Pines to Palms - A Traverse of Palm Canyon
Tourists visiting Palm Springs flock to Palm Canyon, located on the adjacent Agua Caliente Indian Reservation ($5 per auto day-time admission). Here at Hermits Bench, off of South Palm Canyon Drive, are large groves of Washingtonia filifera palm trees in a scenic desert oasis setting. Over three thousand palms, some up to 2000 years old, line the year-round stream. This is the mouth of Palm Canyon, which begins high above in the alpine foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains, along the Palms to Pines Highway (Hwy 74) to the south.
Ann Kramer and I made a strenuous dayhike traverse of beautiful Palm Canyon, starting from Hwy 74 (elev 4500') and ending at Hermits Bench (elev 1000'). We covered 16 miles with a gain/loss of 500/4000 ft, passing through a panorama of flora and terrain. We saw endless varieties of cacti, along with colorful fall foliage. Our route followed trail and jeep tracks, culminating in exhilarating bouldering through the rugged inner gorge of the canyon; the trip can also be done reasonably as a backpack and by adhering to trail, thereby avoiding the climbing antics. Agua Bonita Spring provides the best camp midway with water.
Our route was drawn from Trip 93 described by John Robinson in his "San Bernardino Mountain Trails." I recommend the current 7.5 minute maps (Palm View Pk, Butterfly Pk), since features, e.g., upper canyon trails and lower canyon roads, are incompletely drawn on the old USGS Idyllwild 15 minute topo, Robinson book and NFS San Bernardino maps.
Our route began at the end of Pine View Drive, a spur north off Hwy 74. An unmarked jeep track drops right, and in a couple of miles meets a dirt road from Palm Canyon Drive. Here the trail forks into the Canyon Bottom and Ridge trails, respectively. The unmaintained Bottom trail is signed "Not Recommended," as it is washed out and brushy, whereas the Ridge trail is maintained. Naturally, we took the more adventuresome Bottom trail, which proved a fine, intermittent path. It passes through a barbed-wire stock gate shortly before rejoining the Ridge trail at a signed junction, where the upper canyon broadens to a wash.
The trail follows the wash past small springs, Hidden Falls, the signed Live Oak and Dutch Charlie Trails, and Agua Bonita Spring, before joining the Indian Portrero dirt road at 9 miles. This road winds through several sandy gullies and crosses the NFS boundary at Mesquite Flats, passing the first isolated palms, and continues to the last junction 5 miles hence, where trails both in the lower canyon and on its eastern bench lead to Hermits Bench.
I modified our route, leaving the road at roughly 12 miles where it briefly abuts the canyon, to drop into the spectacular rocky gorge of Palm Canyon Falls. Wending our way over and under the immense slippery boulders and sculpted waterfalls often required delicate exposed moves, and taking care not to 'dryhole' as we had no rope with us. Ann used some unique body-part jam techniques, and had to swim an isolated pool at one point. We remained in the gorge until it ended at the towering palms of Hermits Bench. Here we met the hiking trail (and standard route) for a pleasant stroll through groves and springs in the last mile to the trading post and visitors' parking lot. The view across the dense growth is breathtaking. Many of the palms have blackened trunks, some killed, charred by a fire in 1980.
Returning to Hwy 74 is a challenge. We cheated, by hitching a ride from the parking lot past the toll entrance (3 miles) to Palm Canyon Drive (Hwy 111). My parents, who live in nearby Rancho Mirage, then graciously taxied us to our car. Setting up a shuttle in advance would otherwise cause you leave a car at the toll gate, as the Canyon is cleared at closing (open 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, towing promised); overnight parking or use is not permitted.
This outing is best in spring or fall, when the extreme climes of the upper and lower canyon are both pleasant. Watch to avoid rainfall, as the trails are certainly subject to flash floods.