Fern Canyon: The Trail Less Traveled

A small palm oasis and panoramic views reward hikers who traverse the sandy and rocky terrain of Fern Canyon.

Steven Biller Hiking

A warning to hikers of Fern Canyon. 

Maybe we were selfish: My partner, Edgar, and I wanted a desert oasis to ourselves — a cool, peaceful spot out of cell phone range where we could hear the birds and critters and take in the splendor of the Indian Canyons. The most popular trails were out of the question.

We parked at the Trading Post, but rather than follow the well-trodden Palm Canyon route to the world’s largest palm oasis, we walked through the overflow parking lot to the trailhead for Fern Canyon. This lesser-known route promised everything we wanted: a good workout, jaw-dropping views, and a peaceful oasis to relax in the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. We were rewarded with a bounty of natural beauty kissed by mesmerizing light.

But it was no easy walk in the park.

Fern Canyon is a remote, moderately challenging, 4.3-mile, out-and-back route covering a variety of terrain — sandy washes, rocky ascents, and stretches of firm ground in between — that average hikers like Edgar and me complete in roughly two hours.

The first leg of the trail leads into a wash, which we followed until we saw a sign pointing the way up — a steep, not insignificant climb toward a ridge (a 600-foot elevation gain) filled with barrel cactuses, creosote, brittlebush, and cholla. (We suggest using hiking sticks, especially for the return descent.) Here, about a mile into the hike, the views of Palm Canyon and the San Jacinto Mountains stopped us in our tracks.

Then the trail drops into another wash that leads through a narrow canyon to a small oasis with palms, ferns, and other water-loving plants. We found the only shady spot on our journey ­— a resting spot among the fallen palm fronds. If the maidenhair ferns were weeping, it was because the area was bone dry when we hiked the trail, only a few days before a heavy rain. We’ll return this month for a look at the verdant ferns. Nevertheless, it was easy to see why the Cahuilla people valued palm oases like this one: Access to water, game, and edible plants added to the shade and cooler temps.

By this point, we had a good accounting of  flora and fauna. In addition to any number of lizards and crawling critters on and around the trail, we saw a red-tailed hawk circling for prey, a phainopepla nibbling on desert mistletoe, and bighorn sheep in the distance.

The plant life was robust. We spotted several varieties of cactus, including an abundance of red barrel and hedgehog, as well as creosote, cheesebush, desert sage, and catclaw. These and other plants and shrubs provided a reliable food source for the indigenous Cahuilla. For instance, beavertail cactus is plentiful and desirable for its sweet fruit in early summer. Likewise, the buds of the barrel cactus, found on the rocky slopes, ripen from April through June; Cahuilla women would use a pair of short sticks to pluck and drop the buds into a basket to be eaten or dried for storage, according to Temalpakh, a book of Cahuilla knowledge and usage of plants.

A variety of terrain leads to a refreshing palm oasis along  the Fern Canyon trail.

The resourceful Cahuilla people found medicinal uses for the stems and leaves of ubiquitous creosote shrubs, using them to make teas to cure colds, chest infections, and stomach cramps. Meanwhile, catclaw provided edible bean-like pods that the Cahuilla would dry and pound into flour to prepare mush or cakes. The shrubs were also used as a firewood and construction material for kiš (dome-shape dwellings) and open-sided shelters known as ramadas, which were mainly framed with cottonwood poles. (You can see examples of these structures in the oasis along the Palm Canyon Trail.)

Fan palms, which grow to more than 60 feet tall, were also an excellent source of food and structural reinforcements. The Cahuilla people fashioned the strong fronds into everything from cooking utensils to protective sandals, and the tree’s seeds provided a perfect filling for gourd rattles. 

We also encountered versatile mesquite, white sage, and jojoba, whose seeds were crushed into a powder to make a coffee-like drink in ancient times.

After cooling off in the oasis, we were ready to turn back. But, first, curiosity drew us forward to where the canyon came to an end, and we found ourselves in a wide-open wash. We continued until we reached a junction with several more trails: Hahn Buena Vista, Vandeventer, Dry Wash, East Fork, and Dunn Road.

This is where Edgar and I turned around and started back toward the oasis and
then up through Fern Canyon. We stopped amid the red barrel cactuses and chollas to marvel at the view of Palm Canyon as the sun beamed through the mighty San Jacinto Mountains and cast its light on the sprawling oasis.

Then we followed the trail as it dropped us back into the wash. We trudged a short distance until we saw our route pick up again to the left, leading us back toward the overflow lot.

Fern Canyon represents only a sliver of the Indian Canyons’ 60 miles of hiking trails. If you’re luckly, as Edgar and I were, you’ll find a palm oasis where the sounds and sights of nature will leave the bustle and stress of everyday life in your dust.

The Indian Canyons are open daily Oct. 1 through July 4, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the summer, July 5 to Sept. 30, days are reduced to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only. Wear sunscreen, light clothes, and a hat, and carry plenty of water.

This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spring/Summer 2023.