It turns out that a November morning can be a pretty decent time to go hiking on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation in the desert near Palm Springs. For our visit to the trail system there, which they call Indian Canyons, it was a mild 60°F day with a gently breeze and sunny skies. I had donned my Moc3 moccasins (see the link to Soft Star in right sidebar) for this husband-led expedition and was ready for hours in barren rocky terrain. Being used to remote, undeveloped hiking in the wilds of southwest Idaho, I was surprised by the paid access to the trails. It was complete with miniature house-like ticket booth and covered parking off to the side for the female attendant’s massive pick-up truck. My husband usually avoids these more common places of recreation. However, here he paid the $9 per person and drove further into the repetitive desert landscape.
We were not the only tourists there, either. There was a steady, strung out stream of cars and hikers throughout most of our time in the canyon. The trails are described in categories of easy, moderate, and strenuous, but easy still included some hills and rocky sections. The three trails we explored were combinations of easy and moderate. While hikers of various abilities were generally doing fine, we saw a couple of people who should have done some more regular walking before they came out. Even on such tended trails, it can’t be pleasant to get two miles out into the wilderness and find oneself that winded. I never saw if the lady in high heels actually attempted to hike, or was just looking at the indications of utilitarian rock use by the Cahuilla (kaw-we-ah) Indians who used to live there.
The map, which I found out later can be picked up at the trading post/gift shop near the trailhead for the Palm Canyon Trail, shows approximately 12 square miles of acreage with trails. Apparently the Palm Canyon Trail goes off the map, if you follow it for it’s full 15 miles, but there were several loops and connections to shorten it, all decently marked on that trail. My personal
drill sergeant trail guide had already chosen three trails to traipse: Palm Canyon Trail, Andreas Canyon Trail, and Murray Canyon Trail.
My husband/trail guide had assured me that I didn’t need water. With the weather so benign, the plan being only a few miles, and me used to a lot of running without water until up to 8 miles, I was okay with that. Then, the park ranger at the trail head shamed him into buying a bottle of water from the store. I think the fact that it was unknown territory also swayed him, but it’s not like he is unexperienced or careless with these things. Still, it was easier to spend a couple dollars than argue at that point.
The Palm Canyon Trail was a good place to begin. The first part of the trail, about a mile’s worth, meandered through an oasis of huge, hairy palm trees. I say “hairy” because, unlike palm trees that I am used to seeing, these had fronds draping all the way down their massive trunks, reminding me of gorilla legs. The sandy trail was flat and strangely free of debris. Only in this section was the trail not always clearly designated, but it seemed to be taken for granted that walkers would follow the loose swath of palm trees somehow. Such lack of marked trail was a bit disconcerting considering how much trouble had been taken to warn us to stay ON the trails. (click on any photo to enlarge)
In this oasis, we were mostly alone, giving the outing a feeling of being deserted on an idyllic tropical island. We came across the display of historical Cahuilla huts, humorously not far from picnic tables. My husband drily noted how convenient such picnic tables must have been for the ancient Indians. I said how very quiet the area was, with only a couple of small birds passing through. I could have taken off my moccasins and gone barefoot easily through here, but on these sorts of hikes, I don’t like constantly getting my hands dirty by taking any footwear off and on.
While in the oasis, it was hard to remember that a bone-dry, relatively lifeless desert was just beyond our sight. I know all the rhetoric about hidden life in the deserts, but when I compare deserts to what I have seen in tropical regions, life seems to be blatantly missing in the deserts. That is not to say deserts don’t have their artistic appeal, but it’s not someplace you feel like taking a nap. I could have lounged at length in the oasis, but we had places to march.
Once we stepped out of the oasis, we were starkly in the desert. There was no discernible transition. The path became rocky and uneven. The dirt was reddish, and the horizon was dotted with barrel cacti and teddy bear cholla (names I didn’t know until I visited the Living Desert Gardens and Zoo a few days later.) Fortunately, the low temperatures were holding comfortably. Unfortunately, this meant we were not very thirsty and my long-suffering husband ended up carrying the full bottle of water.
