Day hikers can explore a chaparral-covered mountainside on the Ramona Trail in an easy drive from Palm Desert.
The 5.7-mile out-and-back trail in the San Bernardino National Forest sits near Mountain Center. As the Coachella Valley blisters under the summer heat, the Ramona Trail offers a good escape with temps in the 70s during the morning and rising to the low 80s before noon. The downside is the trail gains 1490 feet in elevation.
To reach the trailhead, from Palm Desert take Calif. Hwy. 74 south into the mountains. You’ll drive for about 24 miles on the Palms to Pines Highway. About 0.4 miles past Morris Ranch Road (Riverside County Fire Station 53 is at the intersection of Hwy. 74/Morris Ranch Road), look for a parking lot nestled in the pines on the highway’s left side. The trailhead heads from the lot’s southwest side.
Starting at 4592 feet above sea level, the entire trail is well-maintained, though it can be rocky and narrow in spots.
In short order, the trail switchbacks as ascending Thomas Mountain’s northern flank. Along the way are fantastic views of Garner Valley below, the San Jacintos to the northeast, and the Santa Rosas to the southeast.
The route heads through a classic California chaparral-covered mountainside. Wildflowers often bloom here following rain.
Among the most impressive flowers are the showy yellow blossoms of the flannel bush, which bloom in mid-June. The flowers can get as large as 2.5 inches in diameter, and a number of them appear at the same time on the shrub, which can grow up to 18-feet high and 10-feet wide.
While largely considered an ornamental plant today, flannel bush played an important role in Native American cultures through California. The inner bark’s sap was the Vicks VapoRub of its day and could be taken for stomach aches. The wood meanwhile was a used to make furniture and as cordage for nets.
Also common along the trail are manzanita, whose uniquely shaped red branches always stand out. Some of the bush hugs the ground with others grow several feet tall. Look for their blooms in the winter through early spring and their berries from spring through summer.
You’ll also see plenty of ribbonwood mixed in with the manzanita. It’s often called redshanks because of its shaggy shanks—or ribbons—of bark that fall off it. Ribbonwood prefers north-facing slopes, especially around 4000 feet elevation. They do well in chaparral environments, as they often resprout after a fire.
As the trail nears its destination, you’ll notice the chaparral giving way to pines, black oaks and even cedars. The route nicely becomes shaded.
Watch for where the trail splits, with one path going straight to the Tool Spring Campground and the other heading northwest to the the summit of Thomas Mountain. Go straight on the spur to the springs, where there are picnic tables and restrooms. The springs is at about 6080 feet, and a small stream flows from it, cutting down the mountain’s north slope into Garner Valley.
If you wish to continue to the top of Thomas Mountain, you’re looking a total of 11.5-miles round trip from the parking lot along Hwy. 74.
The trail is named for Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, which is set in the very mountains you’re hiking.
Most of the trail is open to the full sun, so don sunscreen and a brimmed hat. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.