The moon in the distance from Snow Creek
Photography by Tom Brewster
Cal Fire crews unfurled hoses in the driveway of the rotating house, the storybook hut, and the hermit’s stone cabin during last August’s inferno that made worldwide news. For the first time, people as far away as New York and London were hearing about the jumble of odd abodes called Snow Creek.
The village came very near burning down. Because it survived, now is a good time to take a look at this forgotten bohemia of only 39 homes only seven miles from the modernist hub of Palm Springs. With its varied architecture and equally eclectic residents, Snow Creek provides the feminine to Palm Springs’ masculine, the right brain to its left. While Palm Springs loves straight lines, the village is all swoops and curves.
Recently, more and more L.A. style-makers have been buying here in search of qualities similar to those found in the bohemian enclaves of Big Sur or Marfa, Texas. Bohemias are — or at least they start out to be — inexpensive, hidden, and embracing to eccentrics. Since the 1920s, Snow Creek has sheltered clairvoyants, zeppelin pilots, recluses, and rock stars (the Beatles are said to have visited), all in digs less expensive than the surrounding gated communities.
Longtime resident Tracy Albrecht says there’s a lot going on here, whether its architecture, geography, or wildlife. Snow Creek is where the desert meets the coastal currents, and as a result, it’s always windy “with a nice mix of flora and fauna,” she says. The Bureau of Land Management interpretive specialist has spotted bobcat, deer, and badger on her walks in the washes. The roiling forces of nature seem to influence human residents as well. “It’s an unsettled place geographically and socially.”
New homeowners Jeff Vilarino and Bill Mackin, a former vice president at Neiman Marcus, purchased a ramshackle 1947 home, and plan to erect a modern house on the existing pad. They say their Palm Springs friends have never heard of Snow Creek. “If you’re going too fast, you’re going to pass it by,” says Vilarino, a home accessories designer who had previously lived in Europe, Australia, Japan, and Dallas.
The couple is designing a house to be “one with the mountain,” and considering volunteering as trail angels (hosts to weary hikers) for the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through the village.
William Dailey, a rare-book dealer in L.A., recently purchased two homes here — a circa-1958 replica of John Lautner’s Bergren house in the Hollywood Hills, as well as a 1956 cabin inhabited by three generations of a local family. What appealed to him was the beauty of San Jacinto’s north face and “the idea of living somewhere slightly off the map.”
Other newcomers include a movie stunt man, a L.A. costume designer, and the daughter of a famous folksinger. Virginia Milanovich, sister of the late Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians tribal leader Richard Milanovich, recently built a home here. Snow Creek was an early Cahuilla village site, and was vitally important to the tribe, according to the late elder Alvino Siva.
Before relocating here, all these people had to find Snow Creek — and that’s not easy. As you’re heading out Highway 111, look left before the freeway junction, and you’ll see a blot of green near the base of the mountain. A discreet sign indicates the turn-off.
The massive 10,834-foot mountain face dwarfs the trendsetters below. As artists and star mountain climbers can attest, Snow Creek claims one of the best mountain views in America. The peak and its shadow — along with the San Gorgonio pass winds — dominate daily life in the village. The sun drops behind the summit early in winter, signaling an abrupt end to the day. A favorite local pastime is tracking the Y-shaped notch on the mountain as it fills with snow in winter, and retreats to a dot of white in spring.
The wind screams incessantly through the community olive grove. The forest of windmills below town blinks red at night. And each spring, hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail migrate through town, sometimes accompanied by pack-toting llamas. There are ongoing feuds and fights between the hippies, libertarians, and conservatives who live here. If you think your own homeowners association is raucous, try attending a Snow Creek homeowners’ meeting.
The “creek” has always been the centerpiece of Snow Creek. A 1953 Palm Springs Villager article described it as “a perfect harlequin of a stream,” lush with wild grape vine, alders, oaks, dipper birds, and sumac with lemonade berries. When the creek ran right through the village, locals built stone pools, and fished for trout off their back porches.
Many people have wanted a piece of that creek. In 1898, a man named S.J. Darrah tacked a notice to a sycamore tree, claiming the first water rights. The Southern Pacific Railroad also claimed the resource for its operation. Matters escalated when homesteader Darrah and his neighbor faced off with shotguns, and Darrah was killed over the contested right to water.
