Photography by Tom Brewster
For centuries, tales of Tahquitz Canyon and Peak have stirred an equal measure of intrigue and fear among Coachella Valley residents and visitors. Above the western slope on the Idyllwild side of the San Jacinto Mountains, the 8,750-foot granite peak bears the name of a Cahuilla Indian shaman who was banished to the canyon for using his powers for evil. Many people believe that the shaman’s malevolent, soul-devouring spirit still exerts power through thunder, earthquakes, and even a meteor firing through the night sky.
Since the late 1800s, this rugged landscape has drawn painters, filmmakers, and other creative types seeking inspiration, as well as skilled hikers and climbers like pros Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, who dare to challenge its face.
For this photo essay, landscape photographer Tom Brewster explored the terrain in an effort to learn the canyon and reveal its beauty from fresh perspectives.
Part of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, Tahquitz Canyon holds a rich and tangible history, revealing 2,000-year-old artifacts from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, as well as native plants and bodies of water that sustained the tribe.
At the end of West Mesquite Road in south Palm Springs, in the mouth of the canyon, lies the modern-style Visitors Center. Here, you can experience the wonder of the area through a film and exhibits, before embarking on a two-mile trail loop that takes you 350 feet up to the magical Tahquitz Falls, where snowmelt sustains the waterfall most of the year. Diverse flora, fauna, and wildlife — from the beavertail cactus to the Costa’s hummingbird — and the legends and lore of the canyon offer a bounty of beauty and history to experience and explore.
Bob Hepburn rests and draws water from Tahquitz Creek, nestled in the upper part of Tahquitz 2 campsite.
Meet ‘Mountain Bob’
Hiking to and from his cabin high in Tahquitz Canyon, Bob Hepburn would stop to sample the roots of a cattail, or pluck the leaves of the yellow monkey flower for his salad. He was curious to learn about the native plants, and found there wasn’t a handbook on the topic — and so he authored his own, Plants of the Cahuilla Indians. In this field guide to the Colorado Desert and surrounding mountains, writer Ann Japenga contributes a profile, revealing how Hepburn, now a Tahquitz tribal ranger, became a local celebrity known as “Mountain Bob.”
A Northern California native, Hepburn first explored Tahquitz Canyon in 1969. A young marine just back from Vietnam, and on a weekend liberty from the Twentynine Palms base, he wandered into Palm Springs, where a local told him about a hike to a waterfall. Entranced with the idea of water in the desert, he set out on the path.
Many have sought solace in Tahquitz Canyon, but Mountain Bob took it farther than most. He purchased three parcels of land — 17.5 acres — at elevations of 2,300 to 3,000 feet, and set out to make a home. On his back, he hauled two-by-fours, spruce flooring, bags of concrete, a twin bed frame and mattresses, a library of biblical texts (he translated them into other languages), iron weights, guitars, and tools. The sycamore-shaded streamside site where Hepburn settled is inaccessible to most, except by helicopter. For strong and brave hikers, it’s a five-hour workout. For Mountain Bob — even with furniture on his back — it’s a 90-minute stroll.
Hepburn’s feat awed the community. The rare hiker who ventured so far sometimes left a note for the famous naturalist. The few who saw him in his wild element felt as lucky as if they’d spotted a wood spirit. Then-future Mayor Ron Oden even dropped in by helicopter. Having a Thoreau-type character gave Palm Springs a mystique that continues to make people marvel.
Adapted with permission from Ann Japenga’s biography of Robert Hepburn in the book Plants of the Cahuilla Indians. To purchase the book, visit enduringknowledgepublications.com