san andreas fault

Beauty to a Fault

A natural wonder and a ticking time bomb, the San Andreas Fault attracts thrill-seekers and strikes fear into those who live along its menacing path.

Steven Biller Attractions, Current PSL

san andreas fault
The San Andreas Fault defines the border between two tectonic plates, the Pacific and North American. You can see its effects in the lifting of the ancient seabed into jagged slabs of rock in areas of the eastern Coachella Valley. This view shows the Indio Hills near Dillon Road and Interstate 10.

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, 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.


Two local tour companies offer different experiences along the San Andreas Fault:  Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours (

Adventure Hummer Tours (



Box Canyon Road runs
through the heart
of the Mecca Hills
and the badlands and canyons
created by erosion
and the fault.
It’s a popular area
for hikers and campers.
“These crosses in a far corner of Painted Canyon caught my eye,” photographer Tom Brewster says. “Steep hills of soft clay deposits have created treacherous conditions in this narrow canyon.”
Crosses at Painted Canyon
Sans Andreas Fault
Once the soft sandstone lifts and becomes exposed, the wind begins to etch nature’s  fantastic shapes.
“The variety of patterns and textures seems endless,”
Brewster says. “To give a sense of movement
and the dynamic nature of the landscape,
I used a sturdy tripod and minutes-long exposures.
It achieves a sense of the timelessness
of the wilderness that surrounds us.”