For those of us who only get to visit the desert, it can be such a foreign and mystical place. It’s hard to compare to being in the Sierras, even spending time above tree line is not the same experience. Of the few desert areas I’ve visited, Joshua Tree has got to be one of the more interesting. The expansive stark areas, rock formations, views of snow capped peaks, and of course, the Joshua Trees getting their funky groove on, all really add to the appeal. The California Riding and Hiking Trail crosses 38 miles of the north side of the park. Opportunities for a 2 or 3 day backpack trip are plenty for those who can pack in the necessary water. In our case, it was a single day crossing (run/hike) but none the less, spectacular.
Destination: Joshua Tree National Park
Trail Head: CRHT at either Black Rock Campground or the North Park Entrance
Distance: 38 miles one way, ~4500 ft gained, 3500 lost (Westbound) (avg 184 ft delta / mile)
Remoteness: Ranging from very few hikers to total solitude, aside from trailheads or the Ryan Camp junction
Motivation: Expansive desert views, wild flowers in the spring, rock climbing opportunities, a few Joshua Trees, etc…
Notes: No Water! Self register at backcountry boards at either trailhead or major trail junctions
The Report from Our Trip :: Mar 2, 2013
When the opportunity presented itself to join some friends for a run through the desert at Joshua Tree, it was hard to say no. Despite feeling a bit unprepared to plod across 38 miles of sand and stone, somehow I found myself saying ‘yes’. Typically I would rely on my confidence to go out on a trek and come in on schedule having done the thing successfully, routine gets old though and introducing some uncertainty into the equation
is nice keeps things interesting. In this case the uncertainty being, whether or not I can actually run this trail, or if I’d even be able to finish the run. Those were big questions, and honestly they made me feel giddy.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the other guys running this are, in fact, the exact people who inspired me to begin running a little over a year ago. It was their completion of the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (R2R2R) that left me awe inspired, and so, now I run. I’ve been steadily increasing my mileage in hopes of running the R2R2R myself sometime in the future. I had wanted to have a marathon under my belt prior to this run, but some setbacks last year delayed my progress. My attempt at a 23 mile run had me taking limping in after 18-19 miles due to very bad outer knee pain. Got that worked out but still I hadn’t reached the mileage I’d hoped for. This left me sort of in limbo; I wanted to come RUN this and I was a bit worried that wouldn’t work out, and worse yet there could be serious consequences if I failed and couldn’t manage to walk myself in. But simply as it was. the encouragement of Adan, Craig, and the other guys was enough and there was no doubt – I was in.
We awoke around 4:00 AM. Sandra D would shuttle us over after a quick breakfast. We first cached water and food at Ryan Camp, then headed to the North Entrance. When we piled out of the van in the morning I was ready, anxious, the kind of feeling you get before kissing a girl for the first time, the chance of rejection. Would the CRHT reject me? We stretched, took a couple photos, and before I could blink, John, Adan, Mike, and Art were gone! Craig soon followed while David and I made final adjustments to our packs. I looked out over the mountains; the sunrise was beautiful pastel. The time to ponder over the what-if’s was past, this was happening, now. Sandra D sent me off with a kiss, I was feeling very stoked to be there at that moment.
The trail was loose, the air was cool, the scenery was great. I caught up to Art after a few minutes and we talked about things including pace and running strategy. I listened intently to all the sage advice he offered. After some time, I found myself running with Mike and Adan and John. This didn’t seem like the conservative pace I had just been discussion with Art… I decided to take a short break and climbed a boulder on the side of the trail to get some cell phone photos; right then a coyote bolted from the shade of the boulder and struck out into the scrub brush and Yuccas until he just disappeared. I synced back up with David and we continued on. As the morning passed I found myself running out near the front somehow, eventually I caught a glimpse of John’s pink shirt and caught up with him around mile 17. We ran into Ryan camp (mile 18) together after about 3 1/2 hours. Everyone else arrived a few minutes after us (except Craig, who we surmised was strolling along peacefully at the surfer’s pace). This was about the furthest I had ever ran, and I was half way there. So far, so good!
After a (much too long) stop to eat, drink, and resupply, I was at it again, legs feeling sluggish from the rest and food. It was immediately apparent the second half of this run was a different animal. Everyone’s mood had seemed to change, and the terrain was beginning to change from generally flat, to hills. Now, there had been talk of this being an overall ~1100 foot elevation loss… I saw this on an elevation profile that I peeked at early on, however that was for West to East and we were headed the opposite way. This leads to a net gain of 1100 feet instead (4500 ft gained overall), all the work was in the second half of the run, and all at the hottest time of day. Despite that, after about 4 miles I started feeling like I needed to move a little faster, and when I did, I felt better. I just went with it. Around mile 22 I finally left Art and John and for the next 16 miles I never saw another person.
