Walking in Palm Springs
Flying into Palm Springs you see a vast Coachella Valley desert with patches of buildings lined by streets and patches of green golf courses and smaller patches of blue swimming pools. Once in town, houses and strip malls seem to stretch on and on. You almost forget about the desert. As a reminder the San Jacinto Mountains dominate the landscape to the West. And my hair straightened in the dry air.
We were here to enjoy some warmth, sun and a week of Modernism. Palm Springs in the mid-twentieth century experienced architecturally delightful developments for vacation homes and grander homes for the movie stars from Hollywood. We are all looking for a winter getaway. The town was full of cold climate refugees.
Moorten Botanical Garden is a very short walk but gave us a good overview of some of the cacti we would see over the course of the week. Desert gardens of South and Central America, Africa and local plants are well displayed, though the place looks a little worn. Amazing plants to look at and a bird to serenade us on our visit. What a great plan.
Indian Canyons on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation gave us access to California Fan Palm groves along creeks and a view to mountainous desert areas. The Cahuilla people had lived here for 2000 years.
Palm Canyon was our first stop. Palm Canyon trail goes for some 15 miles. We went about a mile. To start we zigzagged down a ramp to the flat trail along the Palm Canyon Creek. It was cool among the palms and the creek ran clear. The contrasts of palms to rocky desert mountains with barrel cacti intrigued me.
The path was well maintained (ex: cleared of fallen palm fronds) and we met many friendly trail workers and hikers on our short trek. The map describes trails by level of difficulty. I just had a problem with the first deep zig and zag and the indication that more easy trails could be accessed after trekking a hard trail. I think I’m not really committed to “hiking.”
Andreas Canyon, also within Indian Canyons, has a main trail looping the palms along the creek for about a mile. The vegetation is more varied than at Palm Canyon (palms and cottonwood mostly). We went uphill into the desert earning some views of mountains, before descending to the creek and completing the loop with palms on one side and layered rocks on the other. The trail has steps and boulders to maneuver, but was still a rewarding trek.
Murray Canyon is near Andreas and is apparently less well travelled. We did not go there, since “less well-travelled” also means “less likely I can walk.”
Tahquitz Canyon is on another Agua Caliente Reservation that includes more rugged boulder climbing and a seasonal waterfall.
Mt San Jacinto State Park access requires driving from valley floor to 2600 ft. and then taking a tram to 8500 ft. It’s a heck of a ride. But what every desert needs is a snowy mountain. We didn’t appreciate how much snow. We rode to the top; walked down the zigzag obligatory 10 stories and then couldn’t walk on the snowy slushy flat walk. Two short nature walks would have been great. We smelled the pines instead. For you real hikers there are 54 miles of trails and primitive camping available. There were groups of young people ready to take it on.
In Palm Desert, amidst gated golf country clubs is The Living Desert of over 1000 acres. It includes everything from camel rides, African animals, birds, desert gardens from Africa to North America, a veterinary hospital for the animals, a G-scale Model Train layout and 3 ½ miles of nature trails past a San Andreas Fault Exhibit. (Yes, the same fault that runs through Doran Beach in Sonoma County.) We strolled and gawked on most of the paved paths, but on our last day in the area, we were not up to the canyon hike.
Besides seeing mountains loom near my hotel and rocks jut up over Palm Canyon, at the Living Desert I had the feeling that a flash flood could take out the whole valley. I guess it has, since the Salton Sea was bigger and called something different in vast geologic time. It gave a whole new meaning to the delicate nature of a desert and of us as a people. Most of the time, we don’t even notice. Maybe we should take a look.
Touristy Random Walks
The city of Palm Springs is flat and there are paved trails near some roads and sometimes there are sidewalks. Not my favorite kind of walk, but people were using them for power-walks, jogging and lugging groceries. We stayed very close to downtown Palm Springs and Palm Canyon Dr. made for an entertaining walk with shops and restaurants. (You can also sit in cafés by the street to be ‘seen’ and to see vehicles that cruise by costing more than many homes.) One night there was a street fair and one day a street parade.
As part of Modernism week we had a Garden Tour involving driving to or by about 10 houses with desert gardens. They often showed off the house, pools and surroundings. We drove by other houses that could have qualified for a tour. Many people are embracing the sculptural beauty of a dry garden.
We took a Double Decker bus tour of many architectural styles (and what Hollywood star lived where) in Palm Springs, that inspired us to walk in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood near our inn. We started at what was once Liberace’s house. High hedges protected many homes and gardeners were busy. As the trail at Palm Canyon was raked, so was the dirt and gravel outside these massive hedges. Wow, but sidewalks are optional and the lack thereof discouraged us.
One of the stars credited with a resurgence of Palm Springs and the mid-20th century style was Frank Sinatra. We toured his Twin Palms home built in 1947 and designed by E Stewart William. It was a short walk, but the home still oozed “hip” and seemed perfectly livable. Of course, the current owners have organized major efforts to restore the home. Sinatra lived here for 5 years, before moving on to a Rancho Mirage big house.
Palm Springs Art Museum was in walking distance of our inn. We enjoyed the Backyard Oasis exhibit that fit in with the theme of Modernism and the Palm Springs life. Being an art exhibit, the photos sometimes had a dark edge on the oasis concept of personal swimming pools. Some pictures showed the houses we rode by on our bus tour.
Are you worn out yet, reading all this? We were well worn by week’s end. But we’re ready to go back. There is more to see and do. Modernism week again next year? We’ll be there.
See you on the Trail!
Pictures by Mike Millar