Nancy and I boarded our plane in Manchester with the temperature approaching zero. We were heading to California, looking forward to escaping the bitter cold of the Northeast. When we landed in Detroit for a short stop-over, the temperature at the airport was -6 with wind chills approaching -30. When we reached our destination, Palm Springs, the temperature was a balmy 70 degrees. We had escaped the icy grip of the New England winter and found refuge for a few days in the desert of southern California. We were here to visit friends, Terry and Greg, who spend winters in the former Mecca of movie stars Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, William Powell and many others. Palm Springs was the glamour capital for Hollywood celebrities, where parties and golf were the primary activities, and the famous Ratpack “held court.” Now the stars of stage and screen have found other places to play and party. Palm Springs has become a destination for snowbirds and tourists. It’s a bustling community of 40,000 people and growing every year. Nancy and I were on an abbreviated vacation to enjoy the warm, sunny weather and the bountiful recreational opportunities of the area.
Palm Springs is located in the Coachella Valley and bordered by three mountain ranges: San Bernadino, San Jacinto and Santa Rosa. The Salton Sea and The Joshua Tree National Park lie to the south. The valley is primarily desert, but is blessed with numerous streams flowing out of the mountains to feed lush vegetation and supporting numerous palm oasis in the mountain valleys. The first people to call the valley their home were the Agua Caliente of the Cahuilla Indians. They emigrated to the valley 2,000 years ago and built complex communities in the mountain canyons. They were blessed with an abundant water supply and their agricultural communities thrived in the world’s largest California Fan Palm Oasis.
In 1823 the first non-native visitors to the area were Jose Romero and Jose Estudillo of the Mexican government. The first non-native to settle in the valley was Jack Summers. He built a stage coach way-station in 1862, but that became obsolete when the Southern Pacific Railroad built tracks through the Coachella Valley. Several years later developers discovered Palm Springs and the surrounding desert oasis as a prime destination for people suffering from allergies and other related ailments, due to the dry heat of the desert environment. With the influx of vacationers, Dr. Welwood Murray built the first Hotel in 1884 and hordes of people flocked to Palm Springs. With the growing movie industry in Hollywood, renowned actors and actress began to find respite from the hub-bub life of Los Angeles and with this migration the reputation of Palm Springs as a Hollywood playground was born.
After settling in at our friend’s house we learned about the many trails and tourist attractions in the area. Given the numerous possibilities and our limited time we prioritized our excursions, which included: the Whitewater Preserve, Sand to Snow National Monument, the Living Desert, Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon, the Cactus to Clouds Trail and the Joshua Tree National Park.
I chose two of our options to do solo (de-facto): the Cactus to the Clouds Trail (C2C) and the Palm Canyon Trail in Indian Canyons, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians. On the warmest day of our stay in Palm Springs I began a trek of the C2C trail. The trail begins in Palm Springs (202 feet in elevation) on the Museum Trail and climbs along the Skyline Trail, reaching San Jacinto Peak (10,577 ft.); a 17.5 mile hike, with an elevation gain of 10,175 ft. It has the greatest elevation gain of any single trail in the United States. The trail requires hikers to be in top physical condition, carry lots of water (6-8 liters) and plenty of trail food. Most people start the hike around 4:00 a.m. in order to reach the mountain summit and return via a tramway that runs from the valley from to Summit Station (8,516 ft.). A few hardy individuals choose to make the return trek via the Skyline trails, staying overnight at the Long Valley Ranger Station. Long distant trail runners have even run to the summit, covering the 17.5 miles in less than eight hours.
Having no intention of reaching the summit, but wanting to experience this famous footpath, I planned to hike the trail to about 4,000 feet, turn around and return to the trailhead at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Unlike many trails in the White Mountains, where you hike for a considerable distance before beginning the climb, this trail begins by ascending 600 feet in less that a quarter mile. I followed small white blazes, climbing to an overlook of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley and the Little San Bernadino Mountains to the east. Several picnic tables were scattered on the flat overlook. Most people end their climb here, because of the spectacular view; why climb further? But I wanted to continue the ascent along the Sky Line Trail through stands of small beaver tail and prickly pear cactus. The trail continued to wend its way up the ridge, over unnamed peaks. It seemed like I was ascending into the heavens above. None of the peaks I reached along the Sky Line Trail had a name. In the west there are so many peaks that many can’t be named, unlike here, where every hillock has a name or a title.
Drawn by the peaks ahead, I wanted to continue but time was at a premium. As I approached the ridgeline at an elevation of about 3,500 feet, an experienced trekker, hiking down the mountain, warned me of the recent snow covering the trail ahead. He suggested I go no further and head back down the mountainous trail. I heeded his advice and I returned back home in time to watch the Patriots, among a host of Ram fans, win another Super Bowl.
A few days later I set out to hike the trails of Indian Canyons. The canyons are located to the south of Palm Springs and are the ancestral homeland of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians. The canyons are still part of the reservation of the native people and are especially sacred to the Agua Caliente people. They are also historically important to anthropologists and naturalists for their rock art, house pits, foundations, irrigation ditches, dams and trails though the high desert with its wide array of fauna and flora.
I began my hike on the Palm Canyon Trail, walking though the world’s largest California Fan Palm oasis. Majestic groves of California Fan Palms lined the trail that followed the picturesque Palm Canyon Creek. This was once the site of a thriving culture of the Cahuilla Indians who lived in this canyon. Rock motors, evidence of the agrarian society that existed here, lined the trail. Climbing out of the lush canyon environment I hiked upward into the high desert. The cooling shade of the palm trees no longer protected me from the sun’s radiant heat reflecting off the barren cliffs that rose above me. Gaining elevation as I ascended out of the canyon, I entered the remote and rugged wilderness of the high desert and climbed up an escarpment to 2,200 feet. The trail was surrounded with California red barrell cactus, beaver tail cactus, mountain yucca, hedge hog cactus, creosote brush, schoot indigo, and many more plants that I never imagined could be growing in this dry, hot, and harsh environment.
Before I arrived at Indian Canyons I thought of the desert as a wasteland, devoid of much life. How wrong I was. The desert I walked through was alive with trees, plants, shrubs, lizzards, butterflies, hummingbirds, ravens, kit fox; a living desert. Snow-covered mountains stood in the distance and billowing clouds floated overhead, forming shapes that resembled the animal life that flourished in the distant mountains: mountain lions, big horn sheep, coyotes, and California mule deer.
From the Palm Canyon Trail I merged onto the Indian Potrero Trail and trekked further into the high desert, eventually returning to a series of trails that brought me back to the Cahuilla Indians Trading Post where my day of adventure began. On my return to the trading post I passed a number of seeps, water that had been collected in rock crevices from the ridges high above. In these rock crevices stood stately California Fan Palm trees. It was an astonishing sight for an easterner to view palm trees growing in the desert: a remarkable sign that nature is full of wonders that us mortals cannot comprehend.
When I returned from the trail, Nancy and I needed to prepare for our return flight to New Hampshire. The sojourn in California was over and we would soon be back to snow, sleet and freezing temperatures. We will have to wait another year before returning to the Golden State. Until then, we will be signing the Mamas and Papas' song, “California Dreaming.”