When it comes to planning outdoor adventures, often times the desert gets overlooked. Contrary to the dry and desolate perception, deserts can offer a plethora of diverse landscapes and wildlife, especially in the Greater Palm Springs area. To the east, you have the large boulders and strange-looking palms of Joshua Tree National Park; to the west, the looming Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountain Ranges; and to the south, the Salton Sea, one of the world’s largest inland seas that sits atop the San Andreas Fault. No matter your adventure, we’ve listed the top nine trails, oases, and preserves to explore surrounding this desert valley.
1. Palm Springs: Skyline Trail (Cactus to Clouds)
There’s a reason Backpacker Magazine ranked the Cactus to Clouds trail the fifth hardest hike in the U.S. This roughly 17.5-mile trail starts at the desert floor near the Palm Springs Art Museum’s parking lot, and from there gains 8,000 feet within the first 12 miles and another almost 3,000 feet in the last 5.5 miles to San Jacinto Peak—hence its other given name “Cactus to Clouds.” Once you’ve reached the summit, you’ll have an incredible 360-degree view of the valley and parts of Southern California. A tramway at the ranger’s station at Mile 12 can be taken for a $12 ride back down. Since this is considered a difficult hike, it’s highly recommended to start as early as 3 a.m. to avoid the desert heat and to bring plenty of water.
2. Cathedral City: Dunn Road Trail
The Dunn Road Trail is a popular mountain biking route that connects to several other trails within the Santa Rosa Mountain Range such as the Hahns Buena Vista Trail, Fern Canyon Trail, and Art Smith Trail. The easiest access point to Dunn Road trailhead, though, is at the southwest corner of Cathedral City at the intersection of Channel Drive and Carroll Drive. Much of the trail consists of hard-packed dirt with some loose crushed granite ideal for mountain biking. However, be prepared to tire slide as this trail meanders up and down through some small sand washes.
3. Rancho Mirage: Chuckwalla Loop
If you’re looking for a mild trail run through the desert, the Chuckwalla Loop in Rancho Mirage is a good place to start. It’s a 1.2-mile loop that offers scenic views of the surrounding town and connects to the Roadrunner Trail that will loop you toward Cathedral City, and back around the Mirada Villas ending on the east side of Frank Sinatra Drive.
4. Palm Desert: Art Smith Trail
The Art Smith Trail is an 8-mile out-and-back trail that goes through several palm oases. Although it’s only accessible from March to October, that’s also the most beautiful time to hike when an abundance of wildflowers are in bloom—you may even spot bighorn sheep grazing among the plant life. About 5 miles in the trail intersects with Hahn Buena Vista Trail near Dunn Road, where picnic tables sit overlooking the valley below. If traversing the trail on foot isn’t your style, it’s also open to horseback riders.
5. Indian Wells: Eisenhower Mountain
Nestled where the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges meet, Eisenhower Mountain overlooks both Palm Desert and Indian Wells. In order to access this trail, you’ll have to go through The Living Desert Zoo where a 4-mile trail covered in thick desert brush at the back of the preserve will lead you along the rocky edge of the mountain. At the top, you’ll be able to spot San Jacinto Peak in the west. Plus, it’ll be a much shorter and less strenuous summit climb than Cactus to Clouds.
6. Indio: Coachella Valley Preserve
About 20 minutes north of Indio, near Indio Hills, sits a 3,709-acre protected area called the Coachella Valley Preserve, home to the Thousand Palm Oasis, which is sustained by water seeping out of the San Andreas Fault. Lush desert palms and oases are abundant in this protected area, along with more than 25 miles of hiking trails. Trails include: McCallum, Hidden Palms, Moon Country, Pushwalla Palms and Willis Palms trails.
7. La Quinta: La Quinta Cove to Lake Cahuilla Trail
Instead of driving to Lake Cahuilla, located at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains, take a 2.5-mile hike through the desert wilderness from the La Quinta Cove to Lake Cahuilla. With 91 individual and group campsites at the lake, you could even make a mini backpacking adventure out of it, or make a detour onto the Boo Hoff Trail, a 7.5-mile loop around the lake that eventually makes its way back to the cove. Pack a swimsuit and some fishing poles too, for some leisurely lakeside fun.
8. Coachella: Painted Canyon
If you’ve ever driven east to Coachella for its famous date shakes, then you most likely didn’t realize you were passing by this desert gem near Mecca. About 40-minutes south of Coachella you’ll find the Painted Canyon, a high-walled, narrow gorge with pink, red, brown, and green canyon walls and unique geological formations. But what makes this canyon especially worthy of exploration is the Ladder Canyon Hike. Ladders are placed throughout the slot canyon to enable hikers to climb up and down into the canyon. The 4.3-mile loop gives hikers a unique view of colorful mineral deposits and views of the Salton Sea.
9. Desert Hot Springs: Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
Another desert oasis, the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is one of the 10 largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California. Located among the San Bernardino Mountains, it's about a 30-minute drive north of Desert Hot Springs. At 31,000 acres, elevation ranges from 600 feet on the canyon floor to 3,000 feet along the ridge. It combines two desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert. The canyon is surprisingly lush with marshes and contains six main trails, each less than a mile, that run through the core of it. It also forms the most northwestern tip of Joshua Tree National Park.