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Where to Explore the Coachella Valley Outdoors (Before It Gets Too Hot)

The landscape at Whitewater Preserve
The landscape at Whitewater Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
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Please explore responsibly. While “SoCal Wanderer” continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, these are uncertain times with public health guidelines changing constantly. We encourage our readers to stay curious and cautious.

Say the word “Coachella” to anyone outside of Southern California, and they might wax poetic about the annual music and arts festival (which has been postponed at least until 2022).

But there’s an entire valley’s worth of Coachella to explore — extending from the San Gorgonio Pass near North Palm Springs all the way down to the Salton Sea.

With mountains to the east and the west, this Riverside County cluster of low-desert towns and resort communities — known to some as the “Desert Empire” — is more than just a picturesque getaway for golfing and pool time.

There are fascinating layers of history, geology, ecology and land use just waiting to be peeled back. And you don’t have to travel very far to find them. (Note that the current State of California recommendation is to not travel more than 120 miles from your home or place of residence.)

So, whether you’re an off-roader, a two-legged trekker or even an earthquake tourist, here are five great outdoor destinations in the Coachella Valley — no festival pass needed.

1. Corn Springs, near Desert Center

Palms at Corn Springs.
Several palms dot the landscape at Corn Springs, near Desert Center. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Native American petroglyphs at Corn Springs (probably from the Chemehuevi Tribe).
Detail of a petroglyph (probably from the Chemehuevi Tribe) at Corn Springs. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Several desert plants at Corn Springs.
Several desert plants at Corn Springs. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Native American petroglyphs at Corn Springs (probably from the Chemehuevi Tribe).
Detail of a Native American petroglyph at Corn Springs. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Take the 10 Freeway past the Desert Cities of the Palm Springs area, past the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park and the ghost town of Desert Center, and you could keep going to hit Blythe, California or even Quartzsite, Arizona. But turn off on the unpaved Corn Springs Road, and eight miles down you’ll find the palm oasis that once served as a waystation for desert wanderers and nomads on a mission.

Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since 1968, Corn Springs Campground now offers some dry hookups and pit toilets. But long before that, Native Americans (probably the Chemehuevi Tribe) traveled through Corn Springs along a well-worn east-west footpath, still visible today as a light-colored streak atop a stretch of “desert pavement.” They used the nearby granite rocks as their own desert kitchen, slowly hollowing out metates as they ground up multicolored corn into flour and seeds into mush. They also created at least 10 significant rock art (specifically, petroglyph) sites, two of which are easily visible right at the entrance and main campground.

It wasn’t until 19th-century prospectors started showing up and relying on the springs that word spread among white settlers. The Corn Springs Mining District was established in 1897 amid the California fan palms, palo verde, mesquite and ironwood trees and desert mistletoe. The namesake spring at the oasis was flowing during the Pacific Mining District’s heyday, helping gold and silver prospectors survive the rugged landscape.

One such prospector was Gus Lederer — the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Corn Spring” from 1915-1932. A graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, he gave up the gold rush and settled permanently in one of the nearby miners’ cabins, where he maintained the site as its unofficial steward and helped travelers in need until his death (by black widow spider bite) in 1932. Legend has it that every morning, he’d cook pancakes for the burros (donkeys) the miners had abandoned. You can visit the ruins of some of the cabins at the far end of the spring on foot or by car (four-wheel drive recommended).

For the latest updates on COVID-19 closures and guidance from BLM California, click here. You may also virtually contact the BLM Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office via email or phone. The office itself is closed to in-person visits.

2. Whitewater Preserve, Whitewater

California poppies
Several California poppies at Whitewater Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
The landscape at Whitewater Preserve
The colorful landscape at Whitewater Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Goldfields yellow flowers
A blanket of yellow goldfield flowers covers the ground at the Whitewater Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Trail at Whitewater Preserve
A trail at Whitewater Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Whitewater River
A small wooden bridge at the Whitewater River. | Sandi Hemmerlein

On the stretch of the 10 Freeway between the junctures of the 111 (to the west, towards Palm Springs) and the 62 (to the east, towards Joshua Tree), the Tipton Road exit will take you past the entrance to the Whitewater Rock & Supply Company and up the paved Whitewater Canyon Road, five miles to the Whitewater Preserve.

