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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, public health guidelines and weather conditions are changing constantly. We encourage our readers to check the latest updates for each location. 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

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