An Insider’s Guide to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
A khaki-outfitted investment banker smokes up the Boo Hoff trail in La Quinta, passing slackers along his way. After about an hour at this pace, he sags slightly, sits down on a boulder, and takes a gulp from his water bottle.
When he starts to tire, Keith Bartleson thinks longingly about his cell phone, his computer screen, exciting calls from China, deals waiting to be played. There’s solid granite beneath him, the wired world behind.
In the 12 years since the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument was founded, technology has tightened its grip on us all. Scientists say many of us can no longer see the flash of a bighorn sheep’s rump, hear the peep of a towhee, or count the receding ridges of the Santa Rosas — not because the rump, towhee, and ridges aren’t there, but because we can no longer perceive them. Tiny screens have stolen our senses.
The 280,000 acres of monument just outside Palm Springs is the perfect place to reclaim them. As alternative medicine maestro Andrew Weil points out, your senses are an extension of your brain, so you’ll think better the more you use them. Aside from the benefit to mind and body, there’s infinite pleasure in direct experience. As Thoreau put it, “Contact! Contact!”
You don’t have to bag a peak, max your cardio, or memorize the five life zones encompassed in the local mountains. Everything you need to regain your native senses can be found in even a short walk from your car.
The monument begins near where Interstate 10 exits onto Highway 111 north of Palm Springs. If you continue through the valley, its boundary rides on your right shoulder all the way to the Salton Sea. The mountains extend in ridges much farther than you can see from the road, rising rapidly from around sea level to nearly 11,000 feet.
Monument Manager Jim Foote suggests you leave behind your camera and turn off digital devices. He used to take a lot of large-format landscape photographs, he says, but his enjoyment tripled when he stopped looking through a frame.
There’s a lot to take in, as monument boundaries have grown by 8,000 acres in recent years. The main peaks are San Jacinto, on the west edge of Palm Springs, and Santa Rosa and Toro, twin peaks looming over Palm Desert. When you get to La Quinta, you’re looking at the more subtle peaks of the Santa Rosas. You’re an honorary local if you can point out Martinez Mountain.
The San Jacinto and Santa Rosa ranges are divided roughly by the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs. The steep and alpine-topped San Jacintos — often compared to the Sierras — have attracted famous climbers like Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins. The Santa Rosas —more desert-like and less traveled — hide rare elephant trees and Indian legends of a giant spotted rabbit.
Cahuilla Indians lived in these mountains for centuries, harvesting pinyon and agave hearts. Their marks are everywhere. Many of the trails you walk are old Indian trails; almost every bold rock and landscape feature had an Indian name and meaning. Leaning Rock in Chino Canyon makes an appearance in Louis L’Amour’s The Lonesome Gods. A small hill near Andreas Canyon is where the tribe began, according to their creation story. Chino Canyon is named for Pedro Chino, a Cahuilla shaman who could shapeshift into a mountain lion.
Indian Canyons ranger Rocky Toyama connects with this history each time he walks the trails alone. He imagines what it was like for the people who lived by the stream and listens for the sounds of their voices in the moving water. “My mind goes wild,” he says.
From the time the first European explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, came through in 1774 until the early 1900s, few travelers had anything nice to say about this landscape. On first glance, it was empty and scary. It took writers such as J. Smeaton Chase and George Wharton James, and naturalist Edmund Jaeger to broadcast the appeal of the deserts to the rest of the world. Artists did their part, as well, with multitudes of skilled painters — Paul Grimm, Agnes Pelton, John Hilton — depicting the dunes and peaks.
The Desert Riders equestrian club, founded in the 1930s and still active, brought cowboy style to the canyons, at the same time building many trails.
For decades dedicated nature lovers fought to preserve the mountains from theme parks, golf courses, and housing developments. Finally, in 2000, legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Mary Bono was signed into law, making this officially a protected national monument operated by a coalition that includes the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Mt. San Jacinto State Park, and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Monument status recognizes the biological, cultural and aesthetic significance of this land.
Because these mountains are steep, there are only a few places you can easily get into them. “The terrain is difficult. It’s not like going to Joshua Tree National Park,” Foote says. The official doorways include the Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, La Quinta Cove Oasis Trailhead, National Monument Visitor Center in Palm Desert, and U.S. Forest Service ranger station in Idyllwild.
Another launch point, Highway 74 (the Palms to Pines Highway) bores through solid rock and winds through multiple life zones, from creosote scrub to elfin forests. It delivers drama. But if contact is what you’re after, find a little cove or cranny to inhabit for a few hours. (If you step off the trail, please don’t cut switchbacks, and don’t go in a herd.) Bartleson seeks nondescript washes where his footfall does less damage. If he sits there long enough to get past the tug of technology, birds, lizards and even bighorn sheep show up.
NATURE & CULTURE
Because of the range in elevation, the monument is lush with plant and animal life, including some 30 rare and endangered species. They include endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs, desert slender salamander, and a songbird called the least Bell’s vireo, along with the prize species: peninsular bighorn sheep.
