5 Amazing Desert Hikes

Trail expert Philip Ferranti shows why the Coachella Valley has become a year-round destination for hikers to refresh themselves physically and spiritually.

March 29, 2010
Story by Site Staff

Denver can almost compete. Seattle and Portland try, but fall short. Nowhere in the lower 48 can you find more hiking trails (more than 140) or trail mileage (more than 1,250) than within the 60-mile-plus radius of Palm Springs. And nowhere in such a concentrated area will you find the diversity of topography and flora. With elevations of 11,000 feet to below sea level, this desert resort area is fast becoming one of the country’s pre-eminent hiking destinations.

The lay of the land has made it so. Seven mountain ranges border and slope into the 50-mile-long Coachella Valley. High country flows down into lower foothills, creating hundreds of canyons and dozens of palm oases. Several faults, including the infamous San Andreas, cut through the valley, while the stable North American Tectonic Plate interacts with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, forming the eastern edge of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, which creeps northwest toward the Bay Area.

Human intervention has also made it so. Legislation has created one of California’s great scenic state parks, Mount San Jacinto, along with Joshua Tree National Park, the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and the scenic nature preserves of the Coachella Valley: Whitewater Canyon and Big Morongo Canyon. In addition, the Agua Caliente Reservation offers the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, while the Mecca Hills and Western Orocopia Mountains have become one of the most visited geological areas in California.

Finally, the famous Palm Springs-area weather: Where else from November to April can you hike beneath sunny skies with an average 78-degree temperature? As temps rise on the desert floor, hikers seek the high country, making this a year-round destination for hikers to refresh themselves physically and spiritually.

The following five hikes represent a sampling of the scenic variety the area’s trails offer.

1. The “Big Split Rock” Slot Canyon Walkabout (Mecca Hills)

Length: 6 miles
Hiking Time: 3 hours
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Season: October to April

The Mecca Hills lie in the northeast corner of the Coachella Valley, along the boundary of the North American Tectonic Plate, where the San Andreas Fault converges with other fault lines to form the uplifted, geologically exotic area known as the Mecca Hills. The canyons and low mountains here strike the eye of any visitor as a place “off-planet,” resembling a lunar landscape, especially under the soft light of a full moon.

By day, however, this contorted, compressed land is blessed with a profusion of vibrant color, the result of minerals deep in the Earth having been exposed over eons of time to the erosion of wind and water, while abundant iron-based minerals have combined with the elements to form washes of red, lilac, orange, coral, burnt sienna, and other desert hues more reminiscent of Southern Utah than Southern California.

DIRECTIONS: To reach the Mecca Hills, Painted Canyon, and Box Canyon area, take Interstate 10 several miles past Indio heading east. Take the 86 South exit toward Brawley (this new expressway bypasses the old Highway 111). Travel nearly 10 miles and turn left on 62nd Avenue. Drive several miles until reaching Johnson Street. Turn right, drive several miles, and turn left on 66th Avenue (Box Canyon Road). Proceed about five miles past grape and citrus ranches, cross the All-American Canal, and look for the green sign on the right indicating Painted Canyon. Turn left onto this dirt road and proceed about four miles. The sign indicates only four-wheel-drive vehicles can pass, but in dry years, the road can be driven safely with a car. Check with the Bureau of Land Management office in Palm Springs for road conditions at 1-760-251-4800. The last mile of Painted Canyon Road passes through the beautiful and exotic canyon entrance to this area and crosses over the San Andreas Fault as you enter the canyon, ending at a turn-around parking area with a sign posted “End of Maintained Road.”

THE “BIG SPLIT ROCK” SLOT CANYON WALKABOUT is an excellent representative hike of the exotic geology found in the Mecca Hills. A fun adventure, especially for kids, this hike includes perhaps the longest slot canyon in the desert, accented at the end by a huge split mountain only several feet wide that hikers nimbly negotiate in order to see a San Andreas Fault fracture up close and personal. The walkabout section enhances the experience with exotic sculptured rock formations, colorful boulders, and soaring canyons.

This trail is best done early in the morning and on a sunny day for maximum enjoyment and effect. After turning left off Box Canyon Road (Avenue 66), drive 4.5 miles on the Painted Canyon dirt road (as of this printing the road is passable for cars even though the sign says four-wheel-drive vehicles). You will come to a colorful and narrow part of the canyon, a winding section that goes right, then left, and straight again. As the road widens, note the brilliant silver, gray, orange, and cream rock formations to your left. Turn off the dirt road and take the smaller Jeep trail toward and alongside the hills for 100 yards. Park just before reaching the large canyon opening in front of you. If you overshoot this area and go a quarter-mile to the road’s end at the Painted Canyon Trailhead, drive back and go into the first large canyon to your left.

Begin hiking into this at-first narrow canyon opening. Note the colorful rocks and rockslides to your right, where large, muted orange-colored boulders have broken off and fallen down from the mountaintop. Disregard the first small canyon you come to on your left. After 0.3 mile, you will reach a fork in the main canyon. Take the fork to your left, which breaks into two parallel canyons. Stay in the larger canyon to your left. You will soon pass a small slot canyon on your left, which you can explore — but return to the canyon you just entered.

