Those of you who follow this blog because I write about traveling to faraway places to volunteer or study, well….you may find this blog a bit of a snooze. Many of you may have visited Palm Springs, California. And maybe even hiked the deserts and mountains nearby. If that’s the case then…. nothing new here. My purpose in writing this blog is to document for myself a place and experience that I found somewhat spiritual, beautiful in places, and physically exhausting (on purpose). But if you are continuing to read, I hope you find something that sparks your interest.
Why Palm Springs and desert hiking? I love hiking, mid-century modern architecture, and places that are warm in winter. Because December is a busy holiday month, any getaway would have to be short. Short to me means staying in the good old USA. So a simple google of warm hiking destinations, revealed several stateside locations, but it was Palm Springs that spoke to me. BackRoads, an active travel company, had been recommended to me for its attention to detail and quality guides, so I signed on with them for their five day hiking trip.
I arrived in Palm Springs a few days early in order to visit with a friend from high school and see some of the city. Parts of Palm Springs are manicured to someone’s idea of perfection, which can make it feel less authentic. Still, many examples of classic mid-century modern architecture exist, and I was hard pressed to find a corner of the city that didn’t have a stunning view of the mountains. Then there are the palm trees and Bougainville, which to this east coaster, are a sight to behold.
On a beautiful Sunday morning, I met our guides and my fellow hikers in the lobby of the Rancho Mirage Ritz Carlton. There was something incongruous about this group of 14 (eleven hikers, 3 guides) in our rugged hiking garb, gathered in the shiny marble lobby of this fancy hotel. After introductions and a briefing, we shuttled to Joshua Tree National Park for our first hike. The sun is strong and bright against azure blue skies, but the temperatures are cool in the morning, rising to a comfortable 70 degrees in the afternoon. Joshua Tree National Park is, of course, named for the Joshua Trees that dot its vast landscape. It covers over 1200 square miles and encompasses both the Mojave and the lower Colorado deserts. One of the first things I notice is the silence. There are tiny animals among the rocks and plants, but they creep and slither quietly. The desert seems to swallow even the sound of the flapping wings of birds. The landscape can seem otherworldly. Our eight mile hike, with a break for lunch along the trail, is a workout for the first day. Joshua Tree is not just flat dessert. There are hills of huge boulders and rock that geologists estimate were formed over millions of years. As we begin our last mile, a haze surrounds the sun and the desert takes on an eerie light. Are the spirits telling us it is time to leave so they can rest from their vigil? Probably not, but a chill has flickered up my spine.
Dinner at the steakhouse in the Ritz Carlton is included and we probably eat more than we should. I won’t go into the details, but if you ever have the opportunity to indulge in a Japanese Wagyu A5 steak….mortgage the house, sell your jewelry, whatever it takes….savor this piece of beef heaven.
After breakfast on day 3, we board the van and drive to Indian Canyons, land of the Agua Caliente (part of the Cahuilla Indians). Here we hike through a lush desert palm oasis in the sacred foothills of the San Jacinto mountains. Legends say that a Cahuilla elder named Maul knew his life was ending and, with a desire to help his people, he called on the spirits for their help. Suddenly bark began to form around his legs and palm fronds sprang from his hair. He transformed into the first palm tree and they quickly spread throughout his homeland. This desert fan palm has provided food, shelter, baskets, tools, and shade for the Cahuilla people ever since.
However these palms came to be, we are awed by their size and unique style. As we hike the Murray Canyon and Coffman trails through Indian Canyon land, we are rewarded with green and fertile landscapes, waterfalls, and stream crossings. I pride myself on my rock-hopping stream-crossing skills. I’ve deftly navigated some treacherous water crossings on previous hiking trips. But my cockiness got the best of me in Indian Canyon. One slip of the foot and I was sitting in the creek. Luckily, we were near the end of the day’s hiking and other than a wet sock and shoe, I was none the worse for wear.
Our afternoon was spent on a walking architecture tour of the old Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs. As I’ve mentioned, I am a fan of mid century modern architecture. Although I’m not sure I could live in it (it can feel somewhat stark), I enjoy seeing it. The clean lines, openness, and sleek exteriors appeal to me, especially when combined with desert landscaping. We venture further to the homes once occupied by the old Hollywood elite – Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and the new stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Stefani, Brad Pitt. Palm Springs has its own walk of fame, but the names are not always recognizable. Our dinner tonight is at Workshop Kitchen + Bar in the heart of Palm Springs, where we enjoy a family style tasting menu.
Our hike on day 4 through Mission Creek is not the most picturesque, but it does remind you of the landscapes featured in your favorite cowboy movies. The trek to the Red Dome was flat and easy, if a bit uninspiring. At noon, we perched on our seats of random flat rocks, by the dry creek bed, munching on lunch and admiring the mountains in the far distance.
Tonight, we dine at Copley’s on Palm Canyon Drive. The property was once Cary Grant’s guest house and it is easy to picture it as it was in the 1940s. Three sets of french doors open from the house onto the garden, where we lounge around a fire pit sipping cocktails. We also dined outdoors under a white canopy, lit by candles and warmed by glowing heaters. I recommend Copley’s for the ambiance and Cary Grant connection, but the food exceeded expectations too.
Our last day of hiking starts in the valley where it is sunny and 73 degrees. Our little group boards the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for an eleven minute ride up San Jacinto mountain. We disembark and walk out to the Long Valley Deck where we are greeted by a snow covered forest….a winter wonderland in the middle of the desert is our hike for today. Amazing.
Our farewell lunch is at the Juniper Table, an outdoor café in downtown Palm Springs. It is an average lunch, but our guides surprise us with a special drink….fig smoothies from a nearby shop! Fresh figs are everywhere here in the Coachella valley. The smoothie was delicious and was a happy ending to our hiking days. I say goodbye to a smart and friendly group of hikers and guides. I spent another day exploring on my own in this bright, sunny, jewel in the desert. Visions of Indians, spirits, Joshua Trees and palms, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe prance through my head as I nurse a cold beer outside a café on Palm Canyon Drive. It is December. It is warm.