Hiking Palm Springs, California: the oasis and the desert
We love to find places that everybody talks about but nobody knows the cool stuff you can do there. One such place is Palm Springs, California. I mean, everybody goes there for a nice weekend or a relaxing vacation, but besides golf, gay bars and swimming pools, what is there? The ACTUAL Palm Springs!! Agua Caliente Indian Canyons is the reason for the name, and hiking in Palm Springs is awesome!
Have you been to Palm Springs and know what we’re talking about? Been thinking about a visit maybe but didn’t know what to do beyond golf and shopping? Well, let us give you some motivation to make a weekend trip out of it or at least get you away from the pool for a few hours.
What you'll find...
Locale of Palm Springs Indian Canyons
A two hour drive from Los Angeles, Orange County or San Diego, Palm Springs lies to the east of the coastal cities. You’ll have to pass through Riverside or Ontario, so plan for city traffic on your drive… or you can just take a short flight from any of the Southern California airports. Actually, most West Coast airports have direct flights into Palm Springs.
Once you’re in town, drive right through to the end and follow the signs for Agua Caliente Indian Canyons. After about ten minutes you’ll be at the park entrance. Pay your fee and pick where you’d like to begin, then enjoy hiking Palm Springs and all its glory.
Tip: if you head north from Palm Springs, you come to 29 Palms and the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. We haven’t taken the kids yet, but our friend Erin, the Thrifty Travelista, headed to Joshua Tree for the Spring Superbloom and her pictures were incredible!
Travel idea: if you’re doing our Mountain National Parks road trip, you can add things like hiking Palm Springs and visiting Joshua Tree National Park to the plan.
History of the Palm Springs area
The Cahuilla Tribe has been in the Palm Springs area for thousands of years. Petroglyphs and ancient irrigation systems in the canyons and higher ground have been found throughout the Coachella Valley. With the advance of Western culture through California and the railroads taking land all over, the Cahuilla Tribe was place on the Agua Caliente Reservation. Not cool at all. Don’t get me started on the USA’s manifest destiny practices…
The tribe has since opened up the Reservation to the public to access and enjoy the actual palm springs, the many canyons and they share their culture through the Visitors Center and Trading Post. It’s pretty cool how they’ve opened the area to the world.
The town of Palm Springs, outside of the reservation, has long been a cool hangout and getaway spot for Hollywood and senior citizens. As early at the 1910s Palm Springs was a gay destination starting with comfortably out citizens (not a ton) and then growing with hotels and resorts catering to a community looking to have a place they can escape and vacation in the sun. Today, it’s an inclusive, diverse destination with great restaurants, shopping, swimmin’ pools and movie stars. And hiking.
Hiking Palm Springs in the Indian Canyons
So, most people visiting Palm Springs don’t realize that there is a reason it’s called “Palm Springs.” Deep in the Indian Canyons of Agua Calientes there are mountain springs that feed into beautiful palm oases. The streams are cold and perfect, the vegetation lush…and above it is the desert, full of cactus and scorching sun.
Prepping for the hikes
It goes without saying that you’ll need to bring lots of water. Hiking in the desert, even down in the oasis of the canyons is hot. The wind when you’re on the rim of the canyon has quite the drying effect and you’ll notice it quickly. If you don’t have a Camelback or like product, this is the hike to make you buy one.
Also, don’t forget your sunblock. Actually, here’s the list of what you’ll need:
Camelback or water system
Shoes that can get wet or closed toed sporty sandals
Snacks (pack in/pack out your trash)
Hiking Palm Canyon trail at Palm Springs Indian Canyons
The best hike in the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons park is the Palm Canyon trail. We like this particular hike because it gives you the best snapshot of the oasis paired with the high desert. You get to experience cactus and also cool off in the palm springs.
There are two ways to approach this hike through the Palm Springs Indian Canyons: starting on the high trail around the canyon rim or heading down into the valley. We’d recommend starting on the canyon rim because you’ll be more thankful for the shade and cool springs when you get to them.
Tip: get a trail map in the little store and ask them to point you towards the highest water levels. You know, get the most splash for your buck.
The High Desert
Hiking Palm Springs is unusual and going along the rim is really beautiful. The views of the various palm springs in the canyons are fascinating, especially considering how lush the oasis are compared to the high desert.
The variety of cactus you’ll encounter is also surprising. If you can plan your trip just right to hike the Palm Springs Indian Canyons on an early spring morning, you should be able to catch some gorgeous cactus blooms. And if you’re super lucky, you might even be there during a superbloom following a very wet winter.
Hiking in the desert is fun and much different than our usual mountain hikes. Stay hydrated and you’ll for sure have a good time.
Tip: the earlier in the day or much later in the afternoon you can do the canyon rim, the better. The light won’t be directly overhead and photographing the canyons and cactus will be much easier.
Hiking Palm Springs magical oasis
We had no clue what to expect when we first got here. It was truly magical from the get-go though. As you descend into the canyon the palm springs oasis overtakes you. Literally, you’re hiking in a palm forest and it’s like another planet.
The trees are ancient, the rocks are worn. Palm fronds cover the ground except where they’ve been removed by park staff or carried away by rain storms. Sandy drifts line the stream beds, making for perfect spots to lounge and rest after a tiring, hot hike. It’s just perfect.
Tip: take off your shoes and get in the water. The streams are amazing and when will you be in an actual palm oasis again?
After you’ve cooled off and enjoyed the wonder of the actual palm springs, it’s time to head up and out of the canyon. The ascent is going to get your heart pumping so take a moment if you need halfway, because hiking in the heat can make you extra dizzy and you DON’T want to fall down that rocky trail.
Palm Springs West Fork Falls
This stop is just a bonus to the grand Palm Springs Indian Canyon hiking you’ve already done. Located near the Palm Canyon trail head, West Fork Falls is just about the easiest walk/hike you can do. It’s gorgeous.
This short hike is along the largest stream with lot’s of chances to put your feet in. The really cool part about this particular Palm Springs hike is the waterfall at the end of it. Basically in a cave, the water plunges down, echoing off the rocks into a beautiful pool. It’s calm, peaceful and one more totally different aspect of hiking Palm Springs and around Agua Caliente.
Tip: watch for small frogs and salamanders in this stream and near the cave. It’s the perfect habitat and how many other places do you get to see salamanders?
And now you’re ready to roll. How excited are you to visit this otherworldly place and experience two totally different sides of the desert?! Want to take us with you? If you’ve got a favorite place to stay in the Palm Springs area, leave a note in the comments section. We’re always looking for fun options for our next visit.
And if you’d like to pin it for later…
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”