June 21, 2008

New trail map shows the way in wilderness

The Press-Enterprise

PALM DESERT - It's the wilderness at your fingertips.

A big, new foldout map pinpointing more than 75 trails in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument spotlights desert hikes and alpine forest treks.

It's all part of the national monument's Celebration of Trails campaign.

The $8.95 map is now available exclusively at the visitor center, 51-500 Highway 74, about four miles south of downtown Palm Desert. Information: 760-862-9984.

"It's a giant undertaking, involving hundreds of miles of trails," said Buford Crites, vice president of The Friends of the Desert Mountains, one of several groups and agencies involved. "This map will encourage hiking and make it more likely that people will come back safely."

The 36-inch by nearly 39-inch map -- unveiled about a week and a half ago -- brings it all together.

In all, 10,000 maps were produced at a cost of about $40,000 -- plus a lot of donated time and labor, Crites said.

In the past, hikers often stopped into the national monument's visitor center and thumbed through a raft of maps -- U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Automobile Club of Southern California, Desert Riders, Palm Desert's foldout trail map, hiking guides such as "140 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs" by Philip Ferranti and Pacific Crest Trail books.

At times, visitor center staff would even walk hikers out to a nearby trailhead or draw a diagram, volunteer Deborah Stone said.

But things are much easier now.

At the visitor center, people just reach for the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Trail Map.

Three years in the making, the new map became a collaborative effort by the Friends, Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, Tahquitz Group of the Sierra Club, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, California State Parks, Southern California Edison Co., city of Palm Desert and Palm Springs Life.

It wasn't all high-tech and GPS.

Crites said the desert and mountain trails were also hiked as a way of ensuring exact locations. Then, people got in a room and pored over GPS data and their own observations.

"The next time that I look at a map, I'm going to have a significantly broader appreciation of the process that goes into it," Crites said.

The new map is water-resistant -- something that will come in handy in the wilderness.

It includes a key listing trails by geographic area and gives their length, change in elevation and relative difficulty -- "easy, moderate, strenuous."

For Palm Desert/Rancho Mirage -- where several trails converge -- there's a blow-up box breaking out popular trails such as Bump & Grind, Hopalong Cassidy, Herb Jeffries and Gabby Hayes.

"A lot of people can find their way down El Paseo (a shopping street) much more quickly than the Art Smith or Hopalong Cassidy trail," Crites said. "But there's enormous interest by both residents and tourists in getting off the landscaped portion of our valley and out into the country and looking at our desert."

The national monument covers 272,000 acres, stretching from the desert floor of the Coachella Valley to the surrounding mountains, including forests at more than 10,500 feet.

In 2000, local conservationists and community leaders worked with Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in passing legislation recognizing the vast wilderness area.