It’s one of several preserves managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, which is trying to bring it back to wilderness — continuing to remove invasive weeds and having already demolished several “neglected” homes along the road on the way to the ranger station (currently closed due to COVID-19).

It’s located at the main entry point of the Sand to Snow National Monument and surrounded by the BLM’s San Gorgonio Wilderness — and while that might sound daunting, there’s the short, three-mile Canyon View Loop Trail you can take that intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail as well as the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Be prepared for a high climb along a narrow, precarious ridge and stunning white rock canyon views below. During the spring, expect to be flanked by beds of wildflowers in full bloom — and not just California poppies, but also bush poppies, Parish’s poppies, goldfields and more.

Depending on the season, you might encounter the Whitewater River totally dried up or running as a pretty active stream. Note that “crossing the river” — something you have to do to follow the stone-lined trail — consists of rock-hopping and walking across a tiny wood-slat footbridge (and maybe even getting splashed).

The Conservancy asks that you please wear a face covering when appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained.

3. Mission Creek Preserve, near Desert Hot Springs

A rusty metal sign reads "Entering Mission Creek Preserve." | Sandi Hemmerlein
The remains of the T Cross K (TXK) Guest Ranch at Mission Creek Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A a painted-blue concrete pool at the Mission Creek Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Northeast of Whitewater Preserve — and directly adjacent to it (you can actually hike from one to the other) — is Mission Creek Preserve, accessible off the 62 Freeway at Mission Creek Road. It’s smaller and less popular than its neighboring preserve — both managed by Wildlands Conservancy and both in the Sand to Snow National Monument — but it’s entirely fascinating and quite accessible on its own.

About 1.6 miles up a dirt road, you’ll find The Stone House and its picnic and camping area (currently closed due to COVID-19) — but along the way, look for a row of smaller stone houses and a painted-blue concrete pool. These are some of the remains of the T Cross K (TXK) Guest Ranch — a former “dude ranch,” which may be a cleaned-up euphemism for what was actually more of a vice-laden “hog ranch.”

Those relics eventually give way to pure wilderness as the road meets up with the Pacific Crest Trail. And although the path along the eponymous Mission Creek may seem dusty, this 4,760-acre preserve can be incredibly wet, providing habitat for bighorn sheep, endangered birds (like the least Bell’s vireo) and, in some seasons, spectacular wildflowers. It also provided resources for the Mission Creek Band of Indians that once inhabited the area.

Amateur geophysicists and seismologists will be interested to know that the Mission Creek Preserve is located along the active Mission Creek fault strand, which merges with the San Gabriel-Banning fault at the San Andreas Fault in Indio. In fact, the hot springs of Desert Hot Springs arose because of intense geothermal activity deep underground. Somewhere between Mission Creek Preserve and Desert Hot Springs, the fault blocks the water resources found in the preserve from reaching the surface — which is why there’s so much vegetation along Mission Creek and so little just southeast of it.

The Conservancy asks that you please wear a face covering when appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained.

4. Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms

Entrance to the Coachella Valley Preserve | Sandi Hemmerlein
View of the Coachella Valley Preserve from Squaw Hill. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A group of palm trees at the Coachella Valley Preserve. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Located about five miles northeast of the center of Thousand Palms, the Coachella Valley Preserve isn’t just one preserve — but an entire system of them across 17,000 acres. It’s cooperatively managed by the Center for Natural Lands Management and the Bureau of Land Management California, providing free access to the public Wednesdays through Sundays (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays). Please note that the parking lot, rustic visitors’ center (“The Palm House”), and public restrooms are currently closed due to COVID-19 until further notice — but you’re welcome to park outside of the preserve and walk in.

A good place to start is in the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve section. The eponymous oasis is fed by natural underground springs that rise up out of the San Andreas Fault, giving rise to groves of native California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). The Mission Creek strand of the San Andreas Fault runs through here — and is clearly marked with signage.