Finding myself without running buddies in an unfamiliar desert was a bit disconcerting, but it was also exhilarating. Passing the time alone is very different than running along side someone whom you can converse with. My mind would wander. I imagined myself fighting off the pack of feral dogs that reportedly roam the area… delivering crushing right hooks to snarling dog snouts, tossing those renegade mutts into the cacti, etc… then snap back into the moment. It was all new to me, and though fairly well marked, there were a few times when my confidence was shaken and I wondered if I was off trail heading up a drainage; eventually I would find a mileage marker and relax. I really enjoyed the downhill section between miles 24 and 26, the climb that followed that, not so much, but the scenery was great. Upper Covington Flats was hot and the breeze went stale; I labored along. I don’t mind the Long Slow Distance, it’s a great time to be alone with my thoughts, which I find to be productive and help pass the time. I reached mile 30 at 7 hours in. My legs began to tire; I cursed even the slightest incline I encountered. I stopped at a backcountry sign board which showed only 4.5 miles to go… woohoo! I looked at my watch: 8 hr 13 mins in… I was going to complete this in under the 10 hours I had hoped for; could I do it in less than 9 hours??? This idea consumed my mind. It was an arbitrary number. I wasn’t running against anyone. Why did it matter? It turned out, I was running against myself at that point. In my mind, the goal had been set and I could only comply. I needed to run 4.5 x 10 minute miles; it was looking to be all down a loose, sandy wash, into which I plunged with a level of excitement I hadn’t felt since those first few steps in the morning.
Not only did I run that damn wash, I ended up running it even faster than I figured. It was berserker mode I was operating in now. I was forcing the last gulps of maltodextrin down as I really didn’t want anything besides fresh water, but I was out of that. Then, I hit the bottom of the wash expecting to see Sandra and the finish. Instead, I only found a sign “1.1 miles to Black Rock Campground” followed by mile marker 37… WHAT?!? I had miscalculated. This wasn’t the end, and I was SPENT. That was that. I had 9 minutes to bag that sub-9-hour time. It took me 12 minutes to finish that last 1.1 miles. I emerged at the opposite trailhead and hugged the large boulder there. “Amazing” was the first word from my mouth. There was really no better adjective to sum up the experience. My finish time didn’t matter now; I couldn’t care less. I had just completed the longest run of my life. Doing it in the desert among friends made it an unbelievable experience. Joshua Tree will forever be a special place to me and I look forward to visiting again.
Special Thanks to:
Craig – for organizing!
Sandra D – for support services!
What Worked, and What Didn’t
I didn’t have any major problems. No gear failures. My cell phone eventually had so much salt on the screen from my perspiration that I could no longer operate it. Other than that, all systems go. I had zero problems with sand getting into my shoes, and they turned out to be a fine choice for me on this mostly-soft, and sometimes rocky trail. Click For More Detail…
My Gear and Clothing Used
Running Pack/Vest – Nathan HPL 020
Hydration – 2L bladder, 10oz bottle up front
Shoes – Brooks Pure Grit
Socks – Injini lightweight runners
Gaiters – Dirty Girl
Shorts – Solomon running shorts
Shirt – Synthetic shirt I got from a race
Hat – OR Sun Runner
Windshirt – Patagonia Houdini, carried, never worn
Other – Lightweight first aid kit, mylar blanket, Bosavi Headlamp, Solio Bolt, Cell Phone, Benchmade 707 pocket knife
Hydration & Nutrition
2L of water mixed with 1000 calories of maltodextrin (refill at Ryan Campground)
10 oz water for mixing nuun (refill at Ryan Campground)
Cliff Shot Blocks – 1 per hour, 2 per hour in the latter part
Salt caps – 1 per hour except when I took the Nuun
Honey Stinger Protein Bars – 1 per each half of run
Frontier Bites – Half bag per each half of run
Lunch (at Ryan Camp) – PB&J, orange, Frontier Bites, Water, more Water!
Food wise, that amounted to over 3000 calories, or enough for 10 hours I figured. I ended up not eating everything. I think more like 2700 calories. I also had a good breakfast of about 800 calories a couple hours before the run. All in all, this worked out pretty well for me. I did have some GI stress leading to gas after lunch. It wasn’t too bad, I managed. I wished I had more fresh water to drink, the MD was getting old all the time, especially washing down sweet foods like the Shot Blocks and bars. I may look into getting another vest that can carry 2 bottles up front and a bladder in back for more variety. If I had needed to carry any layers or clothing I would have gone to a small pack rather than the vest. The total weight I carried was just over 8lbs fully loaded.
Obviously I had an amazing trip. The CRHT was a great trail which I hope to revisit someday. Maybe I’ll run it again, but how neat would it be to backcountry camp out there?! I think that might just be a mandatory to-do. -JD