Palm Springs: Springtime Action
|March 25, 2017||Filed under California, Palm Springs|
I was not a big fan of Palm Springs, California, where the pool-cocktails-pool-cocktails amusement cycle seemed stuck on repeat with few other diversions. But then, I have not visited in springtime until recently, when I enjoyed amazing hikes in a natural wonderland of high contrasts: palm trees and Joshua trees; arid boulders and lush oases; desert heat and alpine snow.
Less than an hour drive from downtown Palm Springs is the almost 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, encompassing parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The namesake tree — allegedly named by migrating Mormons after the biblical character Joshua, due to the plant’s outstretched “arms” to the heavens — is found only in the higher elevation Mojave Desert in the Park’s northwest section. Just as iconic are the Park’s incredible rock formations, created some 100 million years ago, some seemingly ready to come alive like the Galaxy Quest rock monster. Many Joshua trees and boulder stacks can be viewed from the road, but it’s definitely better to get out and wander among them.
At 5,185 feet, the Keys View lookout presents a sweeping vista past the Indio Hills — under which the San Andreas fault lies — down to the Coachella Valley, then back up to the still snow-capped Mount San Jacinto range. “Hmm, I’m glad we came,” I overheard a teenager mused, as she stared at the incredible view. “What was that?” her dad asked smugly, highly pleased with himself for dragging his kids to this spot. Ah, family holidays! To get away from the gathering sightseers, I hiked further up on a faint trail behind the parking area, soaking up the sun, breeze and panorama in peace and quiet.
“If you want to see some wildflowers, head to the area around Cottonwood Spring,” the helpful Park Ranger told me when I first entered at the opposite end of the park. So after the heights of Keys View, I took the road down some 2,000 feet in elevation into the Colorado Desert part of the Park. Perhaps still a week too early, I did not spot many flowers, but then “BOOM!” the lower valley opened into a lovely carpet of white and yellow dotted with purple and blue, framed by the dark foothills. Although I hit the highlights of Joshua Tree National Park in just one day, I must return another time to hike further and linger longer.
At the south end of Palm Springs, Palm Canyon stretches 15 miles long within the 31,500 acres of Indian Canyons, homeland of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribe. Meandering along the shady banks of Palm Canyon Creek, I can easily imagine a primordial land. After a mile, the flat streamside trail rises sharply, and within minutes, the stunning panorama of the first photo above comes into view: lush California fan palms against the stark mountains. The path continues into the rolling brush land, totally exposed to the sky and elements. Even in early spring, the midday heat is punishing, so if you visit be sure to get an early start hiking on this trail. In the summer months, Indian Canyons is opened only on the weekends.
After the ample rains of this winter, the arid terrain around Palm Springs has been transformed into a tapestry of grasses, wildflowers and blooming cacti. The pleasant one-mile Andreas Canyon Trail is a perfect introduction to Indian Canyons, looping by the perennial Andreas Creek and the canyon rim above. (Tip from a local friend: go clockwise on the trail to enjoy the open views first, then the coolness of the shaded path.)
Wildlife abounds in the desert. “Assume all snakes are dangerous” declares the tourist pamphlet, and “Stay on Trail” signage featuring a coiled rattlesnake is common in the parks. Luckily on my walks, I only encountered various lizards basking in the sun and a few ground squirrels scurrying by.
Just a few minutes drive from downtown, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks visitors about 2.5 miles up to an elevation of over 8,500 feet to the wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park. The upper station is not unlike a typical ski lodge, with observation decks, souvenir shops and restaurants. The view during the 10-minute ride in “the world’s largest rotating tram car” is indeed spectacular. What started as a young engineer’s vision in 1935, the tram finally became reality with its inaugural ride in 1963. The current Swiss-made rotating cars were installed in the 2000’s.
Although it was over 90F on the valley floor, snow still covered much of the upper part of Mount San Jacinto. Silly me thought I could do some hiking towards the mountain’s summit. As with other ill-prepared tourists, the patient ranger of Mt Jacinto State Park simply handed out the “Short Hikes” map, indicating easily accessible viewpoints. With snow on the ground and sparse signage, it was still a good challenge reaching those destinations. Akin to spring skiing, I spent the morning in short-sleeved shirt under sunny skies. With tall pine trees and snow covered ground, what a contrast it was to the desert walks!
Having done three hikes in as many days, I totally appreciated quality pool time at a friend’s mid-century inspired home, as well as creative cocktails at watering holes all over town. I am told that the restaurant and bar scene has improved greatly in recent years, although old-school steak houses and diners still exist. Located on South Palm Canyon Drive, packed with shops, galleries and eateries, the colorful Lulu California Bistro is popular with both locals and tourists, especially its happy hour which begins at 11 am (!) everyday.
As with everything in life, it’s all about timing and balance. Now that I have experienced the desert in the springtime and enjoyed the natural beauty of the area, I happily embrace this more balanced, revised Palm Springs formula: hike-pool-cocktails, hike-pool-cocktails, repeat.