Hiking the Tahquitz Canyon Trail in Palm Springs, California
Tahquitz Canyon is a sacred area for the Agua Caliente tribe, named after a powerful shaman. It’s said that his spirit continues to live in the canyon and the mountain today, triggering unexplained natural phenomena at times.
Once you get into the canyon, it’s easy to see why the tribe’s ancestors sought refuge in this beautiful canyon during the hot summer months in the desert. A stream flows mostly year-round alongside the trail for most of the mile-long journey to the falls. The waterfall itself is a powerful 80-foot wonder that drops into a pool at the base of the mountain. You can swim in the pool for as long as you can endure the chilly water.
The hike to the falls gains about 300 feet in elevation, and due to the area’s sacred status, the tribe asks hikers to stay on designated trails.
There is an admission fee to gain entrance to the trail, and you can hike it on your own or join a guided tour.
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park, California
Golden Canyon Trail is possibly the most well-traveled of any in Death Valley National Park – and for good reason.
Take a trip down this trail as the sunlight hits the surrounding cliffs, including the amazing Red Cathedral formation, and it’s obvious how the canyon was named.
The trail itself is well-marked and easy to follow and the in-and-out trail to Red Cathedral is about 3 miles round-trip. Add 4 miles if you decide to take the Gower Gulch loop to the south.
The Golden Canyon Trail occasionally drops into a sandy wash or over boulders so good footwear is essential. And just in case you need to be reminded: Probably steer clear of any Death Valley hiking during the sweltering summer months.
Salt flats at Badwater Basin, lowest elevation in the U.S., in Death Valley National Park, California
You won’t get any lower than this. Not in North America, anyway.
Badwater Basin is an open expanse of sand and salt flats 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point on North America. And if you want to know exactly how low you are, scan the rock cliff to the east until you see the sign reading “Sea Level” bolted at the appropriate height.
It is desolate – but far from empty. Given its extreme status, this is one of the most visited spots in the vast Death Valley National Park, where temperatures can reach 130 degrees in the summer. Winter brings more tolerable temps, but the air chills dramatically once the sun goes down.
The salt flats stretch far into the basin, so visitors can walk around at their own pace and direction. And the basin is almost perfectly flat so there is no elevation gain from the bottom of this side of the Earth.
Before you even get to the meat of this hike, you walk about a mile following a concrete culvert. On the other side of this culvert, past the fences, is a little compound called Porcupine Creek. It is notable because Oracle CEO Larry Ellison bought the property for over $40 million in 2011 and has hosted some high-profile guests, including President Obama. So hiking tip: Probably don’t try to jump the fence to get a better look (you really can’t see much of Porcupine Creek from this trail).
With the real estate background out of the way, after walking your mile past Mr. Ellison’s vacation home, you’ll scoot down a concrete incline and soon into a small canyon. At the end of this canyon is the first of several (usually) dry waterfalls to scale. There are probably about 7 dry falls to climb, and the second one at about 30 feet is the toughest to get up and back down. If you’re in reasonably good shape, careful and not afraid of heights, even Fall #2 should be a fun challenge.
I turned back at an imposing rock face about 2.5 miles in, although I’ve seen others climb it. The trail is an out-and-back one, so you can turn around and go back the way you came at any time.
The area is technically only open to humans between October and December due to bighorn sheep territory.
View of Horseshoe Palms in the Coachella Valley Preserve.
The Coachella Valley Preserve has a wealth of trails to follow, and this one takes you through a barren and unforgiving landscape to two different palm oases, which around formed due to their proximity atop the infamous San Andreas Fault.
First note: Do NOT attempt this hike during the summer. People have died on the trails once the mercury soars above 100 degrees F. And take plenty of water regardless of the time of year.
After parking in the preserve’s lot, head southeast on the short section of trail that leads across the road (and past an alternate parking area) and keep following the signs to the palm areas until you reach a set of stairs built into the ridge. Head up them and you’ll see a sign at the top pointing you in the right way.
From this junction, you can head to three different oases – Pushawalla, Horseshoe and Hidden palms. Follow the well-posted signs through a rocky, moon-like landscape with sparse vegetation (just a few creosote and brittlebush survive here) to choose the one you want. Hidden Palms to the south is thicker and offers more shade than Horseshoe, although the route I took and posted below takes you by both.
There is a steep downgrade before reaching Horseshoe Palms, then you’ll walk down a jeep road that connects you to Hidden Palms. After heading north from Hidden Palms, you’ll climb back to the moon landscape, where you’ll double-back on the trail you started on.
