Hikers can enjoy panoramic views of the Coachella Valley with the opportunity to spot rare bighorn sheep on the Art Smith Trail.
The out-and-back trail runs 8.3 miles one way but can be shortened depending on your level of physical fitness. It’s best done September through May. Mornings offer cooler temperatures with the added bonus of blooming wildflowers if hiked after a rainfall.
To reach the trailhead, from Calif. Hwy. 111 in Palm Desert turn south onto Calif. Hwy. 74. In about four miles, just past the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument Visitor Center entrance, turn right/west into the parking lot. You also can park in a smaller lot before the reaching the visitor center entrance.
From there, follow the Dead Indian Creek wash roughly northwest via a 0.2-mile connector until reaching the Art Smith Trail proper. If you were able to park in the smaller lot north of the visitor center, cross the wash directly onto the trail.
The three miles beyond the connector are strenuous, thanks to elevation gains. The trailhead starts at 1000 feet elevation and rises another 1465 feet.
Your reward for that effort are increasingly fantastic views of the Coachella Valley below. The Big Horn Golf Course and homes initially appears below then the whole of Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage with Cathedral City and Palm Springs to the northwest. Across the valley stand the Little San Bernardino Mountains and Joshua Tree National Park.
A variety of desert plants can be spotted along the trail. Barrel cactus, beavertail cactus with its magenta flower, Christmas and staghorn cholla, and fishhook cactus dominate. After a rainfall, though, bring a wildflower guide and see if you can spot blossoming blazing star, brittlebush, California Fagonbush, chia, chuparosa, creosote, desert lavender, desert lupine, indigo bush, pink globemallow, notch-leaf phacelia, Spanish needles, white desert puncushion, white globemallow, or the yellow sweetbush.
The trail passes plenty of interesting desert rock formations, many informally named after animals they resemble. Make a game of it and see if you identify Squirrel Rock, Gorilla Rock, Two Toads, and Turtle Rock.
Certainly the highlight of the trail is spying the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, a Coachella Valley icon.
About 950 bighorn sheep live in the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley. They blend in quite well with the tawny landscape, but their size gives them away. Adult rams can weigh between 150-200 pounds – as much as a full-grown man – and ewes usually are 100-125 pounds. The adult ram’s horns sometimes reach 30 inches each in length and at the base are 15 inches in circumference.
Bighorn often can be seen feeding on acacia, encelia, krameria and sweetbush, but they will adapt their diet to what’s available. Indeed – no doubt like hikers admiring the lush valley below – some bighorn have migrated onto golf courses where they browse on the greens and drink from water hazards.
Lambs usually arrive in January-June, with most births in February-April. Sometimes parts of the trail are closed during birthing season. Golden eagles will prey upon the younger lambs; coyotes, mountain lions and wolves are the bighorn’s main predators.
If no bighorn show, don’t fret. Plenty of other animals inhabit this seemingly desolate terrain, and your certain to see Baja California Collared and side-blotched lizards, roadrunners, chipmunks, and maybe even burrowing owls and chuckwallas.
Unless backpacking, you’ll want to cut this trail short rather than do the entire length. A couple of good spots to turn around are at a palm oasis – there’s one at 2.5 miles in then another at about three miles, where the trail mostly levels out.
Should you wish to continue onward, the trail at five miles passes palm-filled Magnesia Canyon’s upper reaches. After that, it intersects Hahn Buena Vista Trail at Dunn Road, offering more great views of the valley below. The Hahn Buena Vista connects with the Wild Horse and Garstin trails and ends in Palm Springs about eight miles on. Dunn Road and the Cathedral Canyon Trail head into Cathedral City.
The trail’s namesake was a trail boss for the Desert Riders. He developed a number of area trails to move horses from Palm Springs to Anza and escape the summer heat.
Note that the trail offers little shade, so be sure to don sunhat and sunscreen, as well as bring plenty of water. Also, to protect bighorn sheep, dogs are not allowed on the trail.