The visual representations of Southern California’s landscape have become inextricably linked to images of palm trees. Whether swaying in the breeze or in silhouette during a dazzlingly pink sunset, these tropical beacons scream California life to locals and visitors alike.
Maybe it’s because they’re “so L.A.” – one of the surefire signs that we’re in “paradise.” But that’s a myth – one that early European settlers created to draw more people to colonize this “fertile land.” (See also: citrus groves.)
But most of the palm trees you see are pretenders to the throne – imposters in the world of evergreen palms!
When you take a tour of Oasis Date Gardens or Shields Date Garden – and especially when you drink one of their date shakes – you’re playing into the Middle Eastern fantasy version of the California desert. And that’s nowhere more evident than at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, which crowns its annual Queen Scheherazade and her court every February in Indio.
In fact, most of the palm trees you see lining residential streets and adorning the California missions are purely ornamental – bearing no fruit at all, and towering too high to provide any meaningful shade. But it’s not as though we wouldn’t have any palm trees if we cleared California of this fetishized exoticism.
Because we’ve got our country's largest native palm – and the only palm tree that’s native to the Western U.S. – right here. To find it, you just have to know what you’re looking for. The telltale sign of the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the “skirt” of old dead palm fronds that cascade downwards around its trunk (rather than dropping off, like other palms).
And while it’s described as drought “tolerant,” that’s not exactly true. In fact, the California Fan Palm thrives in drought conditions – actually preferring full sun exposure and growing in both dry and moist soil. But the areas where you’ll discover California Fan Palms (a.k.a. desert fan palms) growing in clusters are almost never completely dry, even if no water is visible at the surface. Where these native palm trees sprout up in groups, there’s almost always a continuous supply of water – underground.
That explains why this species became so important to the survival of the first human inhabitants of California – providing both food and shelter, and leading them to an ever-abundant water source.
So, to truly understand the relationship between palm trees and Southern California, you’ve got to set aside everything you think you know about these tropical outsiders – and head to some of the most significant desert oases in the world.
1. Indian Canyons, Palm Springs
In cooler seasons, the Indian Canyons – particularly the secluded Murray Canyon – are lush with waterfalls (including the Seven Sisters Waterfall) and streams that unfortunately dry up during the summer. All year long, though, you can climb the 1.2-mile Andreas Canyon Trail to find the world’s second-largest California Fan Palm oasis. There, the green palms follow the water of the perennial Andreas Creek, which babbles even in triple-hot heat. This one lonely stream trickles along the rocks and dampens the sandy soil just enough to let your tread grip into it. Andreas Canyon ends at Andreas Canyon Club, which was formed in 1923 – when 30,000 people visited the palm oasis that year alone – and whose clubhouse and rock homes were built by Robert Lee Miller in 1925 on land that purchased from Southern Pacific Railroad. The canyon, club and trail are all named after Captain Juan Andreas – the last Cahuilla Indian (of what’s now known as the Agua Caliente Band) to leave the canyons.
Palm Canyon, however, is where you can find the world’s largest California Fan Palm oasis. Driving along the entrance road to reach the parking area, you’ll pass through a giant split boulder along a single car lane. Look for Peninsular bighorn sheep in the hills above you, as you begin to explore this landmark open space that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and remained pristine by not becoming a California state park or national park, as once proposed in the late 1920s, and instead remaining tribal-owned and managed land.
Park rangers lead guided hikes every weekend throughout the year except during the months of July, August and September. Hikes are included with park admission, which can be purchased in advance online.
2. Thousand Palms Oasis, Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms
Located within the Coachella Valley Preserve, and tucked into the northern edge of the Indio Hills, Thousand Palms Oasis is fed by water that seeps out of the San Andreas Fault. Within its 80 acres, you’ll find a relatively easy trail in the Paul Wilhelm Grove, whose namesake arrived at the oasis in the early 1930s and began opening it up to campers shortly thereafter. He remained the preserve’s onsite caretaker until his death in 1994, and Center for Natural Lands Management has owned Thousand Palms Oasis since 2013. The non-profit organization manages it as a volunteer-run wildlife area, and it also operates a visitor center in Paul Wilhelm Grove, which occupies a 1930s-era log cabin.
