Tell someone you’re going hiking, they usually assume you’re heading to the mountains, maybe the coast. But California’s deserts offer sublime hikes. Just not in the summer. So we’re wrapping up our extended stay in the California desert this week with ideas for memorable family hikes.
The national parks and monuments offer world-class hiking opportunities, so yes, do plan to hoof it through Death Valley—November into March is best—and try out trails in Joshua Tree. Also prime is immense Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, well south, between San Diego and the Salton Sea.
As surprising as it seems, Palm Springs may be the ultimate hiking destination. According to Coachella Valley trail expert and hiking-guide author Philip Ferranti, Palm Springs and vicinity offers more hiking trails—140-plus—and more trail miles—1,250 and climbing—than anywhere else in the continental U.S. The valley is fringed by high peaks, seven separate mountain ranges, complete with earthquake faults—the North American and Pacific tectonic plates meet up right here—countless canyons, sweet water oases, and stunning views.
Another surprise is being able to zip from sea level to snow-dusted peaks while taking in the 360-degree view, thanks to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tram. So here, almost uniquely, you can get in a desert stroll in the morning and then within minutes high-tail it into the mountains for ahike in the pines.
Practically in Palm Springs are Tahquitz Canyon and the three Indian Canyons owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla (kuh-WEE-uh) Indians—superb for hiking, at their invitation. Palm Canyon alone features more than 3,000 native fan palms, so you may want to start with the six-mile roundtrip Palm Canyon hike to the Stone Pools. The river bottom is lush, but along with waterfalls and pools you’ll take in spectacular high desert, canyon, and city views.
The Agua Caliente Band is quite prominent in Palm Springs community life. (Groundbreaking for an impressive new cultural museum right downtown in Palm Springs, including a spa and bathhouse celebrating the original hot mineral springs, comes in May, 2018.) Such inclusion wasn’t always the case; as elsewhere, the Cahuillas were shoved off their traditional lands with the arrival of early settlers and then generally ignored. But when the railroad blasted into town, in exchange for their territorial losses the Cahuilla people were granted alternating tracts of land, and then prevented by the federal government from selling it. What a good move that was. Now the band owns 32,000 acres in and around relentlessly stylish Palm Springs—about 42 percent of the entire Coachella Valley—including 6,700 acres in Palm Springs proper. Isn’t it satisfying to know that so many ritzy resorts, all those luxury hotels, golf courses, and tennis courts, are built on land owned, and leased out—quite profitably—by the local Cahuilla tribal council?
Another favorite destination, off the usual tourist trail, is the last natural, virtually untouched watershed in the Coachella Valley—the Coachella Valley Preserve in the Indio Hills. Come for hiking, horseback riding (BYO equines), bird-watching, and general nature appreciation. Spring is the time for wildflowers, spring and fall for migratory-bird watching. You can also take a mule-drawn covered wagon tour—wagons have rubber tires, thank heavens—with or without the chuck-wagon dinner, s’mores, and campfire songs. But whenever you come, absolutely no dogs here, a last refuge for beleaguered area wildlife. And don’t even think about leaving pets in the car, in the desert, any time of year.
The preserve’s Thousand Palms Oasis is one of the state’s largest groves of California fan palms. You can also experience California earthquake history. Other palm oases here, like Thousand Palms, exist due to slippage of the San Andreas Fault, which crosses the entire Colorado Desert. Here’s a hike: Five palm oases Macomber, Biskra, Pushawalla, Hidden, and Horseshoe—lie within 2,200- acre Indian Hills Palms wilderness, steep canyonlands strung together by trails casually crisscrossing the fault.
Whoa! Wait. Did you feel that?