If the point is contact, though, you don’t need the biggest or rarest. Naming and classifying plants and animals can actually get in the way of contact, because humans tend to name a thing and think they know it.
Settle in under a Washingtonia filifera (the world’s largest oasis of this palm is in 15-mile long Palm Canyon in the Indian Canyons. Here you’ll have shade, flowing water, and golden light reflecting off the palm skirts.
The legendary pueblo builder of Desert Hot Springs, Cabot Yerxa, suggested hikers always take along a magnifying glass. Foote likes to crush the leaves of plants to inhale the savor of lavender or sage. Though our noses are neglected in a tech-dependent world, recent studies show we can smell as well as hounds if we try.
Don’t forget touch. To invite this rusty sense, close your eyes and touch anything that doesn’t bite or stick. When he’s walking a trail, Foote brushes his hand through clumps of creosote or juniper just for the tactile thrill.
Toyama suggests listening to the birds. He’s learned a lot just watching and listening to the white winged dove, the oriole, and the towhee that sounds like a squirrel. “If you’re talking, you’re going to miss a lot,” he says.
You’re likely to hear an animal before you see it. It shows up as a falling pebble, a trickle of gravel. To find where sounds are coming from, tracker Tom Brown suggests cupping your ears to make them larger like an animal’s. The assault on natural sound is so great in the modern world that some national parks designate quiet trails or areas of silence. You’ll know you’ve found the quiet spot in the monument if you can hear Tahquitz (the legendary spirit of Tahquitz Canyon) mumble “strange old bits of earth-lore”, as author J. Smeaton Chase once did.
TIPS & ADVICE
The monument is not full of signs and kiosks, nor is it full of park rangers. Assume you’ll be on your own. Be prepared to spend a night out if you have to. But do tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
To stay safe while you’re coming to your senses, remember to carry more water than you think you’ll need. Don’t expect refills along the trails.
Orient yourself to the major peaks and canyons and look behind you often to avoid getting lost. Our sense of direction is also withered due to GPS and other technology, but you can get it back by just looking around. It’s OK to break the old “don’t go alone rule” because going alone (or at least with a quiet companion) is actually the best way to make contact with this place.
Before you put your hands or feet down anywhere, be sure to check the area for rattlesnakes. In the unlikely event you encounter a mountain lion, don’t run; stand firm and make yourself look tall.
The steps that you take to invite direct experience (ditching the devices) also will keep you safer in the wilderness. People get into trouble when they’re distracted. Scientists now say we actually have more than five senses. One of your unnamed senses waiting to be reclaimed in these mountains is the ability to intuit danger.
Highway 74, while stunning, is especially steep and winding, with few places to pull over. Give the road your full attention.
If you find a potshard or artifact of the early Cahuilla, resist the impulse to put it in your pocket. It’s against the law for one thing, and a chunk of pottery will quickly lose its meaning on your shelf. Left where it is, it remains part of the ongoing story these mountains have to tell.
In the old conquest mode of nature tourism, you picked a macho hike you could boast about on your Facebook page. In the new “Contact!” mode, the very best destination is no destination at all. “It is a great art to saunter,” Thoreau said.
Andreas Canyon is a good place to work out your ability to wander aimlessly. The clear green stream and toppled boulders are featured in Zane Grey’s Wanderer of the Wasteland. La Quinta Cove, with its 360-degree mountains, is a prime spot to boost your depth perception, Bartleson says.
Or try the short but sensory-saturated Randall Henderson Trail at the Visitor Center on Highway 74. At the Cahuilla Tewanet overlook higher up Highway 74, you can learn about the resident Indians, who were well ahead of Thoreau when it came to direct experience.
If you’re determined to go the conquest route, try the Cactus Springs Trail, accessed from Highway 74; the ocotillo-studded Boo Hoff Trail in La Quinta; or the Pacific Crest Trail that winds through the monument from Highway 74 to Snow Creek. The biggest conquest of all — the Cactus to Clouds climb from the desert floor to the top of San Jacinto — can get the cavalier into serious trouble. Read extensively on the route before you go.
Dog on leash are allowed on the lower La Quinta Cove trails, the Homestead Trail, and Gabby Hayes Trail in Palm Desert. For information, contact the Monument Visitor Center or see the maps on the City of Palm Desert website.
CONTACTS & VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
To pick up maps and for more information visit the Monument Visitor Center four miles up Highway 74 from Highway 111.
If you enter from the Idyllwild side, drop by the Forest Service ranger station. For activities and volunteer opportunities, such as invasive plant removal and protection of archaeological sites, contact Friends of the Desert Mountains.
NATIONAL MONUMENT VISITOR CENTER
PALM SPRINGS AERIAL TRAMWAY
MOUNT SAN JACINTO STATE PARK AND WILDERNESS
FRIENDS OF THE DESERT MOUNTAINS
U.S. FOREST SERVICE, IDYLLWILD