Giant Rock in Landers, California.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Scrambling up the steep and rocky South Lykken Trail in Palm Springs on a winter day that sweltered like summer. The plants alongside the path were crunchy, not a bloom to be found, and the entire hillside loomed monotonous.
I’d moved here from the Midwest a few months earlier and heard rumors of a waterfall somewhere nearby. A waterfall in the desert? That seemed as preposterous as a rainforest on the moon.
Near the top, I paused for a moment to take a swig of water and look over the edge. That’s when I spied the most peculiar thing below — water flowing down a distant cliff. I rubbed my eyes to ensure this wasn’t some sort of heat-induced trickery. But the marvel was no mirage.
From my perch on the trail, I was peering into Tahquitz Canyon, observing the fabled Tahquitz Falls from a bird’s-eye view. The waterfall was lovely in its cascade, but it also appeared to be an act of defiance. It was as if the water was shouting, declaring the desert to be a landscape of wonder.
In the years since, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve come to learn about this region: Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, something will make your jaw drop and demand exploration.
Natural wonders proliferate the California desert. Here are seven to know.
giant rock, Landers
Giant Rock is exactly what it professes to be: a very big rock.
But there’s also something otherworldly about this mass, a rock so grandiose that it urges us to push beyond the limits of sight.
Situated in the Mojave Desert, just beyond Landers, Giant Rock sits in a paper-flat expanse of sand and dirt surrounded by craggy hills. Soaring seven stories high, it covers approximately 5,800 square feet and is estimated to weigh 30,000 tons. It is professed to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world.
Over the years, Giant Rock has been thronged by international (and possibly interplanetary) visitors. It has served as a backdrop for motion pictures, meditation classes, and ufologist conventions. This was the legendary spot where aerospace engineer George Van Tassel allegedly made contact with a being from Venus who bestowed him with the plans to build the nearby Integratron (a domed structure intended for time travel that’s now used for sound baths).
In early 2000, the mottled granite rock fractured, and a significant chunk fell to its current resting place, revealing glimmering quartz crystals inside. There are a number of hypotheses as to why the rock split: Some say a small fissure finally gave way after years of expansion and contraction in the harsh desert conditions. There’s also speculation that decades of bonfires burned beneath the rock weakened it. Or maybe it was the earthquake that registered a couple hours before the event.
No matter what happened, it remains a wonder to behold.
The Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park is approximately 10 acres.
cholla cactus garden, Joshua Tree
33°55’ 31”N, 115°55’ 44”W
In a national park abounding with magnificent rock formations, wildlife, and spellbinding scenery on every trail, it’s hard to be the standout. Somehow the Cholla Cactus Garden does it.
This field of cactuses rises up from the gentle slopes of the Pinto Basin, which formed when fault lines yanked the earth apart. That shift pushed up the mountains along each side, while the space in between sank. Thousands of years ago, there were lakes and swamps along the basin; now you’ll find sand and loose gravel, ideal conditions for cactuses and other plants of the Colorado Desert.
While you’ll see creosote bushes and beavertails here, the real star is the teddy bear cholla, a fuzzy-looking plant whose fierce barbs almost appear cuddly. Almost. Locals commonly refer to it as “jumping cholla.” The spiny segments are only loosely attached, so they seem to leap from the plant without any coaxing, hitching a ride on your clothing, your bag, your shoes, or worse, your flesh.
You’ll find this stand of cactuses on the north end of Joshua Tree National Park, about 12 miles south of the Twentynine Palms entrance. There’s a brief, flat loop with decking (the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail) that wends through about 10 acres chock full of chollas. For maximum impact, visit at sunrise or sunset as light filters through the golden spines and the plants appear to glow.
painted canyon, Mecca Hills
33°37’09”N, 115° 59’ 57”W
About 15 miles southeast of Indio, the Mecca Hills Wilderness conceals a labyrinth of narrow slot canyons formed by the convergence of the San Andreas Fault’s restless plates. These sheer cliffs look like layers of sweet, sticky taffy that have been pulled and folded into ribbony waves, garnering the name Painted Canyon.
Painted Canyon connects to Ladder Canyon, where hikers have installed ladders to assist in the ascent. The loop is a popular trail.
A sandy, 4.5-mile loop trail sidewinds through the ancient rock walls and crevices, climbing to a ridge that overlooks the hills and eventually returning to a lower, flatter elevation. Local hikers installed and maintain a series of ladders along the loop to aid in ascension.
Exposed layers of eroded rock offer scientists a glimpse at the lasting effects of tremors on the planet’s crust. This landscape, where some sections are reported to be to over 600 million years old, serves as a reminder of the diverse formations of the California desert.
