Over seventy years ago, the California State Park Commission had a grand vision: three thousand miles of trail that would loop northward from San Ysidro, in San Diego County, California all the way to the Oregon border before returning south along the Coastal Range to its point of origin. Woven together from historic routes over which the Pony Express once traveled, the California Hiking and Riding Trail would have been a true marvel, a thruhike thoroughfare traveling much of the same magnificent country visited by the ever-popular Pacific Crest Trail. While bureaucrazy and funding issues means they’ve yet to be linked into that single continuous loop first proposed in 1945, over a thousand miles of the CHRT have been completed. Take a look at a few of the more well-traveled sections below.
Joshua Tree National Park
Totaling 35 miles (56.3 km) from Black Rock Canyon to the park’s northern entrance, this strenuous trail offers stunning views of all the best Joshua Tree has to offer, and is best done as a two—or three-day venture if you intend the whole route. You can do shorter sections between the multiple access points to the trail: the section from Geology Tour Road to Pinto Basin Road is a great dayhike at 4.4 miles, for example. Desert temperatures soar fatally in the summertime, so this one’s best done in the chill of winter, or spring if you’re hopeful for wildflowers like the fiery mariposa lily or royal blue Canterbury bells. Either way, cache your water ahead of time—you’ll need it!
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Half of this pleasant little 5.6 mile loop belongs to the Anza Borrego Desert, which borders Cuyamaca Rancho to the northeast, so the hike itself takes you through a habitat in transition from desert chaparral to oak woodland forest. Begin at the Pedro Fages Monument off the Sunrise Highway and follow the California Hiking and Riding Trail to the southwest. Keep sparkling Lake Cuyamaca to your right, and continue until you reach the junction with the Soapstone Grade Fire Road. Turn southeast, and follow the trail as it loops back on itself and heads north; where it hares off suddenly south again, instead continue north on the Upper Green Valley Trail. Keep your eyes peeled for the unmarked La Cima Trail, and follow it as it returns you to your starting point.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This five-mile downhill scramble starts at Culp Valley Campground and makes its steep way alongside the invitingly-named Hellhole Canyon to the same trailhead that most day hikers use to visit Maidenhair Falls. Expect typical desert vegetation, including scrubby bushes and the spectacularly alien ocotillo, and plenty of rock to toughen your path, along with stunning views of the mountains in which the indigenous people once summered before returning to overwinter in the desert. Given the location, more favorable conditions present themselves in winter and spring, and if you’re planning a side spur to the falls, aim to follow recent rainfall.