I call this “Big Split Rock Slot Canyon.” It continues for almost a half-mile. As you proceed, the canyon narrows, as a slot canyon does. You will climb up small rock chutes or over boulders and even sometimes under them. You’ll see great rock falls. It’s a slot canyon that claustrophobics should avoid. Large dogs might be challenged, but small adventurous ones (and kids) will have a blast. You finally arrive at “The Big Split,” which is obvious, and can be negotiated carefully before the canyon again widens and seemingly ends at tall, rocky, dry falls. Return to where you entered the canyon. The next canyon to your left is also a slot canyon and can also be partially explored. Return to the main canyon, heading left into the large, open, wash-bottom canyon that slowly curves around the large mountain above you. Note the interesting rock formations above you every quarter-mile or so.

After hiking 1.25 miles through the main canyon, you will come to the first large canyon opening to your right. You may explore this canyon, but the better choice is to stay in the main canyon and take the next canyon going right, its opening marked by a large, thorny cat’s claw bush. This canyon winds past rockslides, Utah-like sand sculptures above you, and other geological sights. After 1.5 miles in the main canyon, you may take either split in the canyon. Explore as you like before returning to your vehicle the same way you came. This hike “pops” in early morning sunlight and entices with multiple canyons you will want to return to and explore.

2. Lost Palms Oasis Trail at Cottonwood Spring (Joshua Tree National Park)

Length: 8 miles
Hiking time: 4 hours
Elevation gain: 400 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: September to May
Information: Joshua Tree National Park, 1-760-367-5500

On the southernmost boundary of Joshua Tree National Park, several minor earthquake fault lines — branches of the San Andreas Fault line 20 miles southwest — cut through the low mountains overlooking Interstate 10. By doing so, the fault encourages water to seep to the surface. At one such point, you can explore a lush growth of California fan palms for their stately beauty. This particular grouping of fan palms is known as Lost Palms Oasis and makes a beautiful day hike through washes and over plateaus, offering stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, including the distant San Jacinto Mountains to the west.

DIRECTIONS: To reach the trailhead, travel about 20 miles east of Indio on I-10. Exit at the Joshua Tree National Park off-ramp, turn left on the road leading into the park, and drive eight miles to Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center. There you will find more information about the national park and a campground.

THE BEST TIME FOR THIS HIKE is February through April or October and November. It can get hot in the afternoon during warm times of year, so carry an ample supply of cool water.

The trail begins east of the visitor center. Head immediately up a gradual rising slope, then pass through a series of washes. Look for the brown trail markers as you pass through the sandy washes. In springtime, the flowers and astonishingly rich plant life will entice you to stop and enjoy the flora. As you climb, look to the rear for beautiful views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

The trail takes you to a plateau, found at the three-mile marker. Gaze due south for stunning vistas of the Salton Sea Basin — almost primeval in its rugged wilderness look. You will soon come to several small washes, from which you’ll climb until reaching the overlook for Lost Palms Oasis.

Explore the oasis by dropping down the indicated trail, or just admire the beauty of both the palms and the magnificent mountains to the east. The hike on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail is more relaxing than many others because it has little elevation gain — it feels more like a walk through a nature park and gives you an intimate feel for the mixture of rugged mountains and flowering desert.

3. Whitewater Canyon/Pacific Crest Trail Ridge Loop (Whitewater Preserve)

Length: 4 miles
Hiking time: 2 hours
Elevation gain: 300 to 400 feet      
Difficulty: Easy
Season: October to May
Information: Whitewater Preserve, 1-760-325-7222

Whitewater Preserve and Canyon forms the boundary between the Coachella Valley desert area and the San Bernardino Mountains to the northwest. The canyon is home to Whitewater River, whose waters over thousands of years have charged the aquifer beneath the Coachella Valley with fresh drinking water. Whitewater Canyon/Pacific Crest Trail Ridge Loop takes you first over, then above, Whitewater River. In less than a half-mile, you will access the famous Pacific Crest Trail. Wind your way to the top and hike the ridge above Whitewater Canyon. Especially after a wet winter, this hike can be accented with tall green grasses and a profusion of wildflowers and flowering bushes. Striking scenic vistas of distant mountain ranges in all directions and the valley below make this hike a must.

DIRECTIONS: From anywhere in the Coachella Valley, drive west on Interstate 10. After passing Highway 62 to Joshua Tree National Park, turn right at the exit marked “Whitewater.” At the stop sign, turn right, then left (after a few hundred yards) onto Whitewater Canyon Road. After five miles, the road will take you into the main parking lot.

THIS HIKE BEGINS at the north section of the parking lot. After following the trail into the Whitewater River basin and crossing over to the west bank, continue a quarter-mile, and you’ll connect to the Pacific Crest Trail, coming in from the left.

