Wild in the Desert:
Outdoor Adventures Around Palm Springs

by Karen Misuraca

Rising thousands of feet up the side of Mount San Jacinto in a tram car revolving slowly 360 degrees, my husband and I looked out over the Coachella Valley. We play golf here in the Palm Springs area every winter but this was our first trip on the top attraction, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram. Encircled by three jagged mountain ranges, the Sonoran Desert stretched out before us for hundreds of miles. Called "the Big Sink" by some people, the valley captures and holds dry heat year round, which is the reason why "snowbirds" from the East flock here in the wintertime, when temperatures are in the 80s and 90s.

We glided smoothly in the tram car--a gleaming, brand new Swiss-made model--higher and higher, past stony outcroppings up into a lush, sub-alpine forest. Gradually fading into a luminous haze were the shopping malls and the sprawling vacation resorts. We could see the vivid green of golf courses and the wavery blue patches of thousands of swimming pools--an eagle's eye view of a man-made paradise surrounded by nature at its wildest.

Stepping out of the tram at Mountain Station--at a mere 8,516 feet--we grabbed some coffee in the cafeteria, looked at our map and oriented ourselves to the hiking trails. Of the fifty-four miles of trails up here, we decided against hiking up to San Jacinto Peak, at 10,804 feet, and headed instead for the Nature Trail, an easy walk through the lodgepole pine forest, with spectacular, wide valley views.

What we like best about vacationing in the Palm Springs area are the wide variety of outdoor adventures to be had. From hiking up here on the top of the world to a shady walk beside a stream in the Indian Canyons, from bike riding to snapping photos of giant cacti in a National Park, to horseback riding, camel trekking, birdwatching and Jeep expeditions, getting out and about in the desert is easy. Winter and spring are our favorite times to explore, when the cacti are blooming and streams and falls are roaring with snow melt. Wildlife is prevalent at this time of the year, too, like coyote and exotic lizards and birds, and Bighorn sheep.

One of the most popular ways to experience the magic of the desert is on a 4-wheel-drive expedition with the tour company, Desert Adventures. Their red Jeeps trek up from the desert floor on dirt roads deep into the Santa Rosa Mountains, those snow-capped peaks that dominate the western side of Palm Springs. One of their unique destinations is a private, 1,000-acre, virtually pristine desert preserve, with natural palm oases, mysterious canyons and colorful rock formations, and intersected by a section of the San Andreas earthquake fault. The tour guides are all naturalists and avid storytellers, with intimate knowledge of Native American culture and rituals.

One of our guides, Bruce Poynter--his buddies call him "Dances with Lizards"--was a retired Fire Department Captain from Indio. Bruce has hiked every trail from the High Desert to the Salton Sea, and his specialty is desert animals and geology. Bruce comes up with a surprise on every trip, whether it's an arrowhead or a rosy boa snake, and he knows where to find Indian petroglyphs and pre-historic fossils.

A friend of ours who prefers solitude to group tours often rents an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or a dirt bike from Offroad Rentals, and takes off into the sands. These are light-weight versions of ATVs, called quads, and the company will give you all the instruction and safety equipment you need. They also have a 5-passenger, canopied, dunebuggy "limo", which is driven by an experienced guide through the wind-carved badlands of the Northern Coachella Valley, down dry river beds and across the desert floor, past old mining sites and a platoon of fascinating, electricity-generating windmills--lots of fun for a small family.

Another company, Desert Safari Guides and Outfitters, will pick you and your entourage up at your hotel at sunset and whisk you away for a romantic full moon hike. Each month, on the two or three nights when the moon washes the desert in a silvery blue light, a small group of hikers and a guide set forth, outfitted with special hiking packs, water and flashlights. The surprise is how easy it is to see your way clearly and how the stars seem to float right down into the sandy washes and across the beautiful, silent canyons.

Desert nights are cool, and dawns are streaked with ribbons of pink and gold. A number of hot-air balloons take off on most days as soon as the sun rises over the valley. Riding in a balloon is an unforgettable experience. You move at the same speed as the wind, so there is no sound as you glide over the landscape, other than the occasional blast of the gas jet. Brilliant red and yellow striped airships from Balloon Above the Desert are piloted by a debonair Frenchman, Clotaire Castanier, a 30-year veteran balloonist who has crossed the Alps five times. For as many as six passengers at a time, he points out landmarks, recounts his adventures in the skies around the world and pours champagne!

