both before reaching the cache. As I got closer to the end of the day’s hike, I began (as I always do) to worry about the cache. I kept thinking, Would it be there…

Part 3

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