And he said to me “you move too fast. You can’t fully appreciate the views [on the Appalachian Trail].” And I was a bit taken aback for a second. Mountain vistas are amazing, and I love them. But going to the mountains for only the views is rather like going into a church to just see the architecture–you’re like a tourist.
When holy people pray in the church, don’t they close their eyes? And then they can pray better, talk to God more clearly, without distractions? Staring wide-eyed at a stained glass window, taking a hundred photos, doesn’t get me any closer to understanding why the building was created in the first place. Pushing hard and moving fast, too fast for this man’s liking, helps me see God like closing my eyes to pray.
“Could be that you’re right,” I said. “But if I was blind, I’d still be out here all the same. I don’t go into a temple for the gold-plated ornaments.”
Even though the mantra everyone purports is “hike your own hike,” I did get some static for the pace I kept on the Appalachian Trail a dozen years ago. But to this day I still like pushing hard out in nature, and yes I still think it helps me to appreciate it. And guess what–moving fast also lets you see good vistas that much more frequently.
Just last year Toby Guillette approached me with the idea to run across Joshua Tree National Park. JTree is my favorite National Park, and it may even be my favorite piece of real estate on Earth. So running all the way across it, big physical exertion in this incredible landscape, seemed like an incredible way to commune.
While it doesn’t have the tourist draw or immediate “wow” factor of El Cap in Yosemite or the Grand Tetons, Joshua Tree’s appeal lies in its subtlety, its tranquility, its vast emptiness and bizarre landscapes and trees. And of course, its excellent rock formations.
The California Riding and Hiking Trail traverses the main body of Joshua Tree in 38 miles. The standard way to complete the trail is a multi-day backpacking trip. It has also been run in sections, piece-by-piece and, we recently learned, was rumored to have been power-hiked/ run in 11 hours by some Joshua Tree rangers. Still, it had never been done as an ultrarun, in one push. So we could be the first!
At the first road crossing (~mile 5). Yes, Dax ran in an arm sling. What’s your excuse?
This Cinco de Mayo, a team of Dax Ross, Paul Jesse, Jess Downer, Carlyn Peterson, Toby, and myself completed this vision (those with a run report, it is linked; if not their website is linked). And indeed, traversing Joshua Tree has almost the same magnificence and charm as running the Grand Canyon, but instead of immense grandeur, JTree’s appeal is much more grounded.
Having been to Joshua Tree so many times (this was my fifth time this year, and I feel I’ve been absent recently), it was a joy to see these more remote sections of the park. The trees are way healthier back there, far from the road and pollution. I even saw my first desert tortoise! We were able to complete the Traverse in half a day, under eight hours, even at a leisurely pace, stopping often for photos and to smell the roses (I counted at least 28 different types of wildflowers!)
The California Riding and Hiking Trail is very well maintained within the Park, with mile markers and turnoff signs and all. A bit sandy for the first few miles at the start and finish, it’s otherwise very good single track running with great views and footing. There is very little elevation change (under 4000′ gain, and a net loss of a few thousand feet for the whole route).
Spring and fall are the best times weather-wise; the April timeframe gives the advantage of many wildflowers. The weather varies a lot in Jtree; May was good for us but only the very breezy day saved us from the heat. It can be cold or hot in most months September through May so keep a close eye on the forecasts.
The most beautiful half of the course is the higher elevation half (the Western half, or first half by the logical way to run it) as there are more Joshua Trees, but the whole run is quality.
The Joshua Tree Traverse will undoubtedly become a classic in the world of ultrarunning, just as the Grand Canyon R2R2R and recently Zion Traverse have become. Every one of us has a blog and Toby made a video about the run here; we hope to get the word out about this amazing route. Check it!
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”- Anatoli Boukreev