The most famous and notorious fault in the world begins only 30 minutes south of the idyllic desert resorts of Greater Palm Springs and runs 800 miles northwest, from the Salton Sea to Cape Mendocino on the Northern California coast. It represents both an existential threat (a big quake can kill and injure thousands of people and cripple the economy for decades) as well as a fascinating attraction, especially in the Palm Springs area, where visitors tour the fault in Jeeps and Hummers and hike through canyons created by the shifting Pacific and North American tectonic plates.
The most devastating quake occurred along the northern portion of the fault, near San Francisco, in 1906. Buildings collapsed, fired burned, and more than 1,500 people perished.
But the southern portion running through the desert has experienced relatively small earthquakes since 1690, begging the perennial question: When will the “big one” strike?
Visitors access the fault in Desert Hot Springs and Indio, as well as around the Salton Sea. But the best place to start is online, at sanandreasfault.org, which offers links to self-guided tours, a field guide, history, myths, and resources.
Disappointment befalls those expecting to see a huge chasm in the earth. As this photo essay illustrates, the attractions here are the jaw-dropping geological anomalies created by time and pressure — an unsettling kind of beauty that bespeaks the fragility of the land and our very livelihood.
IF YOU GO
Two local tour companies offer different experiences along the San Andreas Fault: Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours (red-jeep.com)
Adventure Hummer Tours (adventurehummer.com).