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Peaks, Palms and Picnics: Day Journeys in the Mountains and Deserts of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley of Southern California

Peaks, Palms and Picnics: Day Journeys in the Mountains and Deserts of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley of Southern California

by Linda McMillin Pyle

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Sunbelt Publications, Incorporated
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Journey 1

Trail of San Jacinto Peak

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ride to Long Valley, easy Desert View walk or challenging hike to top of San Jacinto

"Omar's Bread"

"Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light"

Edward Fitzgerald-translation

The first quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the eleventh century astronomer-poet of the Persian desert, echoes on a high country trail in the San Jacinto wilderness on an early morning hike. The magnificent granite turret, Mount San Jacinto peak, with the boldest escarpment in North America, is the spire upon which the sun rises and sets so compellingly in this our Colorado Desert. Forming a backdrop of incredible soaring heights for Palm Springs, now in summer the bald peak rises smoke gray. In spring, fingers of white gleam in rivers of snow. Winter brings a pinnacle of alabaster white lending a sense of grandeur to all the surrounding land.

On our Trail of the San Jacinto Peak, we are drawn up into the sky on this ageless mountain with its forever vistas of wilderness and endless desert. But first we must begin at the station.

Chino Valley Station

At the north edge of Palm Springs, Mom, Dad, my husband Scott and I follow Tramway Road climbing the alluvial fan to the Chino Canyon Valley Station at an elevation of 2,643 feet. Imposing sheer rock faces press down as we drive into an awesome canyon.

This canyon was once summer home to the Cahuilla Indians. Chief Francisco Patencio, a respected desert Cahuilla Indian, often quoted on the history of the Coachella Valley, was born in Chino Canyon in the 1840s and died at about 100 years of age. He recalled the flat lands high in the canyon were good for fields and gardens but also in great peril during floods. He said his ancestors could take refuge here from the exploring Spaniards passing through the lower valley and later from the Californios, people born in California of Hispanic ancestry in the 19th century. Chino Canyon was hidden from the desert floor. These early explorers were using an ancient Indian trade route which ran through the San Gorgonio Pass. Trade routes were important to the Cahuilla as luxury items such as food, shells, animal and mineral products were exchanged with Chumash and Gabrielino coastal tribes. Travelers carried important messages; they were the newspapers of the people. Like them, we have traveled from the coast not to trade goods but to trade moist ocean air for warm dry air of the desert.

Palm Springs Aerial Tram

A 14 minute vertical tram ride past five supporting towers whisks us up, up and away, ski lift fashion, past life zones not often seen stacked together horizontally. Enthralled, we stand at the rear window of the enclosed 80 passenger tram reveling in the exhilarating rise of the red car. Others with less affection for heights stand in the middle, eyes averted, concealing their trepidation. Leaving the creosote and brittlebush of the desert, the tram travels past five geological life zones ranging from Sonoran to Arctic fringe and stops at the 8,516 foot mountain station with its gift shop, restaurant, snack bar and observation areas. A 22 minute movie on the history of the tram plays in the theater. Stepping from the station into the cool forest, the scent of pines envelops us. The dry breeze blows now a comfortable 40 degrees cooler than on the valley floor.

Long Valley

Before entering the wilderness, we fill out day-use permits at the ranger station box at Long Valley, a short walk from the tram station. Long Valley with a short nature trail and a desert view trail invites with picnic tables and barbecue grills. Here, we part ways with Mom and Dad. Concerned about altitude changes, they will meander toward Round Valley staying in the flat of the valley. Scott, my husband and Trail Master, nicknamed T.M. and I are on a mission: lunch at the top of the Turret.

In the past, a hike into the high country for us was from the other side of the mountain. Then, bedraggled from a night in the tent and dusty from the trail, we met Palm Springs tram hikers, in spotless white clothes and sandals, with jaundiced eye. They seemed to be cheaters. Now, delivered by the same tram, fresh and ready to meet the challenge, it didn't seem so much like cheating as we still had an 11 � mile round trip to hike. Plus, Mom and Dad would be able to share the high country forest experience.

