Day hikers can head to an oasis brimming with wildlife and fossils on the West Mesa Trail near Palm Desert.

The 2.2-mile lollipop trail sits at the base of Little San Bernardino Mountains in the Coachella Valley Preserve. It’s sometimes referred to as the Willis Palms and West Mesa Trail on maps and in other literature.

Hiking West Mesa Trail (Coachella Valley Preserve)To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 take Ramon Road east at Thousand Palms. As approaching the foothills, turn left/north onto Thousand Palms Canyon Road. A parking lot is on the road’s left side in about 0.66 miles. The trail heads northwest from the lot along the base of the mountains.

The trail’s opening section consists of loose sand, as the route heads through a wash. Be sure to wear quality hiking boots; a trekking pole also can help with stability.

In about a quarter mile, leave the trail’s stem for the loop. Go right/northeast around the base of the foothill in front of you. The trail gradually gains elevation.

At about 0.8 miles from the trailhead, you’ve reached the loop’s north side. The trail then heads up and crosses the foothill. Your reward for the exertion are great views of the Coachella Valley spreading before you (Thousand Palms and Palm Desert are directly ahead) with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains rising above it.

At roughly a mile in, you’ll begin the descent down the foothill. If hiking a day or two after a rainfall in late winter or early spring, wildflower blooms usually can be spotted along the way. Chia, the desert gold poppy, desert sand verbena, dune evening primrose, and sand blazing star all grow in the area. Butterflies and the carpenter bee often flit about the blossoms.

Hiking West Mesa Trail (Coachella Valley Preserve)

Some 3.1 million years ago, the smoothound shark lived in the waters covering the Coachella Valley.

Though appearing like wasteland, a number of creatures actually thrive near the wash and on the foothill. The lizard is ubiquitous with the zebra tailed, dune and leopard species, as well as chuckwallas, all common. Footprints of roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbits, and coyotes usually grace part of the trail. If you’re really lucky, you may sight the paw prints of the rarely seen bobcat, desert kit fox, or raccoon.

Once at the foothill’s base, the trail turns southeast and quickly arrives at Willis Palms. The oasis of California fan palms stretches 1200 feet from northwest to southeast. It is one of several oasis that line the San Andreas Fault, which causes water from the valley’s aquifer to seep upward through cracks in the earth.

Hiking West Mesa Trail (Coachella Valley Preserve)

The Willis Palms oasis stretches for 1200 feet through the Coachella Valley Preserve north of Palm Desert.

Willis Palms is a testament to nature’s resilience. A fire burned much of the grove in November 2010, but within 15 months the flora already was growing back. Bats and birds lost their homes when the fire destroyed the palms’ skirts, but all have since returned.

Today, Willis Palms is a good spot for birdwatching. Cactus wrens, hummingbirds, mourning doves, and Gambel’s quail have been spotted there. Look up, and you may see an American kestrel, raven, red-tailed hawk, or even a great horned owl eyeing the ground for a meal.

Sign of life from a long ago age also can be found at the oasis. Erosion has exposed an oyster fossil field formed when this part of the world was at the bottom of an ancient sea about 3.1 million to 3.2 million years ago. At that time, the Gulf of California extended into the Coachella Valley with the warm shallow waters running about 30 to 98 feet. Fossils for at least four kinds of sharks and rays as well as three kinds of fish also have been found around the oasis.

Hiking West Mesa Trail (Coachella Valley Preserve)To locate the oyster fossil fields, look for large white patches as the ground rises off the desert floor beneath the fan palms. Oyster shells stick out of the fairly soft rock. Only take pictures, though – collection of the ancient marine fossils is illegal.

Around 1.9 miles in, you’ll reach the stem trail. Continue straight/southeast to the parking lot.

The West Mesa is not the best-marked trail and there are crossing routes, so be sure to carry a map and compass.

Almost all of the trail is exposed to the sun and wind, so always don sunscreen, sunglasses and a sunhat. To avoid the desert heat, the trail is best done October through March; the preserve is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during those months.

Image Sources

  • shark: Rob Bignell
  • Willis Palms Oasis: Rob Bignell
  • White deposits: Rob Bignell
  • Wills Palm Oasis: Rob Bignell