Updated: Mar 25
Nearly two years of work went into culminating the granddaddy of overland routes in California. The California Crest Trail is a 2,150 mile adventure that snakes its way through the Basin Ranges, Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Klamath Mountains, and Coastal Mountain Ranges. The current iteration of the trail snakes its way from the California Desert to the quaint oceanside village of Mendocino, showcasing California in all its natural splendor and grandiosity.
Adventure Rating: Dakar (Flagship Route)
Trip Length: 2,150+ miles, 4-10 weeks
Season: Varies by location. Be sure to check the seasonal recommendations for each of the 4 segments below. Terrain: Approximately 2/3 dirt, 1/3 pavement
Recommended Vehicle: Stock 4x4 or dual sport motor cycle. Lifted AWD vehicles and Sprinter 4x4s should be able to manage the main route. There are numerous alternative routes, which are suited to high clearance 4x4s.
California Crest Trail Summary
The California Crest Trail was started out as a crazy idea-- multi-week vehicle supported backcountry experience that would highlight California in all of its geological splendor and ecological diversity. The "main" route suitable for stock 4x4 vehicles and dual sport motorcycles (proper all terrain tires for both vehicles and motorcyles are recommended). For those with high clearance 4x4s that wish to take on more technical terrain and challenging trails, be sure to read up on the numerous alternative routes at the bottom of each segment section. The California Crest Trail can be driven in either direction, and given the wide range of climates, completing the route in a 1-2 month window may be a challenge unless you're willing to endure the brutal triple digit heat of Death Valley and the California deserts in mid-summer (because you wont' be able to traverse some of the high mountain passes, like the Sweetwater mountains and certain trails within the Central Sierra). Most folks will take on 1 or 2 segments at a time. We recommend you take on whatever suits your skills and schedul- whether that's doing a single segment, or the entire route in all its glory!
The California Crest Trail is divided into 4 distinct segments:
The Basin Ranges / 660 miles
The Sierras / 596 miles
The Southern Cascades and Klamath Mountains / 609 miles
The Coastal Ranges / 492 miles
Each of these segments creates a unique experience, and within certain segments, like the Basin Ranges, you'll find a wide range in landscapes and ecological zones. Given the length of the route, we could easily write a short book on the adventure, but we're not going to do that. What we can tell you is the route is stitches together a series of connectors and overland routes developed by Overland Trail Guides, and a number of the Backcountry Discovery Trails developed by the US Forest Service.
The current library of routes that play major parts in the California Crest Trail Include (from (south to North):
Sweetwater Adventure Trail (still in development)
El Dorado Backcountry Discovery Trail
Tahoe Backcountry Discovery Trail
Plumas Backcountry Discovery Trail (USFS)
Lassen Backcountry Discovery Trail (USFS)
Modoc Backcountry Discovery Trail (USFS)
Shasta-Trinity Backcountry Discovery Trail
Six Rivers Backcountry Discovery Trail (USFS)
Lost Coast 4x4 Trail
Mendocino Backcountry Discovery Trail (USFS)
Below, you'll find some general details about each segment-- what you can expect in terms of terrain, ecological zones, history, a list of discovery points, and more.
The Basin Ranges
Trip Length: 660 miles, 1-2 weeks
Season: Mid-Fall through mid-spring is recommended for the southern section to Big Pine. North of Big Pine, the route is typically open Summer through early fall. Some high mountain passes (Sweetwater Mountains) may not be clear or snow until July.
Average Technical Rating: 2-3
Peak Technical Rating: 4
Typical Terrain: Graded and sandy dirt roads, bump and eroded jeep tracks, some highways, sandy washes.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of this section for more info. Permits: You'll need passes for Death Valley National Park and Bodie State Historic Park.
Fuel Considerations: Be prepared to travel 200+ miles between fuel stopsf rom Beatty, NV (near Ryholite ghost town) and Big Pine. If you plan to do any of the alternative routes in Death Valley, the distance between fuel stops may exceed 250 miles. Carry extra fuel as needed.
The California Desert and the Basin Ranges highlight the segment 1 experience. To the west, the rugged and domineering eastern Sierra creates the perfect backdrop for backcountry adventure travel. Segment 1 is the driest and hottest of the 4 segments that make up the California Crest Trail. Within Death Valley you'll find the hottest, driest, and lowest elevations within North America. And within 1 miles of Badwater Basins (282 feet below sea level), stands the highest point in the lower 48 (Mt Whitney, elev. 14,505'). You can expect to come across a variety of cacti and desert flora like Joshua trees, mesquite, and desert holly. Pinyon-juniper and bristlecone pine are typically found at higher elevations. Segment 1 features some of the most rugged terrain (still suitable for a stock 4x4), and those wishing to take on more technical trails should check out the numerous alternative routes featured below. The Basin and Range province has a rich history in mining, and many of these old mines and ghost towns are featured as discovery points along the route (Bodie, Ballarat, Rhyolite, Leadfield and more). As the route makes its way northway, the track makes its way through a number of higher elevation mountains and passes, including some quick jaunts through the eastern Sierra (Coyota Flat). At over 11,600 feet, the barren and rugged Sweetwater Mountains feature one of the highest drivable roads in California, with exquisite views of the Basin Ranges and the High Sierra to the west. Segment 1 concludes just south of Topaz Lake, where highway 89 meets highway 395.
Camping Recommendations There's a ton of great opportunity for dispersed camping along this segment of the California Crest Trail. Some of our favorite locations include:
Hole in the Wall
Saline Valley Warm Springs
Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest
Segment 1 Discovery Points
S1 DP1 - Trona Pinnacles
S1 DP2 - Barker Ranch
S1 DP3 - Ballarat Ghost Town
S1 DP4 - Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
S1 DP5 - Mosaic Canyon
S1 DP6 - Harmony Borax works
S1 DP7 - Furnace Creek Visitor Center
S1 DP8 - Badwater Basin
S1 DP9 - Artist's Palette
S1 DP10 - Keane Wonder Mine Mill
S1 DP11 - Rhyolite Ghost town
S1 DP12 - Goldwell Open Air Museum
S1 DP13 - Leadfield Ghost town
S1 DP14 - Titus Canyon
S1 DP15 - Ubehebe Crater
S1 DP16 - Teakettle Junction
S1 DP17 - Racetrack playa
S1 DP18 - Panamint Valley Overlook
S1 DP19 - Salt Lake
S1 DP20 - Inyo Mountains
S1 DP21 - Saline Valley Warm Springs
S1 DP22 - Saline Valley North Pass
S1 DP23 - Highway 395
S1 DP24 - Coyote Flat
S1 DP25 - Mono Craters
S1 DP26 - Mono Lake
S1 DP27 - Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
S1 DP28 - Bodie Ghost Town
S1 DP29 - Masonic Mining Camp
S1 DP30 - Sweetwater Mountains
Segment 1 Alternative Routes
Goler Wash / Mengal Pass
Trail length: 68 miles, 1-2 days
Peak Technical Rating: 4-5 Recommended Vehicle: High Clearance 4x4 A fun 1-2 day adventure, with featuring popular locations like striped butte and geologist's cabin.
Trail length: 62 miles, 1-2 days
Peak Technical Rating: 4-5 Recommended Vehicle: High Clearance 4x4 Those looking to take the "scenic" route to Rhyolite, should check out one of Death Valley's best jeep trails.