"Where do I begin?" That's the first question I'm frequently asked by people interested in discovering the outdoors around the Coachella Valley. With literally hundreds of trails to tromp on between the spires of the San Jacintos in the west and the gnarled canyons of Mecca Hills in the east, where should a newcomer start getting to know the half-dozen different local hiking destinations?
The best thing is to start slow, with easy trails that will acquaint you with the terrain, climate and scenery of each place.
So here are seven time-tested, easy and accessible trails which will give newcomers and long-time residents alike an introduction to each of out wonderfully distinct wilderness areas.
They can serve as jumping off points for further explorations or as a sampler: to help you realize that you prefer pine trees to Joshua trees, views of Lake Hemet to views of the Salton Sea or cool breezes to the desert sun.
Palm Springs Urban hiking takes on a new meaning in Palm Springs, a city embraced by two mountain ranges. No traffic crossings or concrete walls here. But just minutes from busy streets like East Palm Canyon Drive or Ramon Road, hikers can trudge through secluded canyons and scale ridges with scenic views of the valley below. Many of the trails are short enough to hike as a warm-up before going to work -- one of the unique pleasures of living on this end of the valley.
The easy trail: Earl Henderson Trail
This well-manicured trail hugs the mountain slope behind Bob Hope's house, passing through thick desert grass and a peaceful landscape of cacti. The quiet out here, in this canyon popular with horse riders from nearby Smoketree Ranch, belies the fact that this mountain escape lies just minutes from the bustle of downtown Palm Springs.Getting there: From East Palm Canyon Drive, drive about 0.5 miles down Araby Drive, cross the concrete wash and park near the maroon gate on your left. Cross the street and pick up the sand path leading through the bushes. about 0.25 miles down look for a signpost to the left marked "Henderson Trail." Pick up the trail across the street.If you like this one, try...the Desert Museum Trail.
*** Mecca Hills
This labyrinthine network of rock walls and sand washes near the Salton Sea is the Coachella Valley's answer to the slot canyons of Anza-Borrego. Formed by a combination of floods and disturbances along the San Andreas Fault, the narrow, steep-walled canyons reveal desert trees, a variety of birds, and after a healthy season of rain, abundant wildflowers. In the afternoon, the dull gray rock walls often turn a golden color, recalling the famous canyons of southern Utah.
The easy trail: Meccacopia Trail
Last spring this modest trail off Box Canyon Road was blanketed with wildflowers. In the winter, the Meccacopia Trail won't be quite as colorful, but its tiny canyons and open expanses looking out onto the Salton Sea are pleasant throughout the year.Getting there: From I-10, head east toward Indio. Take the 86S Expressway toward Brawley/El Centro. travel nearly 10 miles to 62nd Avenue. Turn left onto 62nd Avenue and drive several miles to Johnson Street. Turn right and drive several miles to 66th Avenue. Turn left onto 66th Ave. (Box Canyon Road) Drive 7.8 miles past Painted Canyon Road on 66th Ave. and park on the right side of the road. Trailhead is about 50 feet from the road. If you like this one, try...Pyramid Canyon.
*** Joshua Tree National Park
Visitors to the high desert often liken their Joshua Tree first experience to stepping onto another planet. The gnarled, contorted Joshua trees, set against towering piles of doughy-looking boulders, make this place like no other on earth. the park lends itself best to camping and excitable wandering through the park's different terrains; longer hikes can be monotonous and their dry air tires some hikers quickly. But a number of easy trails offer short, satisfying tromps amid the vegetation, wildlife and scenery that make JTNP famous.
The easy trail: Key's View Trail/Inspiration Peak
One of the best ways to find a panoramic view of the Coachella Valley, from Mount San Jacinto to the Salton Sea, is to drive all the way down Key's View Road in Joshua Tree National Park, and stop here at the park's southern edge.From the right end of the parking area, a little trail heads up onto the ridge sending you for an even better view atop the Little San Bernardino Mountains. A 0.25 mile trail takes you out and back in a hurry, but for a longer hike head all the way to Inspiration Peak, the pointy, modest summit about 2 miles down the same trail.Getting there: In Joshua Tree National Park, take Park Boulevard toward Hidden Valley and follow signs for Key's View.If you like this one, try...the Lost Horse Mine Trail.
