Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 17, 2010

Cool Desert Heat

This is the third article stemming from a recent visit to the Palm Springs area. See #1 HERE and #2 HERE.

Why is a desert city named “Palm Springs?” It’s in the middle of a desert: an especially brutal, hot part of the Mojave desert, where temperatures regularly exceed 115 degrees. As for palms, we all know that palm trees are decorative fillips imported by developers to add a sense of the exotic to the Western landscape. Is this name simply another real estate developer’s ploy to attract unwitting buyers to some blasted landscape of rock and mesquite?

If you’ve flown into Los Angeles from the east, you’ve probably passed over Palm Springs and looked down to see a verdant carpet of green — golf courses: scores of them, some of them sporting large lakes. You shake your head at what must be further evidence of the legendary profligacy of Californians with scarce water. However, the water that nourishes all those golf courses is not carried from the Colorado River though canals or trucked in from Truckee. Natural springs fed by snowmelt from the surrounding mountains keep the groundwater basins recharged. Palm Springs is blessed by water, and has had small oases for eons, although the golf courses are more recent.

As for the palms, although the palm trees that line the city’s streets are, indeed, the product of landscaping on a decades-long planting binge, there are native palms that grow nearby in the desert, and almost nowhere else in North America.

Just a couple of miles south of the city of Palm Springs at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains, a series of canyons have water year-round from those springs. There, in a blistering desert is the home of California’s only native palm tree, the Fan Palm, Washingtonia filifera. These are bona fide oases. They are called the Indian Canyons, because they have long been occupied by native Americans and are now the home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Fan Palms in the desert

Fan Palms in the desert

To  see a grove of palm trees standing amidst the sagebrush and bare rocks of the desert landscape is a startling vision. Here, as in few other places in the American west, you can strike out on a trail across an arid Mojave landscape and end up in a cool, lush bower, filled with the sound of rippling water and the chattering of birds.

Hiking in the desert is an experience everyone with even a passing interest in the outdoor world should have. Some of the qualities of the natural world are equivalent, whether you are walking a ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, walking the shore of North Carolina’s Outer Banks or tracing a small stream in the woods of the midwest. You are aware of sounds in a special way, and your footfalls may be the loudest thing you hear; there is space, open and blustery on the shore or close and cool along that meandering river; and, wherever you venture, you are aware that it is you who are the outsider, and that everything around you is in its place as you discover it and learn how all the animals and plants and sky and earth connect, with or without you, and long after you have passed. The desert magnifies these sensations. You do not have to walk far after you leave the trailhead until you can descend into a dry arroyo where, if you stand still, there is no sound but the rush of blood through the capillaries in your ears. Your view might stretch for twenty miles across mesquite and rabbit-brush before it climbs the scree at the base of a cliff and then rises up to mountains, sharp-edged in clear air. There is a repetition of sameness that, in its constant repetition, underscores the amazing variety of nature: miles of plants that grow in one anothers’ shade; birds, lizards and mammals that make their homes or feed there. The air is hot and dry in the day, and cools to a threatening cold as night comes on. You are THERE, as you rarely have a chance to be amid the clutter of the everyday.

Hiking in the canyon country outside of Palm Springs is a quick way to learn about the vast desert of the American southwest. You can have this same experience not far out of Albuquerque or Tucson or Las Vegas. This is the landscape you’ve driven across on Interstate 40 or I-10; didn’t you wonder what it would be like to get out of the car and scramble up that long grade toward the looming mountains? It’s worth the effort to have the experience: to walk across the crunching rocks and bristling plants of the trail. In the Indian Canyons, as almost nowhere else, you will hear something astounding: the rush of water in a dry place. One can hike across vast stretches of the Mojave and Chijuajan deserts and never hear it anywhere else but in those Palm Springs canyons: the sound of life in a harsh land.

From Palm Canyon, if you are prepared for it, you can hike south, far up-canyon, across the western tip of the Santa Rosas, and descend into the Anza-Borrego Desert, descending through another canyon where the same Fan Palms grow. Although I’ve never done it, it must be a spectacular experience. I have, though hiked up that same canyon from the Anza-Borrego side to see the palms there: one of my very first desert hiking experiences. The view from the top of the ranges surrounding Anza-Borrego make one feel like Cortez, discovering a new world, spread out below. Anza-Borrego is one of the nation’s great state parks, and should be on every desert aficionado’s list to visit.

Just as woods and forests are different whether they’re at high or low altitudes, warm or cold climates, and rivers and lakes in the Northwest are different from ones in the Ozarks or New England, deserts also differ from one another, depending on altitude or geology. The joy comes when you put a couple of bottles of water in the pack, lace on the hiking shoes, and walk out to find how they’re alike — and how each one is new. Only the foolish fail to see something interesting in the first ten steps. Never fail to stop and listen. You will hear something you’ve never heard before: a waterfall in the desert, a new bird, or utter silence.

To see some photos of the our hike in the Indian Canyons on a glorious February day, click  HERE.

Be certain to check in next week. We have a special Olympic theme, and we’ve invited a couple of veteran writers to give us their first-hand descriptions from past Olympics they attended. I know you’re going to have some fun reading them. We start Monday with the Winter Olympics of 1984: Sarajevo!

© 2012 Brad Nixon


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