Palm Springs' triple treat
Three locations highlight outdoor adventure outside Hollywood enclave
Scott Scott (or Scott2 to his friends) can read your mind. He knows what's occupying your gray matter when your thoughts drift toward Palm Springs, in the heart of California's Coachella Valley. Hollywood celebrities. Sun, sand and spas. And golf (it is, after all, the self-proclaimed "Golf Capital of the World," with more than 100 courses). But Scott also knows what you're missing if you don't think outside the box.
"We don't get the credit we deserve as an outdoor destination," says Scott, chief guide for Desert Safari, a Palm Springs-based outfitter. "But we have at least four different ecosystems within an hour of Palm Springs - we have desert, we have canyons and chaparral, we have foothills and pinon pines and juniper at 4,000 feet, and then we have an alpine forest and 10,000-foot mountains. In connection with that, we have one of the most extensive trail networks in the country, with 150-200 miles of trails within an hour's drive, for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and rock climbing."
Palm Springs, a desert community with clean, dry air and impossibly ideal weather year-round (350 days of sunshine), first gained notoriety at the turn of the last century as a retreat for those in failing health. In the 1920s, the city became the darling of the Hollywood set, when actors were bound by contract to stay close to their Los Angeles studios two hours away. After World War II, Hollywood returned and the golf courses followed, sustained by a vast subterranean aquifer fed for thousands of years by the snowmelt from the nearby San Jacinto and San Gorgornio mountains.
Today, Palm Springs and surrounding towns are enjoying a renaissance. A bevy of new spas, yoga studios and health clubs serve not only as a reminder of the days when the physically impaired sought rejuvenation here, but also as a reflection of a health-conscious shift among residents and visitors.
"More and more, people are starting to take advantage of what Palm Springs has to offer from a physical standpoint," says Scott. "We've had to buck the reputation that Palm Springs is a place where you do nothing and relax, maybe play a little golf. You can come here and have active rehab – you can relax, but also get some exercise and soft adventure."
The bait Desert Safari dangles in front of adventurers is the Coachella Valley's outdoor triple crown – Indian Canyons Heritage Park, Mount San Jacinto State Park Wilderness, and Joshua Tree National Park. The first, Indian Canyons, situated 10 minutes south of Palm Springs, is owned and managed by one of the local Native American tribes, the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla tribe. The Desert Safari tour fuses an appreciation for the history of the local tribes, the role they played in developing the serpentine routes that now serve as trails, and the area's abundant natural features.
"There are three different canyons up there, and each one is fed by mountain springs, which makes for beautiful, naturally occurring native fan palm oasisses," says Scott. "It's very rare, to be able to go from the Sonoran Desert, which can be fairly barren, to this lush oasis in the canyon of a 10,000-foot mountain, with palm trees, waterfalls, and stone pools."
On the other side of the compass, 10 minutes north of Palm Springs, is Mount San Jacinto, the area's most prominent geographic landmark and the state's second tallest peak at 10,804 feet. "That mountain is the main reason we are a desert," says Scott. "It's what meteorologists refer to as a rain shadow. It blocks most of the storms that come off the Pacific and make their way inland." San Jacinto's north face is one of the steepest escarpments in North American, rising from 1,000 feet to more than 10,800 feet in roughly 4 horizontal miles. An impressive sight, the mountain can also dazzle your senses with a baffling climate shift.
"You can literally lay by the pool in Palm Springs and get a tan in 70-80 degree weather in the wintertime, and then go up and play in the snow in the afternoon," says Scott. "That's available because of the tramway."
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is an engineering marvel, a testament to Francis F. Crocker, who in 1935 first envisioned a tram scaling the steep Chino Canyon. Completed in 1963, for $8.5 million, the tramway shuttles passengers from the Valley Station at 2,643 feet up two and a half miles to the Mountain Station at 8,516 feet. It is the only rotating tramway in the country, and one of only three in the world. And, other than hiking, it is the only way up.
What you'll find at the doorstep of the Mountain Station is 54 miles of hiking trails that wind through 13,000 acres of unspoiled alpine forest; one trail will bring you to the top of San Jacinto. Or you can sample portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, the longest trail in the nation, as it winds its way from Canada to Mexico. If there's snow, you can rent snowshoes from the tramway's adventure center.
However, if you prefer warmer climates, consider Joshua Tree National Park, an 870-square-mile preserve in the Mojave Desert encompassing some of the world's most stunning rock formations, just 45 minutes northeast of Palm Springs. Best known as a rock climbing destination, with thousands of routes along its tortured rock faces, the park also offers rich folklore filled with cattle ranching and cattle rustling. And, as you might expect from the Mojave, Joshua Tree is also home to an intricate tapestry of desert life, from scorpions to big horn sheep, and hundreds of plant species, including cactus, ocotillo, pinon pines and yucca plants.
Finally, for an after-hours treat, try Desert Safari's moonlight tour of the Mecca Hills Recreational Area on the San Andreas Fault, 45 minutes south of Palm Springs. And for those who take the word "natural" seriously, Desert Safari even offers moonlight naked hikes in conjunction with Desert Shadows, a popular nudist resort. "We like to call them the ‘full moons hike,'" says Scott.
Not what you might expect in Palm Springs. Then again, this desert city is full of surprises, especially if you think outside the box.
Editor's note: For details, contact Desert Safari at 1-888-TO-SAFARI, or visit www.desertsafari.com. For information on Palm Springs, visit www.palmsprings.com.
Brion O'Connor, Continental's Time Out columnist, prefers to hike with his clothes on. He can be reached at email@example.com.