Before you descend into Palm Canyon, one of the three main hiking trails in the Indian Canyons (Murray and Andreas are the others), give yourself a moment to behold the splendor of the landscape — particularly the dramatic meeting of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges and the world’s largest grove of Washintonia filifera palm trees — and consider its centuries-old history as the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
The tribe’s story traces through every twist and turn of Palm Caynon. A ranger-led hike here reveals a lot about the land — from the flora and fauna to how it originally provided for the Cahuilla people.
The primary reason the Cahuilla made this their home becomes clear as soon as you start hiking down the moderately graded footpath into the canyon: water. A stream runs along the path shaded by the stunning palm oasis.
Palm Canyon became the tribe’s main source of shade, shelter, and materials such as the juncus grass they used to weave baskets, plants and seeds they gathered for food and medicine, and arrowweed they fashioned into hunting weapons and used to construct a kish, the Cahuilla word for a traditional dwelling. They used fallen palm fronds to cover their hut-like homes. In one spot along the hike, you’ll encounter two dwellings, each with a hole on top that allowed for cooking inside the structure.
Also along the floor are rocks with holes in them —mortars used to prepare food and medicine. The area was a gathering place where the Cahuilla people collected and ground the beans from mesquite into a flour to make cakes and biscuits. They used the mesquite wood for cooking. They also gathered acorns and palm fruit, as well as the fragrant desert lavender used to make a tea to ease coughs and sore throats.
Today, in addition to hikers, this slice of the canyon attracts visitors to picnic, meditate, and horseback ride. (Saddle up at the nearby Smoke Tree Stables.) Visitors can also see the exposed plates of the Palm Canyon fault line, which cuts through the city and meets up with the San Andreas Fault.
There’s also a decent chance of spotting Peninsular bighorn sheep. Look high up on the mountains for the endangered rams with massive curled horns.
At the end of the Palm Canyon hike, you return to where you began: at the Trading Post, where you can find Native art, books, jewelry, baskets, and weavings and enjoy refreshments on a shaded patio.
Ninety-minute, ranger-led hikes are free with admission from October through June on Fridays through Sundays at 10 a.m.