Day hikers can explore one of California’s largest cottonwood and willow riparian areas only a few miles from Palm Springs.
The half-mile Marsh Trail at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve skirts then loops through the wetlands, a rare sight in the desert. An elevated boardwalk, the trail is wheelchair accessible.
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 and to a parking lot.
Begin the day hike on the access trail at the lot’s southeast side. Upon reaching the first trail junction, go right/southwest. This is the trail’s open desert section that passes the preserve’s butterfly garden and education center.
At about 0.18 then at 0.2 miles, the boardwalk junctions with the looping Mesquite Trail. Veer left and stay on the boardwalk each time. The trail then curls north and enters the marsh.
The 31,000-acre preserve in the 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.
Water 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 bird, 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.
Much of the boardwalk here is surrounded by thickets and shaded by the cottonwoods and willows, so the temperature is noticeably cooler than the desert portion of the hike. Several benches and decks to enjoy the birds and scenery can be found.
The birds flitting about here might surprise you. While there are the usual hawks and falcons, wrens and warblers, and hummingbirds and crows, keep an eye out for pelicans and an hear cocked for woodpeckers. Among the rarer of the latter is the gilded flicker, whose golden underwings can be seen when it flies.
Birds aren’t the marsh’s only denizens. After spring rains, wildflowers and butterflies alight the marsh with color. At dawn and dusk, if quiet, you often can glimpse other wildlife, including deer, bighorn sheep, raccoons and lizards, and predators like
bobcats and coyotes.
At 0.36 miles from the trailhead is the first of two junctions with the Desert Willow Trail. Go left/northwest on the boardwalk, continuing through the marsh. In a few yards, you’ll come to a large observation deck overlooking the marsh. After the trail curves to its western side, there’s another broad deck.
The other junction with the Desert Willow Trail is just west of the second deck. Stay left and cross a bridge as you re-enter the desert. At the next junction, go right/northwest 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.