*** Palm Desert/Rancho Mirage
A promotional poster for Palm Desert shows a hiking boot crunching onto a boulder, accompanied by the slogan "Palm Desert Rocks." With several new trails and trail networks added in the past year, and more to come, the city and its little brother Rancho Mirage next door are living true to the catch phrase. From the newly completed Fox Canyon Hiking Park off Highway 74 to the Bump and Grind Trail in, these small desert cities have wisely given their citizens access to some of the finest natural splendor in the valley.
The easy trail: Bump and Grind Trail
More of a running path than a wilderness trail, the "Bump and Grind" is popular with bikers, joggers and hikers alike. A quick, 4-mile jaunt up and down the mountain, it's great for a morning workout or a leisurely stroll to fine views of the central valley.Getting there: Trailhead off Magnesia Falls Drive at Strella Drive in Rancho Mirage.If you like this one, try...Fox Canyon Hiking Park.
*** Garner Valley,Situated in the Santa Rosa Mountains, just over the ridge from Rancho Mirage, picturesque Garner Valley combines aromatic pine forests with wide, grassy plains that recall Colorado's mountain country. Hiking trails climb up the mountainside on either side of the valley, offering views of both sides of the so-called "Desert Divide." For those looking for a stiffer challenge than that offered by most desert hikes, Garner Valley has a wealth of rigorous, almost alpine ridges to conquer.
The easy trail: Hurkey Creek Nature Trail
Hurkey Creek Park is a quaint camping area nestled in the shady pine forests of Garner Valley. The best reason to visit the park is the chance to dip your desert-burned feet in the cool creek that runs along the park's short nature trail.When you arrive at the toll gate, the ranger will provide you with a map and directions to the trail. After less than half a mile along the trail, steep side paths branch off toward the creek to your right.Follow any of these and you'll arrive alongside the serene stillness of the burbling creek. The rest of the trail is interesting, with plenty of scenery to take in.Getting there: Take Highway 74 south from Highway 111 in Palm Desert. Drive about 33 miles, and turn right just past Lake Hemet at the sign for Hurkey Creek Park.If you like this one, try...the Cedar Springs Trail.
All the way down Highway 74, and up the lacing switchbacks of Highway 243, the secluded mountain hamlet of Idyllwild consists of a cute little town center surrounded by cozy cabins nestled in the San BernardinoNational Forest. This is also a major destination for serious hikers in the area, who cut their teeth on serious peaks like Tahquitz Peak, Devil's Slide and Mt. San Jacinto, which is accessible from here.
The easy trail: Ernie Maxwell Trail
The majestic peaks towering above Idyllwild's pine forests offer some of the area's most spectacular views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. In most case it takes a strenuous hike to earn those views. Fortunately, there's an easier way to get beautiful glimpses of the rolling mountainside near Idyllwild without undertaking a rocky trek up a steep incline.The Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail offers an easy day hike through the shady, aromatic pine forests below Tahquitz Peak, providing non-athletic hikers and families a walk featuring wonderful scenery without any challenging terrain.Getting there: In Idyllwild, take Saunders Meadow Road right past the Desert Sun School. Turn left onto Pine Avenue then right on Tahquitz View Drive. Park along the dirt road and walk about one mile to the trailhead.If you like this one, try...the Deer Springs Trail.
*** Indian Canyons
These deep canyons, located several miles down a two-lane road south of downtown Palm Springs, are fed by the abundant underground springs that gave Palm Springs its name. Trails throughout the canyons, which are owned by the Cahuilla Indians, sprout clusters of Washington fan palm trees around watery oases, creating a startlingly tropical scene in the desert. The easy way: Andreas Canyon
A burbling stream right beside the parking lot of Indian Canyons leads into Anreas Canyon, the little brother to the larger canyons nearby, Murray and Palm canyons. But this1.5-mile roundtrip hike gives you the same palm tree scenery of those longer trails, with a fraction of the effort.Getting there: In Palm Springs take South Palm Canyon Drive several miles to the tollbooth for Indian Canyons.If you like this one, try...Murray Canyon.
*** *** All starred hikes can be found, with complete descriptions and directions, in Philip Ferranti's "120 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs," the hiking bible for the area available at most local bookstores.