With temperatures rising on the desert floor, the best way for hikers to beat the heat is to gain a little elevation. A great spot to do that in spring is the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a good 2100 feet higher than Palm Springs.

Among the half-dozen trails to hike at the preserve, the Desert Willow Trail makes for a pleasant walk in which hikers can see flora more common to the Mojave than the Colorado desert, which the Coachella Valley sits in. The route runs about 1.3 miles when done in a loop with a couple of segments of the Marsh Trail.

Desert Willow Trail this Week's Day Hike

Desert Willow Trail map

To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley take Calif. Hwy. 62 north to Morongo Valley. Turn right/south onto East Drive then left/southeast into the park. From the southeast side of the parking area, go on the stem trail.

At the first trail junction, turn left/northeast into the Marsh Trail. You’ll cross a bridge. In about 200 feet from the parking lot kiosk, go left/north onto the dirt trail. You’re now officially on the Desert Willow Trail.

Desert Willow Trail this Week's Day Hike

Alkali goldenbush lines the Desert Willow Trail’s opening section.

Alkali goldenbush lines this section of the trail. The shrub grows up to 40 inches high and produces a brilliant yellow flower. It flourishes in arid, sandy soil, especially alkali flats, hence its name.

Clusters of wild desert rhubarb also grow along this part of the trail. The rhubarb’s waxy and ridged leaves nicely captures moisture, even from mists, and sends it down a central vein to its taproot, in a sort of self-irrigation process. The plant grows about 2-4 feet tall and usually at a lower elevation than the preserve.

Desert Willow Trail this Week's Day Hike

Healthy stands of tall creosote can be found as the trail nears a wash.

Stands of tall creosote bush also can be found here. A common desert plant, creosote prefers the moist areas of washes and alluvial fans. Their roots are so efficient at absorbing water that they often prevent other desert plants from establishing themselves in an area. A creosote’s crown also can split to create a clones of itself; some colonies of the plant that grew from a single seed have been dated to 11,700 years old in California.

Another sight here is the desert willow, the trail’s namesake. Despite the name, the shrub is not related to the weeping willow tree found across the United States. Still, the desert version found here can grow between 15-40 feet high.

In 0.4 miles and after crossing a bridge over an intermittent stream, the path junctions with the Yucca Ridge Trail. Go right/south.

Desert Willow Trail this Week's Day HikeAs the trail runs along the base of Yucca Ridge with a desert wash to the trail’s right, several stands of honey mesquite grow in dense thickets. The short tree serves as an important habitat for rabbits and quails.

As nearing the wetlands area, two observations decks – one on each side of the trail –  let hikers enjoy the desert scenery stretching over the wash.

At 0.8 miles, the trail crosses the wetlands via bridge and junctions again with the Marsh Trail. Go right/west onto the Marsh Trail, a boardwalk.

Desert Willow Trail this Week's Day Hike

01 The Desert Willow Trail loops off the north side of the Marsh Trail at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

The trail winds through the wetlands with a couple of large observation decks along the way. Among the interesting plants seen here is spikerush. It can grow close to seven feet high. As a grass, their stems usually can’t support itself at that height and so they bend downward under their own weight and form a dense cover. It’s the perfect shelter for small mammals and ground-nesting birds.

At 1.24 miles, the route reaches the junction with the Desert Willow Trail. Stay on the Marsh Trail by going left/southwest then take the next right/northwest onto the stem leading to the parking lot.

There’s very little shade on the trail, so you’ll want to don sunscreen, sunglasses and a sunhat for the hike.



Image Sources

  • Desert Willow Trail This Week’s Day Hike Choice: Rob Bignell
  • Desert Willow shrub: Rob Bignell