Water runs through Chino Canyon, giving life to wildflowers.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM BREWSTER
An expansive slant of boulder fragments and sand spills from the jagged mouth of Chino Canyon in North Palm Springs. Carried by eons of mountain snowmelt and runoff tumbling through canyon walls, the metamorphic sediment funnels into the dramatic pitch known as Chino Cone — one of North America’s most photographed alluvial fans.
Where Chino Cone narrows to greet the canyon’s narrow entrance, a tangle of palm trees and wild grape vines offers a cool respite from the arid crush of creosote, burroweed, and rock. Known as “The Vines” in recent times, this quaint oasis fed by a perennial stream holds a storied past. In the early 1900s, The Vines, now closed to the public, attracted an eclectic consortium of creative bohemians, as well as artists and writers such as J. Smeaton Chase and George Wharton James, who sought inspiration in this idyllic land.
Prior to this incarnation, however, The Vines was the site of a Cahuilla village as ancestors of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians developed complex communities centuries ago near the water flowing from area canyons. They used the water for crops as evidenced by remnants of rock-lined irrigation ditches still visible in Tahquitz Creek. Documentation from the mid-1880s tells of Cahuilla elders remembering their parents working on these ditches when they were very young.
Chino Canyon also provided a sanctuary of sorts as Cahuilla people fled to its caves to escape the black measles, tuberculosis, and the smallpox, epidemic before an 1887 flood forced them to evacuate. Leaning Rock, a massive boulder that appears as though it could topple anytime, marks the canyon’s entrance and served as an important landmark for early Cahuilla people.
The canyon, reputed as the steepest on the continent, was named after Pedro Chino, one of the most powerful Cahuilla shamans (pávu’ul), who was born in the canyon and said to tame and ride wild horses and turn into a mountain lion to hunt prey. As legend has it, Chino could communicate with núkatem, ancient sacred beings, through a portal to the underworld accessed via hot springs traveled to gain knowledge of otherworldly things. He traveled secret waterways under the mountain. Such avenues apparently existed as workers discovered them while digging a tunnel for the Colorado River Aqueduct in the 1930s. Pedro Chino was believed to have been 126 years old when he died in 1939. Agua Caliente Chief (nét) Francisco Patencio, author of Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, was also born in Chino Canyon.
Celebrated today as a welcoming Palm Springs landmark and gateway to the famed Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Chino Canyon is a master class in geological anatomy as its broad slope embraces the impressive transition from desert floor to the alpine peaks of the 270,000-acre Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Passengers ascend via tram cars, marveling at the intimate views of the canyon walls’ fissures, fractures, uplift, and strata created during 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto’s initial push through layers of granite.
At the base of Chino Canyon, where North Palm Canyon Drive intersects with Tramway Road, Palm Springs Visitors Center provides guests with valuable information and suggestions for their stay. It occupies the former Tramway Gas Station, which is famous for its iconic modern design by architects Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers and appearances in films and television shows. It most recently was in 2022’s Don’t Worry Darling starring Harry Styles and Florence Pugh.
Chino Canyon supports a broad range of endemic wildlife, some of which are threatened or endangered, that depend on the natural landscape for survival. Among them are the threatened desert tortoise, the endangered least Bell’s vireo, and Peninsular bighorn sheep, which use the canyon as a critical crossing point between habitats.
For decades, this hallowed canyon at the base of Mount San Jacinto has been the subject of much debate over development of the area. Shadowrock, which included an 18-hole golf course, houses, condominiums, and hotels — a total of more than 1,100 units — was planned for the upper Chino Canyon, for example. According to Friends of the Palm Springs Mountains, the development would have irreparably harmed the canyon, destroyed views from much of the Coachella Valley, and further endangered bighorn sheep that rely on the canyon’s gravel apron as part of their traditional range. In 2007, voters rejected a 10-year extension of the development agreement between the city and the developers of Shadowrock.
Today, almost a half-million visitors annually come into the canyon to ride the rotating tram cars and indulge in hiking, rock climbing, sledding, and expansive views of the Coachella Valley.
This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spring/Summer 2023.