PALM SPRINGS -- On the west side of Palm Springs, the San Jacinto Mountains don't so much rise from the desert floor as stab skyward. From an elevation of 150 feet in the city, the terrain soars to the 10,834-foot summit of Mount San Jacinto in just six linear miles -- one of the steepest escarpments in the United States, according to ranger Adrienne Fitzgerald of nearby Joshua Tree National Park.
It serves as a wind break, blocks winter storms blowing in off the Pacific and provides a scenic backdrop for Palm Springs, particularly when the sunlight of early morning fires it reddish-orange.
This towering mountain wall also presents for hikers a dramatic contrast. In geologic creases on the edge of town are five Indian canyons
The truly ambitious could undertake a hike in each environment in a single day, but it's probably more advisable to devote one day to each.
After just a few minutes in one of the canyons south of Palm Springs, a hiker can understand why the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians started spending summers here some 3,000 years ago.
The Coachella Valley can be blast-furnace hot, but it's remarkably
These natural oases, which form where underground water is plentiful along an earthquake fault line, were cradles of life for the Indians. They used plants for
A visit to the Indian canyons provides a glimpse into the life and culture of the Agua Caliente band, which still administers these historic pockets. For the most part, the hiking is easy -- we saw people in tennis shoes and even flip-flops -- and as long as you stick to the canyon bottom, the conditions are cool and welcoming.
We'd hiked here before ... and missed so much. This time, in the tow of tribal ranger Chris Fritsche, a window was opened onto the world of the ancients. The ranger-led walks are offered in Palm and Andreas canyons on weekends, at a modest fee above the
Fritsche led us to some replicated village structures, including a thatched, dome-shaped kish for storage; a ramada, under which people would sleep; and a drying rack, made -- no surprise here -- from the stout frond stalks of the palms.
He also pointed out a red-tailed hawk as it glided in the drafts above the canyon, and made sure we didn't miss the sound of cooing quail off in the brush. We were urged to reach a hand into a spring-fed pool -- it was 80 degrees! And we learned how mesquite pods were ground into a nutritious mush and how the sap of the brittlebush eased the pain of a toothache.
After happening on a barrel cactus, Fritsche paused and said, "People think they can get water out of it because
Visitors can hike the Indian Canyons on their own, too, and there's much to explore. Palm Canyon is 15 miles long, with some 6,000 trees, a bright-green gash between two parched mountain slopes. A commendable 3-mile loop wanders up the heart of the canyon before climbing out on the Victor Trail (you'll need hiking boots for this). This rim walk affords a view of the forest from above, as well as a perspective on the artificial greenery of Palm Springs off in the distance.
Tahquitz Canyon -- which has a separate entrance and visitors' center -- is worthy of a visit, too. It was the garbage-strewn domain of squatters over a 40-year period before the Agua Caliente evicted them in the late 1990 s. It's since been cleaned up, and welcomes hikers who follow a trail to a 60-foot waterfall that passed for the Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La in the 1937 movie "Lost Horizon."
The scene plays out almost daily: Revelers in Palm Springs hop on the Aerial Tramway for the 10-minute gondola ride to the top of the San Jacintos, assuming that it will be just a little bit cooler up on the mountain.
Soon after alighting from the tram cars, they head to the gift shop, shivering, to buy hooded sweatshirts or long-sleeve T-shirts.
The temperature swing can be startling. When we boarded the tram at midday in early November, it was 82 degrees in Palm Springs; when we started down a hiking trail at the summit, it was 45 degrees, with a brisk wind blowing. So hikers shouldn't feel silly with fleece garments and parkas slung over their arms as they perspire on their way to the tram's base station.
Hardy backpackers will tackle the 11-mile round trip to the top of Mount San Jacinto, but a more reasonable day hike is the 4 1/2-mile round trip to Round Valley. Before setting out, realize that this is a state wilderness area, and all hikers must first get a permit. There is a self-registration station at the trailhead, and this isn't something that should be shrugged off: We encountered a couple of rangers far up the trail, and they promptly asked to see our permit.
Especially when the desert floor is scorching, this outing provides a refreshing change of pace. The forest of white fir and lodgepole pine is serene and fragrant, and the wind often sings in the treetops. The trail follows a creek valley, so there aren't a lot of vistas, but the trees do give way periodically to reveal craggy summits.
It's a good idea to pace yourself on these hikes. The tram ride means your body doesn't gradually adjust to the higher elevation. You're more than a mile and a half above sea level before you ever set foot on the trail, and we found ourselves puffing for oxygen as we climbed to Round Valley, which is at 9,100 feet.
"If you're not used to the elevation, you should not really go after it," said state park ranger Jerry Frates, who has spent a dozen years up here. "And make sure you stay hydrated. You can get altitude sickness pretty quickly, and then all the fun goes out of it."
The meadow at the end of the trail was dry and yellowed in the fall. Soon it will be white -- as in covered with snow. Once the winter storms move in, the park becomes the domain of crampon hikers, snowshoe trekkers and cross-country skiers. Then, in spring, wildflowers put on a display, and those meadows sprout to a brilliant green.
