With the arrival of summer’s triple digit temperatures in Palm Springs, it’s time to go hiking where it’s a little cooler – like the other end of Palm Canyon.
Where Palm Canyon Drive ends at the foothills really is just the bottom of a canyon that stretches more than 18 miles into the mountains above. You can hike near the canyon’s cooler upper reaches in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument.
The segment of the Palm Canyon Trail described here runs 4.8 miles round trip. It’s a good hike for an early summer morning, but the heat will pick up as you close on midmorning.
To reach the trailhead, from Calif. Hwy. 111 in Palm Desert, take the Pines to Palms Highway (Calif. Hwy. 74) south for 18.2 miles. In the Ribbonwood area, turn right/north onto Pine View Drive. The trail begins where the asphalt runs out, about a fifth of mile from the Hwy. 74 turnoff; park along the roadside.
A narrow path that used to be a jeep trail heads north from the asphalt. You’re at 4360 feet elevation. In contrast, Palm Canyon Drive at the other end of the canyon in Palm Springs sits at about 600 feet.
At 0.1 miles, the trail curves right/east and from there generally goes downhill as shimmying over and around the rolling terrain.
The Coachella Valley’s southern slopes boast vegetation common to the Sonoran Desert’s higher elevations. This is the westernmost end of that desert, which covers southeast California, southwest Arizona and northern Baja California and Sonora in Mexico. In contrast, the top of the valley’s northern slopes are firmly in the Mojave Desert.
Among the most common of the Upper Sonoran vegetation you’ll see along the trail is red shank. In fact, this segment is dense with the large shrub, so named for its bark color. If hiking July through September, you can see its cream-colored blossoms that grow in clusters. The shrub can reach up to 18 feet high.
Another common Sonoran plant here is mesquite, which can grow up to 50 feet tell if there’s ample water. Unlike the red shank’s ribbony bark that is easy to peel, the mesquite’s bark is smooth, though when older it grays and the texture appears shredded. Young mesquite branches often are green and photosynthetic. Its leaves fold shut at night.
Yucca also can be spotted here. The trunk only rises about four feet at best, though its blooms, which occur in summer to autumn, make it stand out. When not in bloom, the yucca is easily identified by its dull dark green leaves that can grow up to a yard long as they curve inward, tapering in a circle around the trunk.
Also on this segment of the trail but less common are the California juniper and pinyon pine.
The California juniper’s fragrant needles are bluish-gray and scaly with their cones looking like small bluish berries. It can reach up to 26 feet high when next to water.
The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains are one of the few places in the United States where you can see the Pinus monophylla californiarum, one of three subspecies of pinyon pine. The pinyon is the world’s only 1-needled pine, and the californiuarum subspecies is found along this trail. Its cones are are about two inches in length but broader than long.
At 0.3 miles, the trail passes stone cairns and curls right. Be careful not to accidentally take a little-used connecting trail that goes left/west.
Views of Palm Canyon’s upper reaches soon appear as the trail gently meanders downhill for the next mile. At 1.2 miles, the trail descends to a four-way junction. Watch for the Palm Canyon Trail sign.
You have the option of taking the canyon bottom route or a ridge top route. The canyon bottom can be overgrown at times, and the ridge top route offers better views, so take the latter route.
At the ridge, the trail crosses a flat area and widens to a jeep trail. The view down into Palm Canyon to your left/west is quite impressive, even when though the intermittent stream running through the canyon 220 feet below is dry in summer.
Soon the trail narrows again as it alternates running along the ridge top or the canyon’s side.
At around mile 2.4, the trail switches to the ridge’s west slope away from the canyon as descending toward Omstott Wash. This marks a good spot to turn back if interested only in a day hike. If looking for a longer walk, continue onward; you’ll reach the wash at 4.2 miles.
While the lower canyon segment of this trail in Indian Canyons is popular with hikers, the upper reaches make great mountain biking country, so keep an ear out for the whir of passing two-wheelers.