A Visit To The Wild Side

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Palm Springs has always had a reputation as the “capital of desert cool.” From its popularity with the rich and famous to its unique blend of mid-century modern design, the city has long attracted visitors to come and bask in the warmth of its desert. Golf is a major draw (more than 100 courses in the Greater Palm Springs region), and relaxing spa hideaways abound. But the Greater Palm Springs area offers some of the best opportunities beyond the golf links and inviting pools. Get out into the desert and mountains of the Coachella Valley and experience this unique area’s natural beauty, fascinating history, and geological significance.

One of the most popular attractions in the area is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Featuring the world’s most significant rotating tram cars—which give riders a 360-degree view of Chino Canyon during the 10-minute, two-and-a-half-mile ascent. The tram brings you to the Alpine wilderness of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. During the climb, you pass through five unique life zones, from the Mexican Sonoran Desert to an Alpine Forest.

Up top, at over 8,500 feet of elevation, you will be rewarded with stunning views of Palm Springs and the spreading Coachella Valley. Climb the stairs to Grubbs View for a 360-degree view of the valley and mountaintop wilderness. Next, explore Mt. San Jacinto State Park, which has over 50 miles of hiking trails. An excellent trail to explore is the Desert View Trail, which offers beautiful views from various lookout points. Finally, the Mountain Station has two restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and different viewing decks.

A must-see is Joshua Tree National Park. With 800,000 acres of mystical beauty, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the world’s most incredible natural desert treasures. The park combines two desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. A notable feature of the higher and cooler Mojave Desert section is the many collections of bare rock, often broken up into huge, stacked boulders and granite monoliths. These intriguing rock formations, constantly surrounded by the wild-armed Joshua trees, create an other-worldly landscape, making for some great hiking, exploring, and a favorite activity for many visitors—rock climbing.

Although much of the park’s scenic beauty can be experienced while driving, be sure to take the time to stop at several attractions and hike the trails, some of the spots not to be missed include Arch Rock, Cap Rock, Skull Rock, the Discovery Trail, Keys View, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Here are other highlights. 

The San Andreas Fault A terrific way to experience the natural beauty of the desert and learn about the history of the area’s indigenous people and the significance of the famed Andreas Fault is with a Red Jeep Tour with Desert Adventures. The San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour took us into the center of the fault zone located at Desert Adventures’ privately owned Metate Ranch Preserve. Our guide took us through a maze of narrow canyons. We had the opportunity to take a short hike into slot canyons to explore this rugged environment further. We also visited and learned about one of the natural desert oases of California Fan Palms fed with clear water bubbling up through cracks formed by the fault line. 

Earthquake Canyon If you like to bike ride but don’t like hills, you’ll love the Earthquake Canyon Express Bicycle Adventure with Big Wheel Tours. This 20-mile tour descends 1,200 feet through the San Andreas Fault zone on a paved road to the heart of grape country near Mecca. There are no crossroads, no turns, and extraordinarily little traffic. Our guide was always with us, following in his van. At various spots in the canyon, he would have us pull over to explain some of the geological or natural significance of what we were seeing. Big Wheel Tours offers a variety of bike, Jeep, and SUV tours and bike rentals. 

Indigenous Lands The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation offers excellent hiking trails at Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has made these canyons and other locations in the Palm Springs area their home since immemorial. An abundant water supply from the immense underground aquifer allowed the Agua Caliente to thrive in the harsh desert environment.

Two of the most popular trails are Palm Canyon and Andreas Canyon. Both trails wind their way through magnificent oases of indigenous California Fan Palms—standing in stunning contrast to the barren desert.  

Living Desert Zoo/Gardens
Another opportunity to experience the area’s wild side is visiting the Living Desert Zoo/Gardens. Located in the Palm Desert, Living Desert offers a beautiful array of animals housed in humane, expansive habitats. Some of our favorite exhibits were the black rhinos, the giraffes (you can purchase lettuce to feed these gentle giants by hand), and the Australian wallabies, where you walk freely among these friendly guys from Down Under. Various interactive activities and informative “keeper connections” are presented each day. Living Desert is more than a zoo. 

Enjoy the serenity of the many themed desert gardens or explore some of the more than 1,200 acres of Sonoran Desert on one of the park’s hiking trails.

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