If you want beautiful desert hiking with sheer isolation, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than the Coachella Valley just outside of Palm Springs.  I was itching to get back here and my buddy Greg offered his Palm Springs townhome while he was traveling to Costa Rica.  With the added incentive of dog sitting for his amazingly sweet chocolate lab (Charlie Brown!) I booked a flight using miles and headed south in early January.

Ladder Canyon Trail & Mecca Hills Wilderness ::

The plane touched down on a cold Saturday and I caught a Lyft to Greg’s townhome, an easy ten minutes from the airport (just about everything was about ten minutes from his pad, including all the great restaurants and bars in downtown PS).  After a relaxing day with Charlie and some pool and hot tub time, the first of four hikes started Sunday in the Painted Canyon area, just north of the Salton Sea and by the small town of Mecca.  After a straightforward trek along highway 10 curving southeast, an exit took me into the small town of Mecca, past dusty farmlands and eventually onto a straight, primitive dirt road that weaved through the lonely canyons. 

At the trailhead were towering, multicolored rock formations and cliffs creating a stunning scene, with scattered smoke bushes lining the bottom of the basin.  The parking lot only held a handful of cars (and some sweet looking camper vans); a good sign the trails wouldn’t be busy.  A group of chatty hikers beat me to the trailhead, so I gave them a healthy head start to create some distance between us.  The first leg was a simple walk over a sandy, gravelly wash that wound through the gorge and came to the first of many ladders, all of which were thankfully bolted to the rocks and sturdy.  With each ladder climb came more elevation with jagged, narrow and cramped trails that carved and weaved into the gorge (formed years ago by the San Andreas fault). 

After maybe a few miles I eventually climbed out of the gorge and onto a ridgeline trail with breathtaking views of the Mecca Wilderness.  After a quick lunch the trail continued along the ridge and eventually circled south and west towards a different trailhead, and through some lonely, Indiana Jones-esque vistas before descending back into the gorge.  This hike was really a treat; the whole area was a geological wonder.   

The Garstin Loop

Monday brought endless rain throughout the day so I spent the time holed up in the townhome with Charlie Brown and practiced songs on the guitar.  On Tuesday the weather faired better so I joined a few old Seattle connections in town (lots of Northwesterners who have bought a second home in the area) for a quick four mile hike on the Garstin Loop overlooking Palm Springs and south into the Indian Canyon area.  Can’t say it was the most photogenic loop since I only snapped a few pics but was nice having a sweeping view of the valley.  Very convenient that the trailhead is located right in the southern part of town. 

Indian Canyon and the Stone Pools Trail

Wednesday’s hike brought me to the Indian Canyon area, a preservation owned and run by the indigenous Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.  This unique area is home to an abundance of filifera, also called Californian fan palm trees.  These big shaggy wonders dotted the lower basins and surrounded pools of water scattered throughout the canyons.  Above these oases are miles of craggy trails that lead through the canyons into the surrounding foothills.  I chose the Trading Post to Stone Pools hike which led me towards the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain range.

The first part of the hike was instantly rewarding with a quick descent into the Palm Canyon area where towering filifera and intriguing pools of water surrounded jagged rocks.  After an ascent out of the basin the trail became more straightforward with snow covered mountain peaks to the west and grassy areas along the trail with lots of cholla, agave and other cacti.  A few more miles took me to the Stone Pools area where a channel of water cut through a series of boulders and rock formations.  Alltrails had me at the end of the trail but I decided to add a loop section which brought me into a neat variety of landscapes: some flatland areas with towering rocks, more pools nestled between stones and more gorgeous, winding views of the valleys and mountains in the distance.     

Split Rock, Eagle Cliff and Queen Mine loop

To be honest I was getting a bit tired with all the hiking from the week, but I knew I’d regret not visiting Joshua Tree on my last day in town.  Thankfully the weather there was as mild as Palm Springs (it’s usually much colder) so I packed a lunch and snacks, grabbed my America The Beautiful Pass (admission for any National Park!) and made the trek there. 

The trailhead started at the Split Rock parking lot, a geological feast with giant rock formations that gave the area a prehistoric feel.  After the trail wrapped around the first of many boulder fields it eventually opened up to a flatter landscape before a steep incline (what I like to call a ‘tippy-toe’ trail).  After a few missteps (and a belly crawl) I found myself a the Eagle Cliff boulder house, a mining homestead that was surprisingly intact and well maintained (lots of old rusted relics here). 

The trail then started to descend as I passed barren dead trees, a few more mines and of course, tons of giant boulders (one section of the trail became completely lost in a boulder field which I had to scramble through…without a downloaded map this would have been a challenge).  Towards the end of the trail there was a group of rock climbers scaling a section that looked like giant’s teeth.  Back at the trailhead I was happy to be finished as the long week of hiking had caught up to me.