If you have been thinking you’re in an urban nexus with some fetching mountains on the fringes, what we’re about to tell you may be unsettling. Here in the greater Palm Springs area, you’re actually on an island — a puddle of urbanity surrounded by wildlands.
“What?” you say. “That can’t be. There are manicured medians as far as I can see.”
The urban sprawl is an optical illusion created by our limited human perspective, as well as by surveyors, bureaucrats, and agencies. Look at a map and you see a desert metropolis with seemingly disconnected blobs of color on the periphery. The blobs — indicating public lands — bear different labels: wilderness, nature preserve, park, monument. Each is controlled by a confusing array of agencies and entities: Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, California State Parks, Wildlands Conservancy, and many others.
But stand way back and try to see the place as a raven does. Erase the artificial lines. There it is: a perfect circle of wilderness with a modest urban outpost at its core.
Ed Hastey made this step back in the 1970s when he was working on establishing wilderness areas in the desert: Dos Palmas, Thousand Palms, and Big Morongo. He was then the California state BLM director, a position he held for 21 years.
Hastey saw what we really had here was a “string of pearls,” a phrase that conservationists have used ever since to describe the riches of the Coachella Valley. “You can go south, north, east, west and there’s something out there that’s really unique,” Hastey says.
At the north end of the Coachella Valley, where the Whitewater River pours down from the alpine meadows, is the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Follow a stream to Big Morongo. From there, traverse into Joshua Tree National Park, then head to the Coachella Valley Preserve, Mecca Hills, Dos Palmas, and the Orocopias. Pick up a paddle and cross the Salton Sea and you touch down on old Indian trails in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, merging with faint paths into the southern Santa Rosas. Watch for old cairns and agave-roasting pits as you travel into the high San Jacintos and down into Snow Creek. Cross under Interstate 10 and you’ve made a circumnavigation of the desert cities, traveling entirely in the wilds.
On your route, you’ve passed through mesquite groves, alpine forests, palm oases, and dune lands. The range of habitats makes this ring an evolutionary hot spot vital to the horned lizard and pocket mouse, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep. All must seek out new habitats to adapt to changing conditions. To move and survive, they need corridors. Even the plants use the linkages.
“The connectivity of all these desert wilderness areas is extremely important,” says David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, managers of California’s largest nature preserve system. “We’ve been working for years on linking Joshua Tree National Park with the San Bernardino National Forest and linking the San Bernardino Mountains with the San Jacinto Mountains.”
Linkages, or “wildways” as they’ve been called, become even more important as the climate changes. If Joshua trees need to move north for cooler weather, for instance, they need an unobstructed path.
Agencies such as the Resources Legacy Fund (Ed Hastey works with them today), Wildlands Conservancy, and Friends of the Desert Mountains have been patching holes in the string of pearls by acquiring necessary chunks of land. One large proposed project, the Sand to Snow National Monument, would further cement the ring in the San Gorgonio Pass.
This hidden ring makes the Coachella Valley a great place to live, lending a sane balance of civilization and wildness. It also makes for an epic journey, either virtually or on foot. We’ll draw the lines back on the map long enough to tell you about each of these pearls. But, at the end of the trip, remember: It’s all one wild circle.
SAN GORGONIO WILDERNESS
There’s no easy access from the Coachella Valley by road or trail (access is from Redlands), but the high San Gorgonios are an essential link in our ring. San Gorgonio Peak, the tallest mountain in Southern California, watches over our whole valley.
Known colloquially to locals as “the trout farm,” this Wildlands Conservancy preserve features the mighty Whitewater River as it tumbles down from its headwaters high on San Gorgonio. Bighorn sheep, deer, bear, and other high country residents roam here.
The Wildlands Conservancy preserves are exceptionally aesthetically pleasing. This one features a wide creek, mysterious ruins, and wild backcountry. Take a walk to the stone house — or past it if you want to feel far away from everything.
BIG MORONGO CANYON PRESERVE
On the western edge of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the preserve is one of the best birding areas in California and is also known for one of the best wheelchair-accessible boardwalks anywhere. Walking in dense riparian jungle under cottonwoods, you won’t feel like you’re in the desert.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Of all the different colored blobs in our ring of wilderness, this is the most famous. Many people don’t realize that those hills to the northeast are actually part of the park, home to lost mines, endless boulder piles, and six types of rattlesnake.
The world-famous and baffling Salton Sea defines the southern edge of our ring, giving the whole place a mythical quality. The locals include shore birds, waterfowl, and raptors.
ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK
The largest state park in California, this remote region is hotter, rockier, and rougher than it appears from the highway. Look for Villager and Rabbit peaks.
SANTA ROSA MOUNTAINS
The Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is the scenic backdrop for Coachella Valley cities. Realm of the elusive elephant tree, the southern Santa Rosas remain mysterious and little traveled.
SAN JACINTO MOUNTAINS
The high peak of Mount San Jacinto lends its gorgeous profile to Palm Springs, far below. These mountains have been well traveled for decades and are full of legends of hippies, hermits, cattlemen, Cahuilla Indians, and artists.
This little village is where hikers straggle down from the high San Jacintos on the Pacific Crest Trail. From Snow Creek, you have the best view of the north face, a world-class challenge to mountain climbers.