Ah, the pleasures of Palm Springs – sitting poolside, soaking up the sun and sipping on a cool drink. That’s the pampered Palm Springs that most Western New York vacationers think about when they hear the name of this Southern California desert oasis.
But there’s another side of the resort city that won’t put a big burden on your pocketbook and will provide lots of fun, exercise and some very memorable moments. Think of it as the rugged Palm Springs.
Not from this ritzy desert city are two places where you can break out the rock-climbing gear, hiking boots or cross-country skis for some high adventure.
Joshua Tree National Park is less than an hour’s drive up California Highways 111 and 62. At Joshua Tree, visitors experience the wonders of the high desert. It is also acclaimed as one of the world’s best places for serious rock climbers. For a native of the East Coast, used to almost daily precipitation and lush greenery, going to the bone-dry, sparsely vegetated Joshua Tree and seeing the Dr. Seuss-like trees for which the park is named is like journeying to another world.
San Jacinto State Park, accessible by the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, is just minutes from downtown off Highway 111, and offers incredible vistas of the sun-scorched Coachella Valley. It also welcomes hiking and cross-country skiing on its snow-covered peaks. That’s right, there are alpine settings just a stone’s throw from downtown Palm Springs.
Visitors can make a day trip to both parks, or plan extended visits.
Joshua Tree National Park
Driving north on Highway 111 from Palm Springs through the Coachella Valley, motorists first pass by the expansive windmill farms that populate the desert landscape. For those into “green” energy, these windmills are a sight to see. The giant machines whirl endlessly in the hot breezes that sweep through the valley.
Getting on Highway 62, the road slopes up through a windy canyon dotted with yucca and brown cacti. Toward the top of the canyon, you get your first glimpse of the elusive Joshua Tree, which grows in these higher elevations.
As you near the park, you drive through the dusty Morongo Valley, passing by the Happy Cooker restaurant and Sundown Trail “where there’s a yard sale open every day,” according to the sun-faded sign. About 45 minutes after leaving Palm Springs and 50 miles later, just past the outskirts of the city of Yucca Valley, there are some small, unassuming signs announcing the entrance to Joshua Tree National Monument and Park. Make a right turn and you’ll find the Joshua Tree Visitors Center. Here, park rangers and docents will provide information about the park and point you on the way to the entrance, which is still another five hilly miles away.
The road winds through the desert and into the park. A $15 entrance fee per carload allows you a week’s access. An annual pass is just $30.
The actual Joshua Tree is a funky yucca and is known as the “Tree of Life.” The trees grow primarily in the Mojave Desert and provide food and shelter for the desert wildlife. Orioles can be seen near their woven nests hanging beneath Joshua Tree limbs, and ground squirrels and other small critters eat the creamy white blossoms that the trees produce.
There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the 794,000-acre park. For a day trip, the park rangers suggest two of the easier trails which still provide spectacular views and enjoyable hiking.
We started on the Hidden Valley trail which, as its name implies, was largely isolated until 1936 when a rancher named Bill Keys blasted an opening through the large rocks to find pastureland for his cattle. The mile-long trail winds along the base of Hidden Valley. From here, rock climbers are visible with their ropes and picks scaling the sides of sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the cloudless blue sky. There are also information kiosks along the way, explaining the exotic flora and the fauna.
This is a fascinating place. Hidden Valley provides a microclimate in the hostile desert. The massive rocks that ring the valley block the wind and collect moisture, which helps support a variety of plant and animal species, including the humble Joshua Tree. The valley has also been known to provide protection from the unforgiving desert for humans through the years. There are plenty of places to wander off the trail, but the park service discourages doing so because of damage to the vegetation. It’s also requested that visitors don’t take anything out of the park, like pebbles, rocks or plant samples.
Another trail, the mile-long Barker Dam route, is mesmerizing. The path winds between sheer rock cliffs ending at a small, mostly dried-up pond, which seems out of place in the desert. About a century ago, there was more rainfall in the desert than there is today. Ranchers of the past took advantage of that rain by building a small concrete dam to hold the water that drains down from the canyon walls during the rare rains. As rainfall has decreased, cattle ranching has ceased, but the desert survivors such as lizards, hawks and the Joshua Tree have remained. The day we rounded the trail, there were two mallards swimming in the stagnant little pool that remained, apparently on their migratory route up north.
There are plenty of places to camp, and there are longer and more challenging hiking trails at Joshua Tree. Boy Scout Trail, for instance, is a two- or three-day trek. Biking is welcomed along the roadways and there are special spots for rock-climbing enthusiasts. The weather, of course, is sunny and windy. The day we visited in March, the breeze was cool and the temperature hovered around 50. Desert doesn’t necessarily mean hot, we learned. Come prepared with good sunglasses, layers of clothing and some good hiking boots because the sand on the rocks can make for tricky footing.
For more information, visit www.nps.gov/jotr/ or call (760) 367-5500.
San Jacinto State Park
Getting on the Palm Springs Aerial Tram at an elevation of 2,643 feet in the searing heat of the Coachella Valley, visitors are whisked over two-and-a-half miles in altitude in just over 10 minutes and into the splendor of San Jacinto State Park. As the brochure states, “It’s like taking a trip from Mexico to Alaska in just minutes.”
The tram leaves every 15 minutes or so and it’s not unusual to see hikers bringing their backpacks or alpine enthusiasts carrying on their cross-country skies.
The trip up the tram, which costs $22.50 per adult, is worth the price of admission itself. As the tram heads from the Valley Station to the Mountain Station, the car slowly rotates giving all 90 passengers panoramic views of the desert below and the mountainous majesty of Chino Canyon. One can’t help but wonder how they built this aerial railway along the side of a steep mountainside.
Once atop the mountain, passengers disembark at the Mountain Station which features a restaurant, bar, gift shop and the state park visitors center. The center includes balconies from which you can view the Coachella Valley southward to the Salton Sea and northward to the San Bernardino Mountains. The views from here are simply spectacular, something we East Coast residents just aren’t used to seeing. That’s probably why they call this area “the great American southwest.”
San Jacinto is a 14,000-acre park that offers 54 miles of hiking trails, picnic areas and “primitive” campgrounds. Signs also warn visitors to be on the watch for mountain lions, which have been known to prey on young children.
Once away from the park’s visitors center, hikers soon find themselves in the company of nature. In Long Valley, a short walk from the bustling center, visitors find a ranger station, picnic area with restrooms, a ski center and a self-guiding nature trail. On the day we hiked the trail in March, the sun warmed the temperature into the 50s, but there was still plenty of snow around – enough even for a spirited snowball fight. Along the trail, the park offers views of snow-capped mountain peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation.
The park does offer camping, but permits are limited.
About the author:
Rick Stanley, a Journalist and Editor for the past 30 years, has recently taken a new leap in his career, leaving his 25-year position at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York, and pursuing his free lance and teaching career. For a glimpse at this transition (which is becoming more popular in the world of print media) please visit www.hotmeddle.blogspot.com.