Toward the middle of the third mile of our loop, we were up on a rise that gave an interesting view of the oasis and the road back to Palm Springs. Civilization was so close, yet there was basically no sign of it right where we were. At this point, my husband decided to tell me the trail rules that had been listed at the trail head. It had said, “Turn around when your water is half gone.” Since we had barely sipped from our bottle, obviously, he said, we needed to hike until it was half gone. “Just tryin’ to follow the rules.” Other rules included carrying a variety of supplies. We would have needed a good sized back-pack for this simple day hike.
He gave the appearance of relenting and let me head back to the trading post. Naturally, we ran part of the way. Once there, I visited their freshly washed outhouses, which were so freshly washed that everything inside was soaked and puddled. I suppose in the regular heat that drying them off was a waste of effort. On this morning, it would have been appreciated. Then, I got to shop in the little store and I purchased some t-shirts for our youngest girls that pictured four well-known Indian chiefs standing against foreign invasion. Theirs appears to have been inadequate “homeland” security.
Now, we drove about two miles back to another parking lot, one that was well hidden from sight, but he somehow knew about. There were trails that we could have taken to get there, but as they were mostly in the open desert and along the road we had driven in on, they were unappealing. At this new nexus of trail heads, we began our shortest hike of the day on the Andreas Canyon Trail.
The Andreas Canyon oasis was very shady and wet. A determined little creek gurgled through it and I commented on how creeks and streams the world over all sound the exact same! It was a much smaller oasis and the trail soon guided us up on a dry ridge to get back to the hub. At the turn, there was a reminder of the real world in the form of a high chain link fence and warning signs blocking people from a decrepit stone building said to be one of the first nature clubs there or something of the sort.
Just when I thought I was going to go back to the inviting swimming pool at our condo, my trail guide directed me to walk behind the parking lot to the beginning of another trail. Murray Canyon Trail was the least enjoyable trail for a few reasons. First, a lot of the sandy dirt was thickly loose, thus sucked the energy out of my steps. Next, it was barren for almost the whole hike. Then, at the end, there was a long, straggly, has-been stand of palm trees with signs to a supposed Seven Sisters Waterfall. Don’t trust any signs to water in the desert. From the huge reservoir shown on google maps as we drove into Palm Springs to this pathetic trail along a stream that didn’t exist, water was constantly being falsely advertised. (At this point my camera was broken and my iPhone storage too full for more photos.)
Ironically, we still had nearly a full bottle of water. I began taking regimented drinking breaks, fully aware that there were no restrooms, no trees or boulders to hide behind, and too many fellow hikers to get away with uninterrupted privacy. And we were supposed to stay on the trails. Still, I was just enough concerned that I would be asked to extend the hike, now approaching 5 hours, if I didn’t drink this precious water that he had been coerced to buy! Who would have thought I would be forcing myself to drink water in spite of lack of thirst in this desert?
He was satisfied with three trails and five hours. Once in the car, he showed me the map that I had not known he had. How does he keep these things from me? It just goes to show that I’m pretty easy to get along with, trusting him and letting him take me wherever. Of course, once on any of the trails, I would never had had any trouble getting back to the trail heads, should he have become incapacitated. But that’s a story that didn’t happen.
What did happen is that I hiked comfortably for 5 hours in my modern day moccasins. I had to make an effort to not cringe when I saw the stiff boots that most people hiked in. It just looked so uncomfortable and unbalanced. I can imagine how old-time Indians felt when they first tried on “white man’s shoes.” Why most of them have ever switched over, I cannot understand. I was ready to take off even my mocs off at the end of the hike because my feet are so used to being out in the air that they felt hot. The moccasins are a thin, perforated leather, but they are still a covering. I would be inclined to try the hikes barefoot if I ever did them again. And I would dump out half of my water when I wanted to turn around.