What Mount San Jacinto is to Palm Springs, so the Santa Rosa Mountain Range is to the central Coachella Valley, rising high above the southern horizons of Palm Desert and La Quinta.
Day hikers can explore the range by hiking a segment of the lengthy Cactus Springs Trail. The 9-mile round trip described here runs about 4779 feet below the range’s highest peak and about 3800 feet above La Quinta. It is located in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
To reach the trailhead, from Calif. Hwy. 111 in Palm Desert take Calif. Hwy. 74 south into the Santa Rosa Mountains. Upon reaching the Pinyon Pines, turn left/southeast onto the Pinon Flats Transfer Station Road. Just before the station, turn right/east into the parking lot.
From the lot, walk the dirt road east about 800 feet to Pidgeon Springs Road. Go right/south onto it and then in about 70 feet take the very next left, heading east onto Cactus Springs Trail proper.
In about 500 feet, the trail splits; go right/southeast. The rest of the trail crosses rolling terrain, but the route essentially descends toward Horse Thief Creek.
The Cahuilla Indians used this trail for centuries, mainly because it passed water sources. In more recent times, an effort was made to mine dolomite here; you’ll pass the abandoned operation as the trail curves southeast.
Though high above the desert floor, the climate on the mountainside trail is similar. You’ll pass plenty of cactus gardens, chaparral, pinyon pine and juniper on the way. During wet springs, blooming wildflowers – especially the brilliant blue and purple phacelia – are a treat to the eye.
To the south, Toro Peak rises above the trail. The highest mountain in the Santa Rosa Mountain Range, it tops out at 8717 feet. From its summit, in good weather, you can see Charleston Peak in Nevada.
A short range, the Santa Rosa Mountains cover 437 square miles. Geologically, they are part of the Peninsular Ranges, which run to Baja California Peninsula’s southern tip in Mexico.
At 2.4 miles in, the trail crosses Horse Thief Creek. The stream usually flows year around between its canyon walls. Cottonwoods line the creek and in autumn turn golden. The canyon marks a good spot to turn back; the more physically fit and adventurous, though, can continue onward.
From the creek, the trail climbs to the springs. Pine-covered Martinez Mountain, at 6500-feet high, looms in the distance.
The terrain evens out as nearing the springs. Cahuilla families often used this flat as a gathering place, and pottery sherds still can be found there.
At 4.5 miles, the trail reaches Little Pinyon Flat Cactus Spring. The spring actually is a shallow, grass-covered mud hole, and a filter is needed to drink from it. But in the days before modern wells and piping, this was a major water source. No sign marks the spring, but once you spy a lot of animal tracks and human boot prints, you’re close.
The springs is a good spot to turn back. The trail actually goes east for several more miles but can be difficult to follow at times. About 8.8 miles from the trailhead is the Agua Alta spring, and in 17.6 miles is Martinez Canyon.
This hike is best done in spring and autumn when temperatures are still comfortable. The desert route is mostly exposed to the sun, so bring plenty of water and be sure to don sunscreen and a sunhat. Dogs also are allowed on the trail.