Turn left and proceed through the gate. The trail will climb up gentle switchbacks, offering ever-expanding vistas of the surrounding mountains and river valley. At the top, the trail will branch. Take the left branch toward the east and nearing the cliff edge above the visitor’s center.

Eventually, you’ll reach a spur leading to the edge of the cliff. Follow it to look down at the visitor’s center and the beautiful ponds south of it.

Return to the main trail and continue south, enjoying the magnificent vistas in every direction. Eventually, the trail drops down at the southern tip of the ridge and bottoms at Whitewater Canyon Road. Return to the parking lot via the road on which you entered, a half-mile trek. Alternatively, return to the visitor’s center via the marked trail just past the bridge.

4. Palm Canyon Trail to the Stone Pools (Palm Springs Indian Canyons)

Length: 6 miles
Hiking Time: 3 hours
Elevation Gain: 880 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: October to May
Information: 1-760-323-6018

This trail takes you through the lush jungle-like river bottom of Palm Canyon and out to backcountry High Desert plateaus, where the entire horizon seems to open up. Looking 14 miles south toward the distant Santa Rosa Mountains, the trail is surrounded by the San Jacintos, which soar dramatically from the canyon floor. Stunning views of the desert and Palm Springs appear to your rear, followed by a series of magnificent plunging cliffs, waterfalls, and exotic pools fed by clear, shimmering ribbons of water racing through the rock gorges.

DIRECTIONS: Drive through Palm Springs on Highway 111 and Palm Canyon Drive until reaching the juncture with South Palm Canyon Drive. Stay to the right and take South Palm Canyon Drive to the end (about two miles). From the tollgate, continue 2.5 miles to the Palm Canyon parking lot. Head east down the road/trail at the east end of the parking lot (the Additional Parking Lot). Fern Canyon Trail begins at the north end of the parking lot.

DROP DOWN INTO PALM CANYON from the trading post and continue for almost a half-mile until you cross the creek to your left. As you pass the right fork of Palm Canyon, veer left and follow the streambed and trail for another half-mile until you reach the marker indicating that the trail crosses the stream and climbs up the south bank and the ridge. Head south along this trail. Very soon, the climb takes you into the open country, where you can appreciate the full, magnificent beauty of these canyons. The trail stays on a high plateau, with some occasional glimpses into small adjacent canyons.

After two miles of hiking, you will reach a wide dirt wash/Jeep road. Take the trail straight ahead, rather than following the wash to the left. You will eventually arrive at a place where the trail melts away into the sandy rock, but is still faintly visible on the slowly climbing rise above the canyon to your right.

Turn right and head down toward the canyon when it is obvious that the canyon bottom is less than 30 feet from the trail and when a small trail comes off the main trail to take you to the area known as the Stone Pools. In a wet year, water flows freely and deep, often creating a series of small pools. In a dry year, you can see only sporadic water. Explore up and down the canyon bottom before returning to the main trail and back to the trading post — a great spot to enjoy lunch.

5. Spitler Peak Trail (San Jacinto Mountains)

Length: 10 miles
Hiking time: 6 hours
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Season: Year-round
Information: USDA Forest Service, Idyllwild,
1-909-382-2922 or 1-951-659-2117

Visitors will be rewarded with the scenic, mountainous high country above Palm Springs by exploring the San Jacinto Mountains via the Spitler Peak Trail. A more than 2,000-foot elevation climb and 10 miles round-trip length might satisfy hikers wanting a more challenging experience. But if you want an easy six-mile round trip and only 500-feet elevation gain, do the first three miles only of the hike. The vistas from this hike include Lake Hemet to the south, along with Thomas Mountain and Garner Valley beneath you and the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and east. A great mountain experience!

DIRECTIONS: Drive 33 miles south of Palm Desert on Highway 74. Turn right on Apple Canyon Road (3.5 miles east of Mountain Center). At nearly three miles, you will see the sign for the Spitler Peak Trail on the road’s right shoulder. Park here and begin the climb to the peak.

THE TRAIL WINDS STEEPLY UP THROUGH MANZANITA and other chaparral brush. If the trail has been properly maintained, as it usually is, the ascent up the slope is relatively unimpeded. Once at the top, you can choose to head either east toward Fobes Saddle and down to the trailhead, or west to where the Pacific Crest Trail meets the Zen Center Trail. Either way, you must arrange a shuttle. Each of these hikes is close to eight miles long.


• Consult a good trail guidebook. 140 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs has been the definitive hiking book for the area since 1995. Find hikes that match your skill level. Note length, elevation gain, and seasonality and study the trail and driving maps.

• Check your gear. Comfortable hiking boots are best, while running shoes are fine for some trails. Take sunscreen, ample water, hat, and food/snacks. In warm weather, you might freeze half of your drink the night before, then add the rest, cold, the day of your hike.

• Check the weather forecast. Call 1-760-345-3711.

• Leave at the right time, keeping in mind that early-morning cool temps can easily give way to 80s or 90s by afternoon. (100's in the summer months)