Trip reports

Into the wild desert (Mojave break, part two)

When last we left our fearless explorers, Mr. Adventure, alas, had to show up for the conference that brought us to the Mojave, leaving me with nothing but time and sunshine. The hotel pool looked good, but the mountains looked way better, so off I went.

First stop: Whitewater Preserve. We’d heard about this place from a fellow hiker in Joshua Tree, who said he often saw bighorns on the slopes above the “reservoir.” Reservoir? Wait, weren’t we in a desert?

Well, yes, but the Whitewater River runs year-round, bringing the unexpected sound of rushing water to its namesake canyon. Barely 30 minutes from Palm Springs, the Preserve is the brainchild of The Wildlands Conservancy (TWC), a nonprofit that purchases California lands to save them from development and for people to enjoy. It has established 15 preserves of nearly 150,000 total acres, including magical Whitewater. TWC created this 2,800-acre preserve to protect riparian habitat along the river and eliminate cattle grazing in the ecologically sensitive area, which is surrounded by the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The Conservancy bought another 3,200 acres in the Whitewater corridor and donated it to the Bureau of Land Management and bought the grazing allotment for more than 40,000 acres as a way to eliminate cattle grazing. Ten years on, the now-crystalline river has been nominated for National Wild and Scenic River status. Native plants dominate the landscape. Birds use it as a migration corridor, as do Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

And along with two other preserves managed by The Wildlands Conservancy, Mission Creek and Pioneertown Mountains, Whitewater is part of the Sand to Snow National Monument, more than 150,000 acres protecting desert and mountain environments. Sand to Snow is one of three national monuments President Obama designated in February 2016. The others are Mojave Trails NM and Castle Mountains NM. Altogether the monuments protect 1.8 million acres of irreplaceable public lands for recreation, education, and preservation of the natural environment.

Whitewater: It’s a river. In the desert. For real. (Lauren Danner photo)

Trails radiate out from the Whitewater visitor center, housed in the former trout farm offices. The “reservoirs” mentioned by the hiker who recommended Whitewater to us are actually trout pools near the visitor center.

Trout pool below the Whitewater Preserve visitor center (Mr. Adventure photo)

After getting advice from the friendly and helpful staff, I headed out the service road, following the canyon upstream and staying close to the walls, not the river. Within 10 minutes, I spotted a bighorn ram. The tiny binoculars we’d packed brought the animal into focus, barely. Just then, a couple carrying some we’re-not-messing-around-here binoculars crunched around the bend of the gravel road. The guy hefted the spotters to his eyes. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “there’s the ram and two ewes.” Wait, what? Once again, the evolutionary genius of desert bighorns, which are practically invisible on mountain slopes, ensured I’d only seen the one sheep. With careful instructions (“See that biggish green bush? Go about 20 feet to the right of that and down slightly, to about 5 o’clock. The first ewe is there…”) and lots of squinting, I found the other two sheep and watched them until the light failed.

But I wasn’t done with Whitewater. That night, I told Mr. Adventure we were going back the next morning, and I promised he would be back at the conference on time for his first meeting at noon. We got there early and headed up the canyon walls to the Pacific Crest Trail, enjoying long views up Whitewater Canyon and cool shade on the hillside trail. It was not easy to turn around and head down, but duty called.

View of spectacular, irreplaceable Whitewater River and canyon from the PCT (Mr. Adventure photo)

Mr. Adventure was now in full conference mode. I had hours to myself, and decided to check out another recommendation, Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. This was even closer to the hotel than Whitewater, and 20 minutes after pulling into southern California’s crazy six-lanes-in-a-residential-neighborhood traffic, I parked under an already hot sun and headed toward a large clump of tall palms. Although the preserve is relatively small at 880 acres, it is, like Whitewater, part of a larger system of preserved lands called the Coachella Valley Preserve System created to protect the endemic Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, which wisely spent the morning hiding in the shade or, more likely, hibernating.

Not me, though. The excellent volunteers in the visitor center — itself worth a gander for its eclectic artifacts collection and 1930s rustic architecture — pointed me to the McCallum Pond-Moon Country loop, a six-mile hike that went from palm oasis to desert wetland (it’s a thing, oxymoronic implications aside) to palm oasis to box canyon, all the while tracking the San Andreas Fault. For someone used to the dense evergreen forests of the maritime Pacific Northwest, it’s a bit strange to walk through a fan palm oasis. The palm skirts are trimmed to allow passage via elevated boardwalks, but unlike typical desert hikes, I couldn’t see where I was going.

It’s slightly oppressive to walk through a palm oasis after getting used to wide-open desert hiking (Lauren Danner photo)

Eventually, I popped out onto a sandy trail that led to McCallum Pond, another oasis. Beyond that, it was back to familiar desert landscape. Moon Country is appropriately named, with a landscape evoking familiar photos of the lunar surface. Walking up the silent canyon, following twists and turns until it dead-ended, I felt like I was the only person on the planet.

Hauntingly lovely Moon Country canyon (Lauren Danner photo)

Turning back, though, the folly of that fantasy was immediately apparent. The San Andreas Fault runs right through Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve, and you can tell where the fault is because on one side the landscape is brown and gray, while on the other it’s green and lush, fed by springs seeping from the fault. This is one of the quirks of the fault line that makes it easy to visually track.

See where the base of the hills meets the green desert wetland? That’s the San Andreas Fault (Lauren Danner photo)

From a viewpoint along the trail, it’s possible to look from the southern edge of Joshua Tree National Park to the Little San Bernardino Mountains and into the Indio Hills. It was a bit hazy for a perfect view, but the effects of slowly grinding tectonic plates are clearly visible in the landscape.

Beyond the green chain of palm oases and desert wetlands, the results of tectonic activity are clearly visible in the landscape of Thousand Palms Canyon (Lauren Danner photo)
A Coachella Valley must-do: visit a date stand (Lauren Danner photo)

After returning to the cool shade of the fan palms, which are actually a type of grass that grow to a maximum of about 60 feet because gravity prevents them from sucking up water any higher, I headed out in search of a Coachella Valley icon: dates. Well beyond the gated communities and shopping centers and busy roads, Oasis Date Gardens offers barrels of dates by the pound, boxed date treats, and a cafe that features the obligatory date shake. I learned that the valley produces 95 percent of the dates in the United States, that there are a lot of varieties, and that I like them all. It was the perfect way to conclude an excellent day in the desert.

Coming in part three: I go in search of yet more desert bighorns, this time the endangered kind.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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1 thought on “Into the wild desert (Mojave break, part two)

  1. I never knew the true meaning of ‘desert oasis’ until I went into the Thousand Palms. Fantastic!

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