9,000-year-old Oasis of Mara and its palm-lined pond
-- complete with moored houseboat -- is the heart of
the 29 Palms Inn, which has a restaurant and
minutes from downtown Palm Springs, a former Hollywood
hangout where the ghosts of Dinah Shore and Bob Hope still
stroll, five friends and I on a winter getaway filled our
water bottles and smeared on sunblock at the trading
post-themed Indian Canyons visitor center.
timing was perfect. A guided ranger walk was about to
begin. We lined up and followed him single-file along the
Palm Canyon Trail, from the sun-parched ridgetop into a
shady canyon crowded with palms wearing thick crowns of
waxy fronds and bare roots that reached toward shallow
puddles and inky streams. Iíd never seen an untrimmed
palm before, and the ranger explained that the thick
layers of dead fronds that eventually skirt the trunk form
a habitat unto itself.
hiked backward in time through a prehistoric landscape
only minutes from whatís become a mecca for
martini-sipping hipsters and devotees of midcentury-modern
always bought into the misconception that Palm Springs was
a dull desert getaway best suited for grays, golfers and
gays (at least a combination of the two), so for many
years I was a Palm Springs holdout. All that changed
several years ago when a funky artist friend moved there
full time for the spectacular weather (most of the year)
and the getting-cooler-all-the-time culture. For me, itís
the cityís namesake that keeps me coming back: palms and
the wet oases where they thrive.
in the desert? A mirage? Not a bit.
Springs is home to some of the biggest palm oases in North
America. These are my donít-miss recommendations for the
Just a few minutes from downtown Palm Springs, Indian
Canyons is the most convenient ó and sometimes rugged
ó place to see the palm. The property, which includes
thousands of acres and innumerable wild canyons, is owned
and managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians,
which also owns much of the land that is Palm Springs
(thatís another story).
around: Though thereís a mind-boggling network of 60
miles of trails, the Canyons site is most notable because
it has an unusual number of natural springs that support
several California fan palm groves. That includes the Palm
Canyon Oasis, reputed to be one of the biggest in North
America, which is accessed via the Palm Canyon Trail. But
thereís a hike for everyone, ranging from an easy
two-mile round trip that starts at the Andreas Canyon
trailhead to a seven-mile round trip with 2,000 feet in
elevation gain to the Maynard Mine, where tungsten was
processed during World War II. Though thereís no palm
oasis to be seen, itís also worth checking out the
Tahquitz Canyon, which has trails that lead to a desert
mirage of its own: a stunning 60-foot waterfall.
unique: A ranger walk or interpretive talk here is the
best way to learn the basics about palm oases and why they
thrive in this area. This is where I learned that palms
arenít really trees, and that you donít have to travel
to the Middle East to see a real oasis. The visitor center
is a donít-miss stop to explore the culture of the area.
There are extensive displays where youíll see more about
the rock art, plants and animals in the area, and thereís
a theater room where you can watch "The Legend of
Tahquitz Canyon" and glean more about the area via
Ten miles east of Palm Springs, at the base of the Indio
Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is a seemingly
lifeless 18,000-acre wilderness area thatís home to the
Thousand Palms Oasis, a lush habitat of palms where you
can actually step across the San Andreas Fault via a short
footbridge and watch water rise to the surface through
various seeps, creeks and ponds. Itís the kind of
dune-dotted, windswept landscape where youíd expect
Lawrence of Arabia to ride past on a camel.
around: This is the place to come if you want to see a
completely intact, undeveloped palm oasis, but do it
without a strenuous hike. Though there are dozens of miles
of trails in the area, the two-mile (round trip) McCallum
Palms Trail starts at the visitor center just a short walk
from the parking lot. Thereís also a rustic little
three-room "palm house" that was home to Paul
Wilhelm, a writer, naturalist and longtime champion of the
oasis whose passion for this unique habitat is obvious.
There are several hikes to oases, including the five- to
six-mile (round trip) Pushawalla Palms Trail, which is
moderately strenuous but offers a reward at the end: the
Pushawalla Palms Oasis.
unique: If youíre interested in native flora and fauna,
this is the place to come. In addition to the rare pupfish
that ply the ponds, the preserve is home to the Coachella
Valley fringe-toed lizard, which canít be found anywhere
else in the world. There are no user fees ó the preserve
relies on donations and they allow hiking and picnics.
OASIS OF MARA
The Oasis of Mara and the 29 Palms Inn are at the north
entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, a moonscape-like
landscape thatís about an hour from Palm Springs, making
it a perfect day trip.
around: The oasis is the heart of the 29 Palms Inn, a
storied, one-of-a-kind getaway with a restaurant and
adobe-style bungalow rentals, which is a perfect place for
those with mobility issues because thereís a short,
paved ADA-accessible pathway around the oasis. Itís also
a perfect place to end a day of hiking in Joshua Tree,
where there are miles of hiking trails and scenic drives.
And geologically, it doesnít get much more interesting
than this part of California. This is where the Mohave and
Lower Colorado deserts meet, and in addition to one of the
most famous oases youíll see armies of sentinel-like
Joshua trees amid otherworldly boulder formations.
unique: An oasis overnight. 29 Palms offers a wide range
of inexpensive lodging options. During one visit I rented
an adobe-style bungalow in a desert setting on the
outskirts of the oasis. During that spring visit it was
still cool enough to build a fire at night, but hot enough
to take a dip in the pool. Several of the cottages have
their own private patio, and some have lazy day hammocks.
The inn has its own hobby farm and when seasonally
appropriate the restaurant uses that produce in its food.