The sunny Coachella Valley, nestled in the rain shadow of the towering San Jacinto Mountain Range, is famous for its golf courses, palm trees and posh resort towns such as La Quinta and Palm Springs. For over a century, the valley has been a favored retreat for the glitterati of Hollywood, just 120 miles away. In winter, the resorts and restaurants of the upper valley swell with visitors fleeing the snow and gloom of the north. Even during the shortest days of the year, temperatures generally reach the high 60s in the valley – pleasant weather for golf and tennis.
Coming down from rain-soaked Oregon for the holidays, we have discovered outstanding hiking in the canyons, mountainsides and deserts in and around the Coachella Valley.
Foremost, Joshua Tree National Park on a plateau about an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs is a wonderful place to hike and photograph. More appealing than the gangly Joshua trees themselves, the rock formations in the park are spectacularly photogenic. The rounded lumps, domes, and freeform formations of tan granite invite exploration. Fantastic grottos and juxtaposed jumbles treat the eye. Lovely pinyon pines, yuccas, cacti and other desert vegetation dot the photogenic landscape.
Rock climbers come from all over the world to test their skills on the park’s high angled routes on rough granite. Hikers have a choice of terrific trails, from short, family-friendly loops to highly challenging routes requiring scrambling and good navigational skills. The Boy Scout Trail, Lost Horse Mine Loop and Covington Loop (all in the 6-7 mile range) are three of our favorites.
The steep ridges and canyons on the west side of the Coachella Valley also offer enjoyable hiking. From the communities of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and La Quinta trails lead past barrel cacti to viewpoints and surprise pockets of native fan palms. The Araby, Mount Eisenhower and Magnesia Canyon Trails are good choices. Bands of bighorn sheep thrive on these rocky hillsides. The Indian Canyons just west of Palm Springs feature palm tree groves that must be experienced to be believed.
Southeast of Indio are the multi-colored Mecca Hills. Hidden in this labyrinth of eroded mudstone are some of the best hikes in the entire area. The Ladder Canyon – Painted Canyon hike is a superlative loop adventure featuring a great slot canyon, rickety ladders to ascend dry waterfalls, and a return down a colorful geologist’s paradise of varied rock.
A fourth area of great appeal to hikers is Anza Borrego State Park, about 90 minutes southwest of Palm Springs. There are numerous pictographs, morteros (grinding holes), and other evidence that ancient peoples favored this area for camping and hunting. Famous for its wildflower displays in March and April, Anza Borrego has rugged beauty even in the dead of winter.
Joshua Tree, Mecca Hills, Anza Borrego, and the rugged country just west of Highway 111 all offer great diversion for the hiker and photographer. Even in winter, it is reliably sunny and perfectly comfortable for hiking in and around the Coachella Valley.