From this starting point, you can take hikes of varying ruggedness to the Indian Palms, Horseshoe Palms, Pushwalla Palms or Hidden Palm Oasis. Or, you can make the easy climb up Squaw Hill, which gives you an aerial view of the oases below and even the visible signs of the fault line.

No pets are allowed, except service dogs. For the latest updates on closures and guidance from BLM California, click here. You may also virtually contact the BLM Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office via email or phone. The office itself is closed to in-person visits.

5. La Quinta Cove, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, La Quinta

A piece of dry wood dots La Quinta Cove's striking desert landscape. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A fuzzy-looking cholla plant is bathed in sunlight near the Randall Henderson Trail. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Colorful desert plants along the Randall Henderson Trail. | Sandi Hemmerlein
The top of a flowering agave along the Randall Henderson Trail. | Sandi Hemmerlein
View of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument.
| Sandi Hemmerlein

The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, which is co-managed by the BLM California and the U.S. Forest Service, encompasses about 280,000 acres — including both low and high country along the Pines to Palms Highway (a.k.a. Highway 74). But you don’t have to go up into the mountains — or very far — to enjoy some of what the monument has to offer. Plenty of it is accessible right from the low desert communities of the Coachella Valley.

To learn more about the monument, which was created in the year 2000, you can start with the Visitor Center (currently closed due to COVID-19) — as well as Friends of the Desert Mountains, an environmental conservation organization located in Palm Desert that is currently leading socially distant, guided interpretive hikes along the Earl Henderson Trail in Palm Springs, Chuckwalla Trail in Rancho Mirage, Randall Henderson Trail and Art Smith Trail in Palm Desert and more. Because of the pandemic, advance registration is required and is limited to five participants.

Suppose you’d like to try hoofing it on your own. In that case, you can venture to La Quinta Cove and the Cove Oasis Trail in the foothills of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, where granite debris has tumbled down from the mountains and intermingled with desert flora in a wide-open space. Advanced hikers can turn off onto the Boo Hoff Trail for a strenuous hike of nearly nine miles (at least) and nearly 2,000 feet in elevation change, venturing into the Santa Rosa Wilderness.

With zero shade, even the more level Cove to Lake Trail can be a challenge on a hot, sunny day — so start out early or arrange a car caravan, so you only have to hike 2.5 miles one way to the Lake Cahuilla Horse Camp, instead of five miles round trip. That may not sound very far, but the sandy slog along the trail gives your calves quite a workout. Just make sure Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park is actually open, and be prepared to pay a day use fee. And leave your pup(s) at home when entering BLM land.

Check with Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District for the latest updates on closures and safety measures. Face coverings and social distancing are required at all times. For the latest updates on COVID-19 closures and guidance from BLM California, click here. You may also virtually contact the BLM Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office via email or phone. The office itself is closed to in-person visits.

SAVE FOR LATER: Araby Trail, Palm Springs

Araby trail Palm Springs
View of a Palm Springs neighborhood from the Araby Trail. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Right now, the City of Palm Springs asks hikers to avoid trails that cut through residential areas. But the Araby Trail is such a good hike; it’s one you’ll want to keep in your back pocket for when it’s safe to venture into the area.

At 3.3 miles round trip, it seems a lot easier than it is. Although it starts at the Rimcrest housing development (with limited parking available on Rim Road), it quickly gains 1,380 feet in elevation on a steep incline with little shade — making the cooler months the best time to tackle it (ideally October through April).

If you make it up 1.7 miles to the recommended turnaround point (at the intersection of the Berns Trail/Garstin Trail/Earl Henderson Trail), you’ll be rewarded with a good view of Bob Hope’s former house, the 1979 flying saucer designed by architect John Lautner. You can also extend your hike by continuing along one of the other trails at the juncture.

As of 2019, per the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the peninsular bighorn sheep habitat, dogs are prohibited on the trail all year. When the city lifts its restrictions on residential trails, hikers may still have to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing and, when that’s not possible (like when passing other hikers), wear face coverings.

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