San Andreas Fault and Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms
I can’t be the only person who once imagined the San Andreas Fault zone as a deep, lightning- bolt-shaped crack in the earth. Then again, prior to relocating to California, the bulk of my earthquake knowledge was sourced from blockbuster disaster flicks starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The truth is, the fault zone is far more fascinating than a Hollywood production.
This 800-mile fault line system forms the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, roughly cleaving the state from north to south. There are three major sections of the fault line. The southern segment (also known as the Mojave segment), starts around the Salton Sea and traverses the California desert past Los Angeles to Parkfield, an unincorporated community in Monterey County.
Walk through a desert oasis along the fault line at the Coachella Valley Preserve.
The plates on either side of the fault line move horizontally, similar to the movement of two hands rubbing together. Eventually stress builds and the two plates slip and lurch, which causes an earthquake. Our segment, however, remains locked most of the time, producing relatively few microearthquakes.
At the Coachella Valley Preserve, you can walk right up to the fault line. While you won’t see a large crevice in the ground (you’ll find sections like that in the northern segment), you can witness the fault at work here — or rather, see the effects of seismic activity in the surrounding nature.
Underground activity pulls water to the surface, allowing stately palm trees to rise from the desert floor and creating a habitat for the endangered desert pupfish and wild lavender blooms.
the pumpkin patch, Anza Borrego
This unusual phenomenon in Anza Borrego Desert State Park looks like something ripped from fiction — Alice in Wonderland meets Mad Max, perhaps — a landscape densely studded with pumpkin-shaped boulders that don’t exist anywhere else in the surrounding desert.
These bulbous curiosities are called concretions. Though concretions can be found worldwide and vary widely in size, shape, color, and density, this city-block-sized locale is an exceptional showcase of this particular type. The “patch” was planted more than 4 million years ago, as Colorado River silt seeded the area with sandstone concretions. And then they grew.
These unusual concretions are located in the Anza Borrego desert.
Think of the concretions like desert pearls. Loose, wet sand adheres to something larger, like a pebble, a stick, a shell, or even a dead bug. Over time, that core is covered by layer after layer of cementing material, causing the formation to expand over hundreds of years. As wind, grit, and weather whittle away the sandy ground, the concretion eventually emerges. Most of the Anza Borrego concretions are round; others are pear-shaped. A few oval formations could pass for cracked dinosaur eggs.
Finding the pumpkin patch requires a high-clearance vehicle and a good sense of direction; the adventure is not for everybody. GPS will not get you here, so using longitude and latitude is recommended. Cellular reception is not reliable, so it’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with the directions before embarking on the journey.
Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs
In the 1969 experimental film HWY: An American Pastoral, Jim Morrison makes his way through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles and wanders, at one point, through Tahquitz Canyon. It was the height of the singer’s fame, and he looks every part the swaggering rock star, even while clamoring over desert rocks and taking a dip in the creek. But the Lizard King himself seems to fade against the powerful backdrop.
This place radiates energy. Three fault lines meet below the canyon, a convergence that formed its towering cliffs. Millions of years ago, heat and pressure accumulated above and below Earth’s surface, smashing rocks and squeezing out the minerals that stipple and speckle the formations. Many slabs display quartz intrusions, slanting white bands that run through them. And then there’s the spectacular 60-foot waterfall, whooshing over smooth granite into a sparkling pool.
The 60-foot Tahquitz Falls once attracted Jim Morrison for a swim.
PHOTO BY DANIELA STALLINGER
This is the land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose ancestors thrived on the abundance of wildlife, nourished themselves on honey mesquite beans, and created the area’s first irrigation system, remnants of which are still visible today. This canyon is also where they banished Tahquitz, an ancient shaman who used his power selfishly. Legend has it, his spirit still lurks among the gnarled cliffs.
indian canyons, Palm Springs
The magic of the Indian Canyons isn’t simply in the beauty of its three desert canyons. It’s that every visit feels like a trip back in time. Tucked along the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, this area (adjacent to Tahquitz Canyon) comprises the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Visitors can see remnants of the communities that thrived here through artifacts like rock art and home structures while exploring the palm trees and perennial streams that sustain native flora and fauna.
The Indian Canyons contain multiple hiking trails and the world’s largest oasis of California fan palms.
PHOTO BY DANIELA STALLINGER
Located only a few miles from downtown Palm Springs, the Indian Canyons contain the world’s largest oasis of Washingtonia filifera, or California fan palms. Multiple hiking trails appropriate for a range of abilities and experience levels thread through the canyons, offering a wonderful way to experience this sacred place. Andreas Canyon, where more than 150 plant species cluster in a half-mile radius, offers a short, quick loop with little elevation gain. Surefooted hikers looking for more of a moderate challenge enjoy Murray Canyon, boasting several water crossings before leading to the Seven Sisters waterfall. Palm Canyon claims one of the most scenic trails, a 3-mile loop that ascends through the oasis to a ridge that overlooks the area’s proliferation of palm trees.