As the sun began to dip behind the trees, we decided not to tarry on the hike back to the tram station. This is one place you wouldn't want to get caught out in after dark.
At one point, we spied a deer high-stepping through the brush alongside the trail. Then it bounded off, but paralleled us for some time on an opposite hillside.
And to think that a day earlier, Fritsche had knelt down on a sandy trail and pointed out the tracks of a coyote and a centipede.
Only on a visit to Palm Springs can a hiker set foot in two such starkly different worlds.
IF YOU GO
INDIAN CANYONS: There are two entrances to the Indian canyons in Palm Springs, and separate admissions are charged.
-- To reach the area of Palm, Andreas, Murray and Fern canyons, take Palm Canyon Drive straight south of town and stay on it, even when the main road branches left and becomes East Palm Canyon Drive. The south drive terminates at a toll booth maintained by the Agua Caliente band. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors (age 62 and up), $4 for children ages 6 to 12. Detailed trail maps are issued here. Andreas Canyon is off a spur road near the toll booth. Palm Canyon is farther on, where the Trading Post is located. Ranger-led hikes cost an additional $3 for adults, $2 for children. They're offered Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- 10 a.m. at Palm Canyon, 1 p.m. at Andreas Canyon. Free ranger lectures are given Monday through Thursday at the same canyons -- 10 a.m. at Palm, 1 p.m. at Andreas. Visitors to the Indian canyons receive a brochure that has a $2.50-off coupon to Tahquitz Canyon. www.indian-canyons.com; (760) 323-6018.
-- Tahquitz Canyon is on the southwest edge of Palm Springs, reached via Mesquite Avenue off South Palm Canyon Drive. It is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $6 for children (age 12 and under). Ranger-led interpretive hikes, included with admission, depart daily from the Visitor Center at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; hikes are 2 1/2 hours in duration and two miles in length. Self-guided hikes are also permitted. Visitors to Tahquitz receive a wristband that is good for $1 off admission to the Indian canyons. www.tahquitzcanyon.com; (760) 416-7044.
AERIAL TRAMWAY: The Valley Station at the base is reached via Tramway Road off North Palm Canyon Drive (Highway 111). Tram cars depart at least every half hour beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. During the winter, last car up is at 8 p.m., last car down is at 9:45 p.m. Tickets are $22.25 for adults, $20.25 for seniors (age 60 and up), $15.25 for children (ages 3 to 12). Ride-and-dine tickets are also available. The tram cars rotate, making about two full revolutions per trip, so everyone gets to see the view. There are extensive services at the Mountain Station -- restaurant, bar, gift shop, rentals of snow-sports equipment. www.pstramway.com; (888) 515-8726, (760) 325-1391.
SAN JACINTO STATE PARK: Trail maps ($2) are available in the state park visitor center inside the Mountain Station. Head down the paved path behind the station to reach the hiking trails. The Long Valley Discovery Trail is a three-quarter-mile nature loop. If you wish to take the 4 1/2-mile round trip to Round Valley or any of the other hikes into the state wilderness area, you must get a day-use permit at the Long Valley Ranger Station; it's a self-registration process. www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636; (951) 659-2607.
Colony Palms benefits from a makeover
PALM SPRINGS -- An enchanting courtyard garden prompts guests to linger a bit at the Colony Palms, a 56-room boutique hotel that underwent a thorough renovation a couple of years ago.
Citrus and olive trees, lantana shrubs and flowering vines have been artfully planted around the pool. Flagstone walkways interlace the garden, and here and there are private conversation nooks, where a couple of chairs or a bench are positioned just so. A three-tier Spanish fountain bubbles quietly, and it's all romantically lit at night.
At the edge of the pool is an open-air bar, which provides entry to the Purple Palm Restaurant, popular with locals.
The hotel was desperately overdue for all of these stylish touches. For many years this was the Palms, an all-inclusive spa resort that catered to value-minded women -- OK, let's not mince words: It was a budget fat farm. Long gone, thankfully, are the dark-green carpets; old, torture-rack beds; and institutional dining fare that was low in both calories and character.
The Colony Palms opened in spring 2007 with a fresh, new feel and many comfortable appointments. Our standard king room had a Mission Revival feel to it, with wrought-iron fixtures and a bathroom floor inlaid with colorful tiles. But even nicer were the luxurious pillow-top bed, Italian linens and enormous shower.
Some of the higher-end rooms have fireplaces, claw-foot bathtubs and/or two-person hot tubs. There is also a spa on the premises.
The hotel dates to 1936, when it was a Hollywood retreat first called the Colonial House, later the Howard Manor. The Spanish Colonial bones of the original, built in a two-story square around that garden and pool, have been retained, but upgraded nicely. And that courtyard -- a space that had been sterile and underutilized in the Palms era -- is a wonder.
-- 572 N. Indian Canyon Drive. Room rates from $159 weekdays, $229 weekends. www.colonypalmshotel.com; (760) 969-1800.
-- Eric Noland