The Desert Riders

For 64 years, members of this exclusive group have ridden off into the sunrise. But a change is on the horizon.

Carolyn Patten PSL and Villager

Reprinted from the March 1995 issue of Palm Springs Life Magazine

They are the true royalty of Palm Springs. Each Tuesday morning they emerge from the desert dawn, dressed in tailored riding pants and the customary — and not incidentally, custom-made — cambray shirts, set off by heavy silver collar points. In elegant jackets and handmade boots that would say "drugstore cowboy" if they hadn't been molded to their wearer's feet for thousands of miles, the Desert Riders mount the horses that they treat as gently as family members, and ease onto a trail that owes its very existence to their open-handed love of the desert.

With more than 200 members, including the cream of Palm Springs society, various business people, early pioneers and a lot of people who simply love horses, the club gathers for a brisk ride through the desert to enjoy breakfast and some homespun cowboy entertainment. Although some members are done with the horseback riding and now arrive in luxury automobiles, nothing can keep the devoted Desert Riders from their weekly roundup.

"It's just plain good fun," says Jane Hoff, a member of the DR since her father Carl Lykken helped found the club in 1931. "Desert Riders was formed to have a good time. At first it was all social — horses were the only form of recreation back then."

Back then — 1931 — Indian Avenue was a dusty little street, horses were stabled where the high school now stands, and Carl Lykken's general store had the only telephone and telegraph in the village. There was one public golf course and two tennis courts. The Desert Inn and El Mirador Hotel were the only places in town with both a tennis court and a pool. The U.S. Census for that year gave Palm Springs just 1,040 residents. "More like 40 in the summer," remembers Jane.

Membership in the Desert Riders soon became the most prized possession a desert rider could have. "You could go as a guest twice," says Jane, but then you had to be proposed for membership and voted on." And, in the true spirit of the trail, riders were never told if they were up for membership: We didn't want them to be embarrassed if they were turned down."

Olivia de Haviland, Robert Taylor, William Holden, Don Ameche, Dennis Day, Hugh O'Brien, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and Gary Grant were only some of the Hollywood stars who joined up with the group. Jack Boyer’s chuckwagon breakfasts — blueberry pancakes, fresh fruit, eggs, sausage, bacon, ham and coffee for just $2 — were also a strong incentive to saddle up at daybreak for a brisk ride.

Charlie Farrell, the city's first mayor and co-founder, with Ralph Bellamy, of the Racquet Club, was a longtime Desert Rider. So was "Little Bear" — Mrs. Robert O’ Bear, who was known for leading the Desert Circus parades on her palomino; Tony Burke, the towns relentless publicist and Travis Rogers, who operated one of the town’s first riding stables in the early '30s and built the guest ranch hangout for the all-female Mink and Manure dub. The one thing they had in common was a love for the desert that went much deeper than appreciation for a beautiful sunrise.

"In the early days of the Desert Riders, no trails were necessary…the vast expanse of the desert was theirs to use as they wished," recalls rider/historian John D. Hicks in his spirited History of the Desert Riders written in 1972.

But, with the development of golf courses and country clubs, highways and shopping centers, the club realized that the horse trails had to be marked and maintained or horseback riding was doomed."

Thus the Riders began earmarking a portion of their dues to build new trails and maintain the old ones, and began one of the country's most successful trail development and maintenance programs.

Maintaining the trails came naturally to these early ecology-minded residents. "It gave us another incentive to get out into the desert," Jane says. "And the safer the trails were, the easier they were to ride. Of course, another part of having good trails is that people stayed on them and didn't destroy the surrounding area."

In 1972, through the efforts of Rider Art Smith, the club established the Desert Riders Trail Foundation, a nonprofit trust for trail preservation and building. Smith, aka "Trail Boss," has spent 30 years in the Desert Riders saddle. The trail named in his honor begins off Highway 74 and intersects the Hahn Buena Vista Trail built for Jean Hahn by her late husband, developer Ernest Hahn, as a birthday present. Many of these trails have glorious histories. The Charlie Berns Trail, for example, was built in memory of Berns, the owner of the 21 Club, paid for with donations from his New York friends and his brother Jerry.

The first trail built for bike riders as well as hikers and riders is the Clara Burgess Trail, built by her husband Bill as a 50th anniversary present (Clara, along with founding member Melba Bennett and Jane Hoff, have been the only female presidents of the Desert Riders.)