As of October 1, 2019, the preserve and its visitor center are open 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day except Monday and Tuesday – but only during the cooler months, through April. It’s date palms you’ll find in the grove – not our California native variety – but other palm oases (i.e. Willis, Hidden Horseshoe, and Indian Palms) are accessible within the larger preserve via the McCallum, Hidden Palms, Moon Country, Pushawalla Palms, and Willis Palms trails. Note that McCallum Grove and Simone Pond are closed until October 2020.
Preserve admission and parking are free, though donations are gladly accepted. Visitors are welcome to join one of the walking tours of Thousand Palms Oasis or guided hikes through other areas of the Coachella Valley Preserve. Call (760) 343-1234 for reservations.
3. 49 Palms Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park actually contains at least five different oases – some obvious and hard to miss (like the Oasis of Mara) and others more hidden and remote (like Lost Palms and Victory Palms). The 49 Palms Oasis is a nice compromise between the two extremes – reachable via a moderately strenuous round-trip hike that should take about two to three hours to complete all three miles of it, with an elevation gain and drop of 300 feet each way.
You won’t get any shade for 1.5 miles until you reach the actual oasis – and since it’s an out-and-back, you’ll be fully exposed to the sun on the way back, too. But after hiking through the rocky canyon, you’ll find plenty of boulders to take a load off on and shadows to cool off in, under the canopy of California Fan Palms. The pools below may look clear – but leave them for the wildlife that rely on this habitat, and bring your own water supply for drinking.
To find 49 Palms, drive five miles west of the Joshua Tree National Park Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms. Turn south off of Highway 62 onto Canyon Road and travel for nearly 2 miles to the trailhead, located just inside the park boundary. There is no security kiosk or official entrance fee payment station on the way to or at the parking area – but if you’ve got your national parks pass or other proof of payment, go ahead and display it on your parked vehicle.
4. Borrego Palm Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
You usually hear the most about Borrego Palm Canyon in California’s largest state park during wildflower season – especially during those “superbloom” years, when the trail is impossibly clogged with visitors from all over the world. That’s probably the one time you might actually want to avoid Borrego Palm Canyon. But as soon as the droves of tourists leave, you can have this palm oasis practically to yourself – and because it provides a good water source for both flora and fauna, it’s absolutely alive all year long. In fact, this palm-filled canyon was one of the attractions that helped Anza-Borrego Desert State Park get protected in the first place.
You’ll find it just north of the park’s Visitor Center in the town of Borrego Springs. From Montezuma Valley Road (which feeds you into town from the Montezuma Grade approach), turn left onto Palm Canyon Drive and turn right on an unnamed road after Hoberg Road and before you get to the ranger station. Pass several campsites before you reach the trailhead parking.
The 3.25-mile loop along a hot and dry trail climbs 450 feet and is relatively easy to follow, as long as you obey the numbered trail markers and stay on the correct side of the boulder hedges. Wear sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting wet – there are a couple of creek crossings, and if you’re lucky, there will be water running (even if just a little). Palm Canyon is impossible to miss, with its cluster of shaggy palms towering above the canyon floor – the largest of such palm oases in this state park. California Fan Palms can live as many as 200 years – but here, many of the older palm trees have been wiped out by flooding, most notably in September 2004.
5. Dos Palmas Preserve, Mecca
“Desert wetland” sounds like a contradiction in terms – but that’s exactly what you’ll find located within the Salt Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, at the Dos Palmas Preserve in the Colorado Desert not far from the Salton Sea. But it’s not seawater that feeds the ponds at this lush oasis – rather, it’s artesian springs (like the Dos Palmas Spring and San Andreas Springs, flowing thanks to the San Andreas Fault) and seepage from the nearby Coachella Canal.
Jointly managed by the Center for Natural Lands Management and the Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, the 1,400-acre preserve has been protected since it was dedicated as a preserve in 1990s. It’s located 210 feet below sea level, within an area of vast extremes – and it provides a little respite from the surrounding harsh landscape. There are only a couple of miles of trails to walk within the preserve, but they provide a nice meander and the opportunity to spend some time alone with protected California Fan Palms.
Dos Palmas is free to visit and open every day of the year. While it provides shade under the palms, most of the trails are exposed – so bring sun protection and plenty of water. Exit Highway 111 at Parkside Drive and travel east (away from Salton Sea State Recreation Area) and follow either Power Line Road or Dos Palmas Spring Road to the preserve. Cell phone signals are surprisingly good out there, so your GPS or maps app should get you there safely. Just stay out of the canal.