In the 1920s, Alvah Hicks secured the water for the Palm Springs Water Company, which was later sold to the Desert Water Agency. DWA began diverting water from the village to sell to the residents of Palm Springs, and the stream grew skimpy. In 1988, the agency turned off the water completely. An artist named Mildred Herwood (companion of abstract expressionist artist Victor Thall) led the homeowners in a fight to reclaim the creek.
In response to the 1991 complaint, DWA reported to the State Water Resources Control Board: “Snow Creek does not flow through Snow Creek Village and never has.” If the residents wanted a stream, they said, they could pay the agency for water that once flowed freely. Les Starks, a homeowner since 1992, says the residents were distracted from the water battle by a lengthy fight with Riverside County over the installation of wind turbines near the village. The turbine threat is averted for the moment, but Starks says Snow Creek remains one of the few “Class A” potential wind energy sites in the Coachella Valley. With the locals focused on fighting wind turbines, the stream and the backyard swimming holes dried up. The frogs went silent, and creekside alders died.
Snow Creek had lost a major attraction. The novelty of water in the desert had long seduced seekers and mystics. In the 1930s, teachers of a religion called Spiritualism (based on communication with the dead), Denver and Lucy Ellen Lamb, built a cabin in Los Osos Canyon, just north of the village. A flood destroyed the cabin, and today the stream and woodland is Oasis de los Osos Reserve, a research facility operated by the University of California Natural Reserve System.
“The Lambs used the narrow depth of the canyon, the shadows and water, to keep cool,” Starks says. “I think their place had to be the most romantic and dreamy place in the desert — imagine the ancient spirits Denver and Lucy communicated with up there.”
The contralto soprano Madame Ellen Beach Yaw could be heard singing opera as she wound her way up the canyon. Yaw was known as Lark Ellen, and has a school and street in Covina named for her. On her strolls, the opera singer with Theosophist (Theosophy is a mystical belief system) leanings passed the home of Swedish artist Axel Linus, who traveled the world in search of beauty, before finally landing in Snow Creek.
John Van Pelt, a teacher and arranger of choral music, built the turreted storybook house, an example of a genre know for its Hansel and Gretel-style fairytale elements. Some people call it the ship house because hikers on Pacific Crest Trail above town see the lights of the house and mistake it for a vessel riding the night. An inscription on the house says it was built “With Love-Spirit-Rock” — a good motto for Snow Creek as a whole.
L.A. businessman Floyd D’Angelo built the circa-1962 D’Angelo house, a rare example of kinetic, or revolving, architecture. Said to resemble a flying saucer on a pole, the house was meant to show off the post-war aluminum D’Angelo marketed.
A more organic example of Snow Creek style is the little hobbit-like stone house at the bend of the road. Reputed to be a former stage stop, it was once the home of Peter Russ, a woodcarving hermit who died in 1952.
One of the urban sophisticates who found his way here was Thall, an artist who met Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway in Paris, and painted with Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky in New York. He left New York just before the abstract expressionism explosion made his friends famous, winding up eventually in front of a boarded-up cabin in Snow Creek in the 1960s. “Thall drove a red MG, had beautiful girlfriends, kept rattlesnakes in cages, and painted all day. What a life,” Starks says.
Of course locals worry that the recent influx of trendsetters will erode the boho vibe that brought people like Thall here in the first place. Enclaves like Carmel and Greenwich Village went mainstream once the elite discovered them. “Money always follows bohemia because bohemians know where to go,” says Bill Dailey.
Through all the changes, the defunct stream remains, somehow, at the heart of the village. Residents find vintage fishing bobbers in their gardens, and old-timers still say “over by the creek” when referring to houses along the dry creek bed. Near the end of her life, water activist Herwood moved to a nursing home in Texas, still dreaming of the stream. “The big mystery is why did they take our water away from us,” she said.
If You Visit
Many Snow Creek residents move to the village seeking privacy. Please avoid parking on village streets. Rather, park outside the village at the wooden sign and be discreet if you take a walk.
The Desert Water Agency closely controls access to Mt. San Jacinto via Snow Creek. Please avoid areas marked “closed” or “no trespassing.”
Los Osos Canyon, north of the village, is managed by the University of California Natural Reserve system, and is closed to the public.