Most people travel to the Coachella Valley for Palm Springs glitz or the April music extravaganza. But immensely pleasurable lower-profile experiences abound in and around Palm Desert. Here in the valley’s heart, you can recharge amid exquisite beauty, from mirage-like mountains to fanciful resorts to fabulous outdoor sculptures along “the Rodeo Drive of the Desert.”
This is a perfect place to explore by foot, bicycle and Jeep. Sights range from bighorn sheep to the San Andreas fault.
Hiking amid desert color
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument offers 300 miles of hiking routes. They include the challenging palm oasis-lined Art Smith Trail, a new ¼-mile ADA wheelchair accessible trail, and Randall Henderson Trail, winding three miles through dry desert washes and shady canyons. Residents include endangered bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, bobcats, lizards and hummingbirds.
On one of the frequent free guided hikes offered by Friends of the Desert Mountains, Ada Nuckels points out the 10,834-foot snow-capped San Jacinto Peak in the distance and, up close, plants that add texture and color to the muted desert landscape. Brittle bush show off butter-yellow blooms. Barrel cactus bear crowns of lemon-lime flowers; beavertail cactus boast magenta flowers; flame-colored torches sprout from tall arms of ocotillo; blue bells adorn indigo bushes. Teddy bear cholla glisten after rains, but don’t touch — those needles hurt. Ada explains how native Americans used plants for food, libations, medicine and baskets; grassy skirts from California fan palms, a truly native palm species, were used for thatched shelters.
Next stop: the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, a 1,200-acre preserve with an enchanting G-scale model train village and a rocky slope where bighorn sheep climb and sunbathe. The preserve’s Wilderness Loop traverses a dusty canyon and a desert mountain ridge. The summit topped with a covered picnic shelter, offers splendid views of Eisenhower Peak and surrounding mountain ranges.
Bicycling to a fault
Evan Trubee founded Big Wheel Tours to give active folks a novel way to explore the San Andreas fault zone. He and local expert Ron Chang guide cyclists along Box Canyon Road on an easy ride past geological formations and within sight of the fault line, which is distinguished by splotches of greenery nourished by underground water channeled there when tectonic plates slid together, uplifting the terrain into the rugged hills and mountains seen today. Palms thrive in “oases” here because fault fissures give roots access to water.
Big Wheel supplies comfy mountain bikes, shuttling them with riders to Mecca, 40 minutes southeast of Palm Desert. The van follows the cyclists during the 20-mile ride along this serene, practically traffic-free winding road. It’s a joy ride for riders of nearly any age and skill level due to the gentle downhill grade — starting at 1,600 feet elevation, ending 100 feet below sea level at the edge of the vast, inland Salton Sea. It feels so still; Ron explains how counter faults crossing the main fault stabilize the land.
Desert Adventures Red Jeep eco-tours explore colorful stretches of the San Andreas fault in Bureau of Land Management backcountry.
While driving the jeep and leading short hikes in hidden havens, naturalist Morgan Levine talks about seismic activity, native plants and animals, and the many ways the Cahuilla people used desert plants. We get glimpses of their cultural life in a re-created village exhibit. We thread through a slot canyon created by tectonic plate shifting and study towering palms. Nourished by water bubbling up from an underground aquifer, palms and greenery dot the course of the fault line, which runs 800 miles north past San Francisco.
An artful stroll
After exploring natural landscapes, we embark on another trek — a stroll along El Paseo. This “Rodeo Drive of the Desert” boasts a constellation of chic boutiques. Terrific art galleries include Filsinger FIne Art, which displays fossils and contemporary paintings like Alexandr Onishenko’s “Passion for Freedom,” a breathtaking view of horses galloping in the wild. Horses, cows, rabbits and other regional animals inspire many artworks displayed in El Paseo galleries. Coda’s sculptures are playful and colorful; more serious pieces at Desert Art Collection and Mitchell Contemporary transport viewers into other realms.
Restaurants welcome even the most casually dressed with impeccably prepared and presented dishes showcasing fresh ingredients. Popular spots include Mitch’s, a sushi outpost serving a delicious seaweed salad and lightly sauteed mushrooms. For a hearty gourmet dinners, settle in at the Cork Tree.
Relax desert style
Deluxe yet affordable places to relax and refuel include JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. If your muscles ache (or not), opt for a deep-tissue massage with Rosy, who has been with the spa 20 years.
The resort shimmers with pink and magenta flowers, ponds filled with flamingos, a huge tennis complex with hard, clay and grass courts, two 18-hole championship golf courses, pools and hot tubs, miniature golf and an indoor-outdoor lagoon navigated by gondolas. By the fire pits of Blue Grotto, an outdoor lounge, people sip cocktails and ogle surreal mountain views. The views at Rockwood Grill center on chef-prepared plates. Serving early morning to late night, it has earned a local following.
To get immersed in beauty after dark, sign up for a moonlight jeep, cycling or hiking tour. Those prospects have me dreaming of a return trip.
Roberta Soslow, an award-winning writer who explores on foot and bike, can be reached email@example.com.