Jane's husband, Boo, is also a past president of the Desert Riders, and he boasts a well-used trail named in his honor. The Earl Coffman Trail was named after the group's first president, the son of Dr. Harry and Nellie Coffman of Desert Inn fame. The Lykken Trail is one of the most-used by hikers, providing breathtaking views of the entire city. Bud Furer is an avid equestrian who has spent much of his own time and money promoting trails, notably the Shannon Trail named in memory of Shannon Corliss. Furer's namesake trail leads across Mesquite Country Club golf course to intersect with the Lykken Trail.

The Desert Riders have created 28 trails in all — many of them adaptations of, or improvements on, ancient trails used by Cahuilla Indians in their migratory hunting and gathering. Current president Bill Hillman, who is also president of the group's fledgling offshoot, Coachella Valley Trails Council, says, "I can't tell you how much the Cahuilla Indians have helped us over the years. Desert Riders have helped preserve the old trails and it gives people another reason to visit the canyons."

The new Trails Council represents a big change in the future of the Desert Riders, one that the group has brought on itself. "We didn't feel we should be trailblazers anymore," says Hillman, explaining why the Desert Riders decided to phase out that part of their activities. "The area has changed so much and there are so many groups who need to work together. We've been fortunate to avoid the trail wars that have torn apart the hikers, bikers and riders in other parts of California. Here, we all work together."

Bruce Poynter agrees. This local resident, longtime hiker and lead guide for Desert Adventures, is one who appreciates the Riders' work. "Hiking is a big attraction here — for locals and visitors — but so many hikers don't know  they owe all their fun to the Desert  Riders. Without them, these mountains would be inaccessible. "

The Trails Council will pursue these peacemaking efforts. In just two short years, Hillman says, they have forged strong ties with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Game Department, National Park Service, city representatives and hiking, biking and equestrian clubs. The Trails Council will oversee new and existing trails throughout the valley. Trail maintenance will then become the province of the Desert Riders.

In the meantime, the work of the Desert Riders continues at full gallop, working with new trails and parks that will eventually circle the Coachella Valley, from the desert floor to the mountains and back again. But more and more of their responsibilities will fall to the council.

The council is ready.

"In 1993 former Riverside County Supervisor Corky Larson gave the Trails Council $400,000 in developer mitigation fees," says Hillman. "The money is earmarked for all this work, as well as for making trail improvements."

"The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) deserves kudos — this office has been incredibly helpful," Hillman continues. Indeed, the community has been quite supportive. Hillman singles out the cities of Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage; and to Palm Springs Mayor Lloyd Maryanov and the Palm Springs Parks Department. "They've given us lots of support. Lloyd knows how important riding is in the valley's history."

One of the most  important  projects of the new Trails Council — a complete map of all of the valley's usable trails — is currently on sale at the Palm Springs Historical Society and at many outdoor shops. It was drawn using a global positioning unit that Hillman calls "incredibly accurate." In another major project, the group will raise funds to build a special wing on the McCallum Adobe to house memorabilia from the Desert Riders.

It all comes back to them. From their beginnings as a group of men and women united by their love of the desert and horses, the Desert Riders still hold their place as the "royalty" of Palm Springs. After 54 years, a magnificent network of trails linking the deserts and mountains continues to grow, offering thousands of riders and hikers an incomparable legacy of beauty and adventure, and the freedom to experience it.


With the arrival of the new Coachella Valley Trails Council and that organization's taking over many of the responsibilities of trailblazing formerly the province of the Desert Riders, what's going to happen to the Riders?

Not much will change, members say. They'll still be working on trail maintenance. And, through membership drives, they'll still be funding new trails.

But trailblazing isn't what it used to be. Bill Hillman, president of the Trails Council, explains: "There are so many protected areas and concerned groups — from the Santa Rosa Mountains Scenic Area to forestry and game and fish land, to the Bighorn Preserve — we as Desert Riders just couldn't go out and make a trail as a lone unit anymore."

The Trails Council — with members from hiking and biking clubs, county and city government, the BLM. Forestry Department, Bighorn Institute, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Department of Fish and Game — will be responsible for coordinating all new trails in the valley.

And what of the weekly Desert Riders' roundups that have been going on since 1931? "Nothing will change that." insists Hillman. "Desert Riders started out as a social organization, a club where horse people who love the desert could get together and have a wonderful time. It's still the same today."