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2. Boy Scout Trail

The Boy Scout Trail is one of the best backpacking trips in Joshua Tree National Park. Whenever I want to experience wilderness in the park, this is one of the first trips that come to mind. This long-day hike or overnight backpacking trip goes from the popular Park Boulevard near the West Entrance to the less-visited Indian Cove northern section of the park. It’s enough to give backpacking in Big Sur a run for its money.

The author, Liz Thomas, at the end of the Boy Scout Trail at Indian Cove.
The author, Liz Thomas, at the end of the Boy Scout Trail at Indian Cove. Photo by Kat Thomas

For hikers looking for solitude

I’ve hiked this trail several times in both directions and always marvel at the solitude, even during busy times like fall and spring, which makes the trail feel like some of the high-mountain hikes in Yosemite. That’s one reason why it’s one of the best trails to spot endangered Bighorn Sheep and Desert Tortoises, which both call the Joshua Tree wilderness their home.

Although this is the most popular backpacking trip in the park, the Boy Scout Trail still feels isolated and remote, almost like hiking in Alaska. The trail travels along the edge of the unworldly Mars-like Wonderland of Rocks, a jumble of giant granite boulders so dense that no road has been built through it.

How to hike the Boy Scout Trail

Before hiking, the Park Service recommends setting up a vehicle shuttle at the northern trailhead at Indian Cove Backcountry Board. Ambitious hikers and backpackers occasionally experience the trail as a 16-mile out-and-back, but most hikers do it as a one-way trip because there is no water along the route and you must carry everything you need. Unlike the common sights you see along the best hikes in Colorado, you won’t be passing any lakes here.

Most hikers (including myself) start at the southern terminus off of Park Boulevard. Be sure to sign in at the backpacker’s permit registration board along with your anticipated dates out. There’s no cell reception for large parts of this hike, so you can’t count on your phone in case of emergency. Most people find it easier to drop a car at Indian Cove and then drive to the West Entrance. See the National Park Service’s Joshua Tree map for where the two trailheads are relative to one another.

What to wear, where to camp

As with all hikes in Joshua Tree, I’ve found loose-fitting clothes and a wide-brimmed hat to be essential for backpacking this mostly unshaded route. Apply sunscreen as if you were rock climbing in San Diego under that unfettered sun, and hike during the cooler parts of the day. Park rules allow you to camp anywhere along the western side of the trail.

I’ve found plenty of flat spots for tents in the sandy washes along the trail (but be sure to watch for flash floods). Sections of the Boy Scout Trail use washes as the trail, so it’s especially important to pay attention to signed intersections to help prevent getting lost. The Boy Scout Trail is 8.0 miles long one-way trip with 1,190 feet of elevation change.

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