Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dispatches: Is Palm Springs the new Joshua Tree?

Posted By on Sat, Mar 13, 2010 at 12:38 AM

Editor's note: Frequent Source contributor Bob Woodward has been on the road for several weeks travelling and vacationing in California. Expect to see new posts to his blog by next week. In the meantime, Woody filed this dispatch from Palm Springs where he is gathering sunshine and a pleasant cocktail buzz to share with Central Oregonians.

Ten years ago my wife and I headed south to escape the dregs of winter that had spilled over into March. Starting in San Diego, we decided to wander the Southern California desert. In doing so, we discovered Joshua Tree. Not the small town by that name but the National Park.

The serenity of the place with its spectacular jumbles of impressive granite boulders and ancient Joshua Trees was amazing. We wanted to settled in the Park for weeks but had to settle for a short stay there doing some hiking and bouldering.

There were a few other boulderers, climbers and hikers in the Park but walk fifty yards distance from them and you were on your own.

It was mid-March and it was 65 degrees and sunny. We were in t-shirts; the Californians were in down sweaters

I had such fond memories of this short sojourn to J-Tree that I leapt at a chance to spend some time with friends there at the end of February last year.

Again the weather was in the mid-sixties with a light breeze and under azure blue skies. We climbed, we bouldered, and we hiked. It was a wonderful day topped off by a dinner at a one time local biker bar turned natural foods restaurant on the way back to Palm Springs.

That day fueled a desire to get back to J-Tree this March. We did, arriving on a Friday afternoon expecting to be ahead of any crowds and able to easily secure a campsite.

Wrong. Every campsite was filled, make that packed with tents and camping gear. It was like a cramped camping suburb had sprung up among the rocks of J-Tree.

After a night in a motel in nearby Twenty Nine Palms we headed back to the Park and started off on hike up Mount Ryan. The trail climbs 1,000 feet over 1.5 miles and is somewhat of a grunt.

We met one hiker coming down the trail and were joined at the summit by a young couple. It was cool on the wind-whipped summit but the 360-degree view out over the vast expanse of the Park was spectacular especially since Mount San Jacinto to the west and the other desert mountain ranges were blanketed with snow.

The couple joining us on the summit turned out to be from Boulder, Colorado and on a similar get-away-from-the-cold-at-home expedition. They'd been able to camp in the Park and weren't too happy about the experience.

"It was like living in an outdoor tenement last night," said the young woman. "The noise and the partying didn't stop until well after two a.m. and then people started getting ready to climb at 6."

Were they staying on and climbing as they told us they'd originally planned to?

"No," replied the male, "we're going into Palm Springs and do some hiking in the canyons."

And so did we. And the surprise part is how much good, and interesting hiking there is in Palm Springs and environs. In fact, according to a popular local guidebook, there are 140 hikes in the Palm Springs area alone.

And despite what many people think about Palm Springs, the town is a far cry from the toned gated golf communities that stretch to the south. Palm Springs has soul and if you stay near the heart of town, you can be on a hiking trail in minutes.

And if you have a car, you can be at dozens of hiking trail opportunities in about the same time.

My wife hiked with a group from the RV park - no we don't own one, but camp in our mini-van - that we stay at in the heart of old Palm Springs. It's an amazing place with roadrunners and hummingbirds as frequent guests at our allotted space and coyotes serenading us to sleep.

Early one morning on my mountain bike heading to a trailhead, I ran into Mr. Coyote loping through a neighborhood apparently on his way back to his daytime hiding place. He looked at me for a split second and then kept to his appointed course.

While I tried to find mountain bike opportunities my wife hiked east of Palm Springs through a lush oasis and then onto a prominent ridge before descending through another oasis. I joined her for a hike in yet another lush oasis in one of the Indian Canyons just south of town. Here vast groves of palms grow along the banks of streams fed by snows high on the peaks above.

The streams tumble over gigantic granite boulders and there's this sense of being in an air-conditioned haven while all outside of the oasis is boiling in the sun.

While the hiking proved good, the mountain biking isn't. To get to the local trail system involves a 1,000-foot climb in just over a mile. It's a lung buster climb and once you get to the trails they're enjoyable, albeit mostly technical, but totally exposed to the blazing sun.

Luckily I was able to find a locals-only type trail 15 minutes from the RV park. The trail, cut in along a dry wash by years of hikers and runners, is a skill builder demanding all your attention and technical skills. A loop takes twenty minutes and feels like it takes an hour.

Arriving back at the RV park one evening after a ride on the wash trail, I met three young Austrians who had moved into the space next to mine. They, as it turned out, were on their way to J-Tree to climb.

As we talked, I gave them the heads up on the crowds, the camping, and the competition for good routes.

"It's always the same," offered one of the Austrians, "a climbing area gets written up in all the U.S. climbing magazines and then in the European climbing magazines and then the hordes come. It's too bad, but ten years from now, the climbing mobs will have moved on to something new."

Or maybe something old like Palm Springs, which people are just beginning to look on as a hikers' paradise - and so far not a very trendy one.


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