Chuckwalla Trail, Rancho Mirage, California
The Chuckwalla Trail takes you past some high-priced real estate in the hills above Rancho Mirage.
The trail has about 400 feet of elevation gain, split into two separate climbs, so I’d classify this two-mile trail on the easy side of moderate.
After climbing quickly at the start, the trail flattens out after half a mile or so, giving you nice views of neighboring Cathedral City, especially the Cove area.
After another mile or so, the trail ducks under a condo complex before rounding a hill and giving you nice views of some mid-century modern houses to the south. The trail ends at the top of Frank Sinatra Drive, and you can walk past the swank Ritz Carlton hotel along the road back to your starting point.
Palm tree at the west end of the Cahuilla Canyon trail.
Cahuilla Canyon is an often-overlooked area as the masses head south to Indian Canyons. And to be honest, it’s not the most interesting of desert hikes, but it does provide a nice view of south Palm Springs on a relatively easy trail.
From the parking area along South Palm Canyon Drive, you can choose a number of paths through the desert as long as you keep heading due west. Eventually, you’ll come to a ridge and then a gulley, and you’ll want to stay south of both. At this point, there is only one easy-to-follow trail (although I did deviate on a side trip down through the gulley in the map below).
Continue west until the canyon walls start to close in and the vegetation gets thicker. The trail will end at a single palm tree, and there is a seasonal waterfall nearby, although when I visited in mid-February, it was dry. The palm tree is a good place to relax and take in the view of south Palm Springs before heading back the way you came.
The round-trip is about 3 miles and includes a deceptively easy 670-foot elevation gain.
Cows and windmills above the Pacific Crest Trail at the beginning of section C near Whitewater, California
The storied Pacific Crest Trail runs west of Palm Springs and cuts through the San Gorgonio Pass near the small town of Whitewater. Section C begins just northeast of town, and a small parking lot down a dirt road offers easy access to this point.
This part of the PCT dives into a canyon with a number of the area’s signature windmills sitting atop a ridge to the south. If they’re spinning, you can hear the eerie sound of the blades whistling through the air.
The trail itself very slowly climbs in elevation but is fairly easy even for inexperienced hikers. You’ll see a lot of brittlebush and creosote lining the trail. If it’s warm and sunny, lizards will dart across the path. This part of the PCT is popular for horseback riding as well so keep an eye out for fresh piles on the trail. And while I didn’t see any horses, I did round a bend to see four cows staring at me.
You can hike north as far as you’d like before turning around. Or you can leave a car or arrange for a ride in the Whitewater or Mission Creek preserves for a longer thru-hike.
A creosote bush on the Randall Henderson Trail in Palm Desert.
The Randall Henderson Trail is an easy trail with little elevation gain suitable for the entire family. As a bonus, it starts at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center, which has some nice exhibits.
The Henderson trail, while easy, does contain a number of common desert plants, including cholla cacti, barrel cacti, creosote, brittlebush and more. In fact, the annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival, held in March, offers free guided tours using the Henderson, which is when I walked it.
If you conquer the Henderson quickly and want more, there are several trails that connect up to the Henderson for further exploration.
View of the palm oasis on the Palm Canyon Trail near Palm Springs.
The hike from the Indian Canyons trading post to the stone pools via the Palm Canyon Trail is one of the most popular in Palm Springs. On land owned by the Agua Caliente tribe, there is an entrance fee of $9 per adult, but the fee is well worth it for the bright splashes of green that pop out from the otherwise brown desert.
The Palm Canyon trail starts at the trading post and immediately drops about 70 feet into a huge palm oasis. Follow the stream toward the back to find the trail, which is the left fork at the split. The trail snakes through the palm oasis until it ends after about a mile and then climbs a ridge so hikers get an bird’s eye view of the oasis below. This ridge is the steepest part of the trail. After this, the trail runs mostly straight and flat through open desert with expansive views of Mount San Jacinto to the north and the Santa Rosa chain to the south and west for about two miles before hitting the stone pools. When I went in mid-February, the pools were dry, but in the spring, they can fill up, especially after winters with heavy rain (a relative term in the desert).
The trail soldiers on to the south for many more miles, but a lot of hikers turn back at the stone pools. If you want an alternate route, take the high road once you arrive back at the south tip of the palm oasis. That trail will climb a ridge to the east of the oasis and adds an extra mile to your trip, which ends again back at the trading post.