I stopped with my foot midway to the ground and froze. It was the first day of my multi-day day backpacking trip on the California Riding and Hiking Trail and I hadn’t even made it a mile yet. I had hoped to camp somewhere near Upper Covington Flats this evening, but now I wasn’t so sure. A coyote stood on the trail right in front of me, blocking my path.
And he wasn’t moving.
The coyote and I regarded each other quietly for a while. He was a light brown color and about the size of a skinny German Shepherd. After a few lengthy moments which felt like an eternity, he stepped off the trail and I breathed a giant sigh of relief. Maybe I would make it to Upper Covington Flats today after all.
But that’s when I noticed that he was not alone.
The Backpacking Trip Begins
My hike began 30 minutes earlier at the Black Rock Canyon Trailhead. Tucked in the northwest corner of Joshua Tree National Park, Black Rock Canyon is a lesser-known area of the park with a campground, ranger station, and a network of hiking trails. It is also the western terminus of the 37-mile California Hiking and Riding Trail which stretches across the northern half of Joshua Tree National Park.
From the minute I heard about the California Riding and Hiking Trail, I knew I had to experience it for myself. This was during a two-month visit to Joshua Tree when my husband Daniel and I were laying low during the pandemic. I had fallen in love with Joshua Tree National Park and planned to hike as many of the trails as humanly possible.
After much planning and training and packing, I deemed myself ready to hit the trail. Daniel wouldn’t be joining me on this particular adventure, so he dropped me off at the Black Rock Canyon Trailhead around 10:00 am on a sunny March morning and bid me goodbye.
The Coyote Welcoming Committee
Thirty minutes later I was humming to myself as I headed east towards Upper Covington Flats. I had been through this area previously when I hiked the Panorama Loop Trail so I wasn’t paying particularly close attention. When I saw the coyote, however, I was suddenly jolted into hyper awareness.
After standing on the trail for a while, the first coyote exited the path and looped around me to the south. Much relieved, I was about to continue forward until I noticed that he was not alone.
Another coyote emerged from behind a bush and then a third appeared further down the trail. The other two coyotes looked bigger than the first and quietly watched me while the first gave me a wide berth.
I stood frozen in place, unsure what to do. To my knowledge, coyotes are generally harmless (except maybe to house pets or small animals). But three coyotes? Should I be concerned? Were more coyotes waiting in the wings, preparing to gang up on me?
But of course that did not happen. After a few minutes, the coyotes trotted away and continued whatever it was they were doing before I so rudely interrupted.
After continuing on my way, I reflected on the experience. I’ve never been so close to a coyote before, let alone three of them at once. I’d expected to be frightened by the encounter, but I wasn’t. Not really anyway. I felt calm and somewhat awed by the experience.
It must be a good omen, I decided. I haven’t even hiked a full mile yet and I’d already experienced a magical wildlife encounter.
What else would this trip have in store for me?
Onward to Upper Covington Flats
The rest of my first day was pretty boring after my encounter with the coyotes, if I’m being honest. The hike to Upper Covington Flats is a long slog up a sandy wash that gains 1100 feet of elevation over 6 miles. It’s not very steep but it’s not terribly exciting either.
I’m easily amused, however, and decided to have a little celebration at every mile marker. I love mile markers. It’s not very often that I get to hike a trail with so many mile mile markers.
So I made it a point to stop and take a photo at all of them. Yes, that’s right. Every. Single. One.
Here’s a selection of my favorites from my first day:
Upper Covington Flats Water Cache
After hiking for 6 miles, the trail finally leveled out and hit a plateau. Here, the trail intersected with a dirt road which led to Eureka Peak. The area looked familiar because I had just driven through it a few days ago when Daniel and I placed my water caches.
From this point, the trail paralleled the road for 2 miles until it reached the Upper Covington Flats Trailhead.
I arrived at Upper Covington Flats to find the area completely deserted. It was around 4:30 pm and the sun was already low in the sky, causing shadows to lengthen. While spring was just around the corner, it wasn’t here yet.
I knew sunset wasn’t far off so I grabbed my water jug and hurried on.
Camping Near Upper Covington Flats
After picking up my water cache at Upper Covington Flats, I continued east. I wanted to put some space between me and the Upper Covington Flats Trailhead as camping is prohibited within one mile of all roads at Joshua Tree National Park.
I made it about half a mile and decided that was good enough. There wasn’t enough room in my backpack for the water jug and it was awkward to carry it as I hiked. The area was deserted and I was utterly alone.
I hiked 500 feet off of the trail and soon had my tent set up. I got to watch a spectacular sunrise as I made a dinner of instant mashed potatoes with a packet of tuna fish.
Not bad for my first day on the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
California Riding and Hiking Trail Hiking Stats
- Date: March 1, 2021
- Distance: 8.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1178 feet
- Current Elevation: 4833 feet
- Location: Half-mile past Upper Covington Flats
- Steps: 27,297
This article is part of a series chronicling my experience hiking the California Riding and Hiking Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.
For more information about my hike, check out the following article:
Additional Joshua Tree Resources
If you enjoyed this trail journal, be sure to check out my other articles about Joshua Tree National Park!
- Joshua Tree Day Trip: The Ultimate One-Day Itinerary
- Best Hikes in Joshua Tree: The Ultimate Hiking Guide
- Backpacking in Joshua Tree: Tips for Successful Wilderness Camping
- California Riding and Hiking Trail: An Epic Joshua Tree Backpacking Adventure
- 10 Fun and Quirky Things to Do Near Joshua Tree