Native Americans found Canyon Trail an easy route to move between the high and low deserts.

Canyon Trail Regularly Used as Trade Highway

Willow leaves turn gold along Big Morongo Creek in October-November.

Day hikers can head through a rare, lush spot in a canyon bridging the Mojave and Colorado deserts near Desert Hot Springs.

The 9.76 miles round trip Canyon Trail sits in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and the recently created Sand to Snow National Monument. The trail is best done October through April.

To reach the preserve, from Interstate 10, head north on Calif. Hwy. 62, also known as the Twentynine Palms Highway. In about 10 miles, go right/south on East Drive then left/east onto Covington Drive, which heads into the preserve.

From the parking lot, pass through the Zeller Kiosk to the trails. Go right/south onto the Marsh Trail. Alkali goldenbush and Fremont’s cottonwoods line the trail. You’ll pass the Pollinator Garden and Nature Center along the way.

At 0.2 miles upon reaching the second junction with the Mesquite Trail, take it northwest. You’ll pass through the wetlands.

Canyon Trail Regularly Used as Trade Highway

As the Canyon Trail nears its southern terminus, hikers are treated to great views of Mount San Jacinto.

The 31,000-acre preserve in the Little San Bernardino Mountains protects the riparian area and is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The preserve straddles the Mojave (the canyon’s upper portion) and the Colorado (the lower section) deserts.

The path junctions with the Yucca Ridge Trail at 0.34 miles. Stay on the Mesquite Trail by going right/west.

Snowmelt flows out of the surrounding mountains to form Big Morongo Creek, which cuts through a canyon created by the Morongo Fault. The water pools in the preserve’s marsh, which attracts numerous birds, especially during the fall and spring migrations. Internationally recognized, more than 250 bird species have been spotted in the preserve with more than a quarter of them nesting on site.

A short spur to the George Helmcamp Deck overlooking the wetlands is worth the short walk, especially during the migration season.

From the spur, go right/south and cross the bridge. The path then junctions with the Canyon Trail. Take it left/south.

The trail follows willow-lined Big Morongo Creek. It’s a great place to see autumn leaves each October through November.

You’ll pass more of the wetlands on the left. As reaching its end, the West Canyon Trail junctions from the right. Continue straight-left/south.

At about 1.14 miles, you’ve left a lush region in an otherwise arid desert.

Most of the higher elevation Mojave Desert doesn’t get as hot as the lower Colorado, which is a subset of the Sonoran Desert that the Coachella Valley sits in. Because of that, you’ll see that some of the plant life changes as you continue south toward Desert Hot Springs.

Canyon Trail Regularly Used as Trade Highway

An owl hangs out alongside the Canyon Trail in Big Morongo Canyon.

The Canyon Trail has been used as a trade highway for centuries. Native Americans found it an easy route to move between the high and low deserts.

Along the way, you probably will spot a variety of wildlife. Harmless lizards are ubiquitous, of course, but you stand a good chance of also seeing mule deer, bighorn sheep, and even owls.

Much less common but still out there are rattlesnakes and mountain lion. Though you’re unlikely to see either, you still shouldn’t allow children to run ahead of you or to venture off the trail.

Canyon Trail Regularly Used as Trade Highway

Some of the oldest exposed rocks in California – 2-billion-year-old gneiss – can be found along the trail.

The canyon walls tower higher and higher as you descend. Take a close at them – these are some of the oldest exposed rocks in California, with gneiss layers dated to 2 billion years old.

As the trail nears its end, it leaves the preserve and enters a broad wash. At 4.88 miles, it reaches Indian Avenue. Turn back there or arrange to be picked up if you don’t want to walk uphill to get back to the parking lot.

The preserve is open 7:30 p.m. to sunset, and there’s no entrance fee. Dogs are not allowed in the preserve.

Be sure to don sunscreen and sunglasses for the unshaded canyon portion of the hike. Good hiking boots and a trekking pole also are a good idea for the walk back up.





Image Sources

  • 02-Willow-leaves-turn-gold-along-Big-Morongo-Creek-in-October-November.: Rob Bignell
  • 05-As-the-Canyon-Trail-nears-its-southern-terminus-hikers-are-treated-to-great-views-of-Mount-San-Jacinto.: Rob Bignell
  • 03-An-owl-hangs-out-alongside-the-Canyon-Trail-in-Big-Morongo-Canyon.: Rob Bignell
  • The Canyon Trail can be accessed by taking segments of several short trails at the lush Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.: Rob Bignell