A walk through a cool evergreen forest with scenic overlooks of the Coachella Valley await day hikers on the Desert View Trail.
Combined with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, the trip to Mount San Jacinto State Park is a great way to beat the summer heat. Located high in the mountains above the valley floor, temps can be around 40 degrees cooler at the state park – so if it’s 110 on the valley floor, expect the hike to be in about 70 degree or so weather.
There are plenty of trails at the 14,000-acre state park to hike – more than 54 miles of them – but an easy choice is the Desert View Trail. Though only 1.5-miles round trip, that still delivers a vigorous walk thanks to the high altitude. the hike begins at 8516 feet above sea level – and there really is less oxygen up there than on the valley floor.
The quickest and easiest way to reach the state park is to take the aerial tram. From Palm Springs, drive Calif. Hwy. 111 north to the tram’s Valley Station, which sits at 2,634 feet elevation. The tram climbs nearly 6000 feet in an 11-minute ride. There is a fee to use the tram.
After the tram lets you off, head to the Mountain Station’s first floor and take the concrete walkway to the sandy trailhead for the Discovery Nature and the Desert View trails. In 0.1 miles, the Discovery Nature Trail splits off the Desert View Trail; go left to head along the mountainside.
The Desert View is a wide trail through an alpine forest of towering Jeffrey pine with grassy knolls in the San Jacinto Wilderness.
Jeffrey pines – aka as Jeffrey’s pine, yellow pine, or black pine – usually grow at an elevation of 5,900 feet to 9,500 feet in this part of its range, and can be found from Baja California to Oregon. They can grow up to 131 feet tall, but the higher the elevation, usually the shorter and slimmer the tree.
The cones are large – 4.7 to 9.4 inches long – and you’ll see them scattered across the mountain floor throughout the hike.
Five signposts marked as “Notches” appear on the trail to indicate lookouts of the Coachella Valley about 8000 feet below. Notch 3 arguably offers the best vista, an unimpeded 120 degree view in which the bulk of Palm Springs can be seen. The contrast between the green mountain environment and stark desert below will make an impression.
Notches 4 and 5 each view the Santa Rosa Mountains to the southeast. El Toro Peak, the Santa Rosas’ highest summit, stands out. On clear days, you can see the edge of the Salton Sea beyond.
The trail can be rocky in sections. To avoid getting lost, look for stone cairns marking the route.
Among the cairns and pinecones you’ll likely spot a Western gray squirrel or two. They used to be common at lower elevations in Southern California. Fox squirrels brought by settlers have outcompeted the Western gray, though, forcing it into the mountains where it holds the edge.
Usually weighing no more than a couple of pounds, the 24-inch long Western gray actually is the largest native tree squirrel on the West Coast. It’s easy to to spot as its bushy tail remains curved in an “S” shape. Western grays aren’t picky eaters, either, liking berries, nuts, seeds, and bird eggs.
After passing the fifth notch, the trail gives a good view of San Jacinto Peak to the west. Towering 10,824 feet into the sky – a full 1.95 miles above Palm Springs – San Jacinto Peak is the highest point in the San Jacinto Mountains and Riverside County, and the six highest in the lower 48.
The trail next comes to Y-intersection; go right/northeast and cross a wooden bridge. You’ll then come to the stem that you walked in on. Go left/northeast. This brings you back onto the Nature Trail. Keep veering right and you’ll soon reach the concrete walkway that goes into the tram station.
Notes: Dogs are not allowed on the trail. Cell phone reception will be weak and at times nonexistent.
- Desert View Trail: Rob Bignell
- The Desert View Trail offers five lookouts of the Coachella Valley.: Rob Bignell