Round Valley

A march of two miles to Round Valley begins our ascent. T.M., always alert to signs of animals, spots several bushy-tailed coyotes. Eyes glowing in the dark forest, observing curiously, they remind that this is their wilderness, too. Once these forests were the habitat of the most dangerous animal the Indians encountered, the grizzly bear. Like the bald eagle, the bear was sacred and not hunted. With difficulty and foreboding the Cahuilla men would ascend into the mountains with bows made of mesquite or desert willow; then descend, deer slung over shoulders, down through the steep cactus and chaparral infested slopes. This may have been a fearful task for them as the mountain top was also the realm of the ubiquitous evil spirit, Tahquitz. With a penchant for stealing souls and concealing himself as solid rock, he could also appear in angry thunder and lightning and travel in frightful whirling dust devils. No thunder claps or lightening strikes as we reach a stream, our last chance to filter water. A trip to the outhouse is fast as spiders and bees have claimed it as their own. From Round Valley, we climb the trail past the sign marked "San Jacinto Peak."

San Jacinto Peak Trail

Our pace picks up after resting in the shade of lodgepole pines at Wellmans Divide, the junction of the Saddle Junction Trail and San Jacinto Peak Trail. The San Jacinto Peak Trail turns right. Soon we find ourselves out of the stately pine forest and into the bright sun on dry slopes switchbacking through an elfin forest of manzanita bushes. Branches and berries crown this large evergreen with its reddish-brown twisted trunks. Manzanita means "little apple" in Spanish and the mealy berries are eaten by wildlife and were made into a cider by the Indians. Soon we meet the Summit Trail and other hikers with the same destination. Pressing on, closer to the top of the mountain, a stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s provides emergency shelter.

A scramble up boulders advances us another 300 yards to the "top of the world." No peaked pinnacle to inspire or awe, but rather a conglomeration of gigantic granite boulders balancing one atop the other creates this "summit of the exalted mountain."

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the bough,
A flask of Wine, a book of Verse-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

From this elevated place, the pale purple horizon circumscribes the wilderness and our paradise. Our wine is thirst-quenching water, our bread is eaten next to a windswept limber pine tree and a travel journal is our book of verse. An eagle's vista, a wide panning view, spots the mighty San Gorgonio peak, old "Greyback," the highest peak in Southern California. The 10,000 foot precipitous drop of a perpendicular escarpment falls away into thin air before us. This, the northeast face of San Jacinto Peak, is recognized as the most severe escarpment in North America. Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley cities string out below on the tawny floor of the Colorado Desert. Disappearing in a haze, the Colorado Desert reaches eastward almost 250 miles to Phoenix and southward slips past the blue Salton Sea into northern Baja California and the Mexican state of Sonora.

In the deep western distance, the Pacific Ocean gleams only on a rare clear day. The Little San Bernardino Mountains to the northeast rise dim blue with a gilding of gold. Hidden behind them are the Mohave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. The Santa Rosa Mountains to the south and southeast with windswept ridges stand out in sharp relief. Our vistas and visions of the desert and mountains along many of the trails of the Coachella Valley would have belonged to Cahuilla Indian, Spanish explorer, Californio or American pioneer. These paths, worn by the feet of many travelers, mark places where visitors can not now remain; a patchwork of Indian reservations, National Forests, State and Federal Wilderness, BLM land and Santa Rosa National Scenic Area has insured this. Perhaps, someday in the future development will string all the way to Arizona but foresight and cooperation will have preserved some of this unique Western landscape.

The sudden rise to a high altitude and the hike begins to blur the senses and returning down the trail, legs straining, toes jamming, the last mile seems endless. Exhausted, collapsed on the waiting room floor at the mountain station, we are thankful the tram will keep us from having to descend another 6,000 feet on foot. I describe this hike as long, long and arduous, T.M. as a piece of cake. We are anxious to know how Mom and Dad fared in their ramblings.

Desert View Trail

They are not worn out but have a story to tell. Starting confidently up the Round Valley Trail behind us, talking and laughing, they proceeded until Mom spied six or seven coyotes slinking along on their own trail. With an abrupt about face with fearless leader Mom leading the retreat, they exchanged their scant knowledge of what to do when facing a coyote pack-stand tall and not run? Or was that for mountain lions? They weren't exactly running but when they chanced upon a ranger and described their encounter, he had smiled. Seems the coyotes here are looked upon as merely part of the scenery.

Heartened by this news, they headed out again, this time on the 1 � mile Desert View Trail, an easy loop, pleasant with a slight rise to the brink of an escarpment dropping abruptly to the desert floor. After scenery gazing and resting among giant boulders, they proceeded close to the rim to another lookout with a similar spectacular viewpoint and then back down the easy slope to the picnic table area of Long Valley. Their adventures on the mountain and ours tell us that whether you are 40 or 75 years old, time is fleeting.

Take Heed! Time Fleets Fast Away
Forty or Seventy, Dark Shadowed Forests beckon Stay
Share Together the Mystifying Mountain Air
Soon the Fall shuts Another Day

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