Covington Flats

Trek Date: March 25, 2016

The Covington Flats area of JTree is located in the northwestern portion of the park. While it doesn't get a lot of press, and there's not much solid information about the 'Flats to be found online, it is well worth the small adventure of getting there. Why? Because some of the park's largest Joshua Trees, junipers, and pinyon pines call either Lower or Upper Covington Flat home. From this point on, beware. If you don't like Joshua Trees, you may not fully enjoy this post....

The 'Flats are named after Will Covington, a pioneer Morongo Valley rancher and entrepreneur. He not only ran cattle in the Morongo area, he also sold supplies to travelers who were starting to drive gasoline-powered vehicles into the desert. He was also a driving force behind the move to erect life-saving road signs throughout much of the surrounding desert.

The landscape is stark along most of Lower Covington Flat Road; the result of several lightning-strike wildfires during the the late 1990s. Upon reaching the rather bleak picnic area at Lower Covington Flat, Murbachi and I decided to visit Upper Covington Flat first, as we knew that's where the big trees hang out.

Backtracking a bit to Covington Flats Crossover Road, we headed west. The road climbs and the landscape began to change. From bleak and barren to lush desert vegetation, it was an amazing transformation to witness. Upon reaching the parking area, it was a hard decision which way to go as every direction seemed to demand exploration. Luckily, there are two trails that depart from the parking area; the Covington Crest trial and the California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT). We wandered about both trails for quite a distance and cross-desert as well.  It's pretty amazing, both the number of Joshua Trees in this forest and the size of many of them. Here's a small portion of what I saw:

Still standing in the parking area, the views in every direction are stunning.

Another direction.

A Backcountry Board where backpackers hiking the Park's California Riding and Hiking Trail can log in. Checkout all the Joshua Trees out there. They apparently really enjoy the high plateaus along the edge of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. This is a dense, mature Joshua Tree forest.

The trees seem to have some kind of gravitational force. No sooner would I near one and take a few pictures, then another one a little bit farther would send out its siren call. 

The views kept getting better and the trees kept getting bigger; taller, branchier, fuller. And to top it all off, it appears that this (2106) is a superbloom year for the Joshua Trees. Blossoms on almost every tree, with a few really showing off.

Definitely my favorite Joshua Tree at Upper Covington Flat and probably the best picture I've taken of one. Well over a dozen blooms on this one. Would love to have this tree in my backyard.

Nearly every branch on this tree has a bloom, at least 25.

One of the taller trees in the area.

The obligatory "sun shining through Joshua Tree branches" image. I believe every photographer is required by law to take at least three of these per trip to JTree. Bonus points are given if clouds are also included. Catch a bird in there too, you win something, I think.

Lots of Scale Bud throughout the area. They like sandy places. Interesting, the flowers open up during the day and close at night.

Another tall champion.

A lot of Joshua Trees seem to split early during their life cycle; many of the trees on the 'Flat had two or three trunks. Or maybe they just grew up close together.

There's a legend in JTree, dating back who knows how long, about the largest Joshua Tree in the park. Several sources cite Upper Covington Flat as home to this champion, and of that I have no doubt, having now seen for myself these massive trees. Guidebooks by Patty Knapp, Robert Cates and Patty Furbush all show images of the same mighty Joshua Tree while it was still living. Sadly, it is no longer with us.

The tree once stood about thirty-five feet high and had a circumference of about seventeen feet at the base. Unfortunately, it shed its last live branch in 2004. The large impressive tree trunk still stands amidst the pile of dead branches.
— Patty Furbush

The remains of the champion are approximately one-tenth of a mile from the Backcountry board. And upon that sad note, Murbachi and I headed back to Tacoma Red. It was time to visit Lower Covington Flat. I had heard about an old mine and some cart tracks rumored to be a short distance down the trail from the parking area. I'll usually take a chance on rumor; more often than not it pays off in surprising ways.

A couple of images reportedly taken in the 1950s at Upper Covington Flat. Three men under a giant Joshua Tree, with their jeep off to the side. Where else in the park can you find Joshua Trees with enough branches to give you this much shade?

To learn more about the Yucca brevifolia (Joshua Tree), click HERE.

The trailhead at Lower Covington Flat. Note the lack of anything taller than a good-sized Juniper bush. Most everything here burned during either the 1996 or 1999 wildfires, both sparked by lightning strikes. 

We started down the trail, keeping an eye out once we reached the one-quarter-mile point, for an old mine road leading off to the northeast.

No sign of the mine road.

After walking about a half-mile without finding the road, I struck off north up a ridge that appeared to head towards a suspicious-looking section of grey rock. Tailings? Perhaps. I would soon know. Murbachi, the Sane, remained near the trail whilst I commenced climbing.

Finally, a clue that I might be heading in the right direction. Desert Gold.

More evidence. Six-by-six wooden posts do not grow naturally in this region.

By now I knew I was in the right vicinity. Where was the mine. Where were the cart tracks? And who did this claim belong to? It's possible that our friend, William Covington, located this claim back in the day, partly as a means to secure water rights for his cattle operation.

Looking up the slope, my miney senses were telling me that something was up there. But I heeded them not.

I started heading back, passing between these two posts which reportedly once supported a portion of the elevated track that came down the mountain.

A look back. I continued hiking towards the trail. 

Hiking. Thinking. Where was that cart track? Looking back again from a slightly different angle, I zoomed in up above where the two posts were located and spotted what is left of the mine cart track. So I had been in the right spot. 

This telephoto shot makes it look pretty easy to climb up there. However, objects in photo are much steeper than they appear. 

A final telephoto shot of the track, from a higher vantage point. What's interesting is, scouring Google Earth, I couldn't find any trace of the mine. Yet another reason to return someday, to see what I can find up there.

Heading back to town.

Six minute video of the drive to Covington Flats.

Take a look at Murbachi's commentary and 3D imagery on Lower Covington Flat by clicking HERE.

Enjoy his Upper Covington Flat imagery by clicking HERE.

Please feel free to download and use any of my photos. Credit back to would be nice if they're used online or in print, but it's not necessary. The two vintage images in this post do not belong to me, so I cannot grant rights to use those.

DIRECTIONS: From Hwy 62 in Yucca Valley, take La Contenta Road south to Yucca Trail/Alta Loma Road. Watch the traffic and then cross that road; continue traveling south along La Contenta, which is now a dirt road. Keep an eye out for Covington Flats Rd, which will branch off to your left. There is a large park service sign marking the road. Stay on Covington Flats Road for approximately 6-1/2 miles to reach the Lower Covington Flat Backcountry Board. Approximately 1/2 mile before reaching the Lower Covington Flat Backcountry Board, a dirt road heads southwest. That's the road to take to reach Upper Covington Flat.