Back on terra firma, you can feel the wind in your face riding an Electra Glide or a Road King Harley rented from Eagle Rider Harley-Davidson in Palm Springs. A popular daytrip for Harley riders is out to Joshua Tree National Park, an hour east of Palm Springs off Highway 82, a magnificent preserve where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts join in dramatic geologic formations. Among vibrantly colored monoliths and jumbled stacks of giant boulders, the Joshua trees, actually giant yucca, stand as human-like creatures with their hairy arms raised, bizarre sentinels in the rocky ravines. On the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, one of the easiest footpaths, we found an old cattle rustlers' hideout, took photos of the tall, creamy-white spikes of Mojave yucca, and the brilliant golden brittlebrush. On the short trail from the visitor center to Hellhole Canyon, we found a small waterfall and rested beside a dripping maidenhair fern grotto. Watching a resident flock of hummingbirds, I turned to see a coyote, watching me.

Another denizen of the desert, the dromedary camel, certainly not a native in this desert, is often sighted on the shores of Lake Cahuilla, near the city of La Quinta. I talked with chief camel wrangler, Bill Rivers of Camel Safari, who takes riders on tethered caravans around the lake and through some beautiful natural areas. He said, "People are surprised that the camels are friendly, they have personality, and they don't spit. About an hour's ride is enough for most of our guests, who usually walk a little different by the time they climb down."

We decided to ride in comfort, with our grandchildren, in a mule-drawn covered wagon through the lunar-like landscape of the Nature Conservancy's Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Desert. Our cowpoke guide from Covered Wagon Tours filled us in on flora and fauna. We saw roadrunners, flat-tailed horned lizards, and the endangered fringetoed lizard, and we sat a spell at the Thousand Palms Oasis and dipped our toes in the shady pools. At the end of the two-hour ride, the kids loved the barbecue and the live Western band.

The kids have also hiked with us in the Indian Canyons on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, on the south side of Cathedral City. The trails wind among thousands of centuries-old skirted fan palms, between red and ochre rock formations--some decorated with petroglyphs--through fern glens and along rushing, rocky streams. Even on the hottest summer day, it is cool in the shade of the streamside palms.

Tree frogs hop damply at the foot of the trees, and striking, orange and black hooded orioles are compelled to chatter loudly. On footpaths and riding trials throughout the fifteen-mile long canyon are bedrock mortars and metates (ancient stone tools); barrel, hedgehog and deer antler cacti, with hummingbirds and lizards among the common wildlife. Although we have never seen them here, we hear that wild ponies and Bighorn sheep are often sighted on the ridgetops.

One of the largest natural oases in the world, fed by underground aquifers, the Indian Canyons are one of the most unusual and picturesque sights in the Coachella Valley, and are often used as locations for Hollywood movies. You can go on a guided horseback ride or a hay wagon ride in the Canyons with Smoke Tree Stables.

After a ramble on the fan palm trails, we always stop for a cold drink at the Indian Canyons Trading Post, and shop for Native American art and knickknacks.

Shopping in Palm Springs and surrounding towns can be a dangerous adventure for my credit cards, so I try get around on foot or on a bike, to limit the number of bags I can carry. Brand new and very popular with locals are the electric E-Bikes, the latest invention of former Chrysler Chairman, Lee Iacocca. The bikes can zip along at 15 miles per hour for about 20 miles before needing recharging, which is done by plugging into a standard household outlet. Your can rent an E-Bike at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resorts in Indian Wells or at other locations, and get away completely away from the traffic on the new Heritage Trail, a paved, 1-mile pathway linking a city park, the historic Tennis Club Hotel District and the Palm Springs Desert Museum.

Just five minutes from downtown Palm Springs, the Carl Lykken Trail runs for about seven miles in the foothills of San Jacinto State Wilderness Park. The trailhead is behind the Museum. Nature hikes with naturalist guides depart from the Museum's north parking lot each Wednesday and Saturday at 9 a.m., to a variety of local sites.

From Palm Springs and throughout the Coachella Valley, Mount San Jacinto is a looming presence on the eastern side of the valley, pale and golden in the early mornings, a black silhouette when the sun disappears behind it at dusk. While on our short expedition on the mountain trails, we vowed to come back again, to bring our grandchildren on the mule train ride and to walk deeper into the aromatic pine forest, and have a picnic in a wildflowery meadow.

The most fun of all may be riding the tram in the wintertime, to snowshoe or cross-country ski. I can just imagine sipping hot chocolate around the fireplace in the restaurant, high above the cities, the golf courses and the swimming pools.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.