August 24, 2008

Hikers keep standing date with Coachella Valley's desert

The Press-Enterprise

The Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument features scenic views such as this one. The scenic national-monument area can become the backdrop for exploring the desert. Ramon Mena Owens / The Press-Enterprise
PALM DESERT - At 6 a.m., a half-dozen people gather at the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument before heading into the craggy mountains overlooking the Coachella Valley.

The Thursday Morning Hikes program attracts the adventurous and the fitness-minded.

They rise early for three- or four-mile hikes -- even in the dead of summer.

The program runs year-round so those who can't stand the heat can take the many winter hikes.

The scenic national-monument area becomes the backdrop for exploring the desert. The federally designated lands cover 272,000 acres, from the floor of the Coachella Valley to the surrounding mountains, including forests at more than 10,500 feet.

On a recent Thursday, two groups set out.

One explored the Randall Henderson Loop Trail, an almost three-mile hike with a fairly gradual 200- to 300-foot gain in elevation.

Other hikers, led by volunteer Drew Leander, covered the Art Smith Trail. It includes some strenuous uphill sections and a rise of about 500 feet in elevation over a four-mile trek.

"This is the most dangerous part of the journey," Leander joked, waving his group across blacktopped Highway 74, just below two blind curves.

Before the outing ended, the hikers saw a rattlesnake snuggling up for warmth against some rocks. They spied blooming spiny, green ocotillos arching skyward after summer rains. One guide spotted a rare desert tortoise. Trudging through the humidity, the hikers flicked at gnats buzzing around their eyes and ears.

During the winter, Thursday Morning Hikes attract 40 to 75 people and require the help of four to six guides.

"Many living in the desert are exercise-oriented," Leander said. "They are very outdoorsy.

"That's why they're here. They're curious, but many wouldn't do this on their own," he said.

"We try to instill a little confidence that they can -- with proper safety precautions," Leander added. "The trails are wide open, free to the public, and we have maps."

As the hikers made their way along the winding Art Smith Trail heading toward its junction with the Hopalong Cassidy Trail, sweat glistened on the back of their necks.

Year-round hiker Diane Kahan, 61, of Indian Wells, had come prepared.

She donned an Australian mosquito net that covered her entire face and drank a few quarts of water before setting out.

She'd brought sunscreen, a whistle -- three short blasts if you're in trouble -- and cold water tucked away in a fanny pack that has a long tube to suck on for a drink.

"My family thinks I'm crazy," she said, when asked about hiking during summer. "But it's a good workout, and the guides are very knowledgeable."

Leander stopped at the junction of the Art Smith and Randall Henderson trails so hikers could rest.

Along the way, he pointed out yellow flowers on brittlebush, barrel cactus, agave, cholla cactus, mesquite and the Little San Bernardino Mountains and Indio Hills. From a rocky perch, hikers peered into the ultraprivate Big Horn development and golf course, where multi-million homes and fairways spread across what was once virgin desert.

Spotting a rattlesnake, the guide said, "He's sleeping and not warm enough yet. That's the trouble with being cold-blooded. He knows we're here and doesn't like it."

The rattler's black tongue slowly flicked out.

"We'll leave him alone to wake up," the guide said.

When many have fled the desert, some summer tourists settle into their hotels and go for a hike.

Dave Heatherington, 61, of Vancouver, British Columbia, flipped through a visitor's guide and saw the nature getaway: "Thursday Morning Hikes."

Heatherington, who has hiked the Grand Canyon, carried water, macadamia-nut cookies, a sandwich and first-aid supplies in his backpack.

"It's all good," he said, a hat shading his face slightly. "I like getting out and meeting new people."

Getting Connected

Hikes and presentations are scheduled through the rest of the year and in 2009.

"The Top Ten Scary Desert Creatures," "Happy Tails Doggie Adventure Hike," "Desert Survivors Nature Walk," "History of Conservation in the Coachella Valley," "Ready, Set, Find!: Geocaching in the National Monument," Cactus Spring Hike and "Are You Smarter Than a Raven?" are just a few.

Information: 760-862-9984 (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week); Web site:

Scott Segal is director of programs for Friends of the Desert Mountains at the National Monument Visitor Center.

Year-round, he watches hikers return from encountering a desert many only see in brochures.

"In essence, they feel a sense of connection with their national treasures," he said.

"They become connected with the geology and geography, the plants and the animals, and they learn about the culture of the native Cahuilla people."