Tucked in the northern edges of the Indio Hills and offering breathtaking views of the San Bernardino Mountains and the southern edge of the Joshua Tree National Park, the Coachella Valley Preserve offers more than 20,000 acres of desert sanctuary for wildlife. Established in 1985, the goal of the Preserve is to protect the habitat of the threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard as well as other species that have experienced a similar fate due to the decline of their habitats.
For thousands of years, sand particles from the San Bernardino Mountains and Indio Hills swept towards the Coachella Valley to form the dunes that have become part of the Preserve’s system. This acclaimed area also provides numerous hiking trails, which are highly rated by locals in the Palm Springs area. Since the Preserve had long been on our bucket list, it was high time to explore it.
The rustic visitors center, called the Palm House, provides valuable information about the area and the trails to take. One of the best is the McCallum Trail, a 2.3-mile round-trip that runs through the canyon. A hike leads visitors past a fault line, a desert wash, and McCallum Oasis. Hikers also have the option to continue for another two miles along the Moon Trail.
Thousand Palms Oasis
Thousand Palms Oasis is the starting point of the McCallum Trail, and it’s mainly comprised of massive fan palm trees. This happens to be the largest grove of its kind in California. Soaring up to 60 feet, these trees are the only native palm in the state. Each of them posses a large skirt, which are formed by dead palm leaves, and prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the ground. They afford the much-needed shade from the blazing summer sun, keep the earth moist and cool, and make hiking a lot easier.
The first part of the trail is pleasant, exuding a surreal, “Lost World” environment. Some of these fan palms are well over 150 years old and are easily identifiable. The shaded path continues on wooden bridges strengthened by hand railings and supported by logs. This swamp-like area is abundant with wildlife such as grasshopper, dragonflies in rainbow colors, small pupfish, flies, and lizards.
Reaching the wash
After 10 minutes of walking, hikers reach another section which is different from the first. The shade provided by the fan palms suddenly vanishes, and the terrain becomes more rugged, flat, treeless, extremely dry, sandy, and bushy. This also makes the hike more interesting. The trail also seems much longer without the protection of the shade. The sun was blazing upon us, and the sand was a constant issue because we didn’t wear proper footwear (our bad). Our kids were energized at the beginning but quickly showed less enthusiasm for this portion of the hike through the wash.
If you pay attention along the way, you’ll probably encounter different types of lizards, dragonflies, rabbits, and rodents that are endemic to the wash. You’ll also hear the sounds of rodents scurrying in the bushes, birds tweeting, and crickets chirping. Most of the plants in this desert wash include arrowhead, whose pink blossoms appear in spring, golden bush, inkweed, and desert smoke trees. They’ve clearly adapted and thrive with the least amount of water they receive during the year. Some bushes, however, show the last vestiges of natural wildfires.
We kept our eyes open for reptiles that can appear in the wash. We saw a few whiptail lizards (their tails are bigger than their bodies) and the Zebra-tailed lizards (they hold their tails over their backs like a scorpion). There are over 25 different species of reptiles in the area, among which the most common are rattlesnakes, sidewinders, speckled rattlesnakes, and the most uncommon red and western diamondbacks. We were happy not to have encountered these on our hike.
It’s possible to see a few desert mammals, however they’re mainly nocturnal, such as gray fox, bob cat, and coyote, and spend the night time hunting. During the day, its common to catch sight of cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, and ground squirrels. We only saw one rabbit running away from us.
This pristine dessert oasis was formed by a natural earthquake seep and also marks the end of the McCallum Trail. The pond is home to a number of native aquatic insects and also used by the animals that thrive in this harsh environment. Small lobsters and crab-like animals, which creep along the bottom of the pond, the endangered desert pupfish, treefrogs, red swamp crayfish, and toads also call this watery place home. The skirts that cling to the trunks of the fan palms also provide shelter to the many species that live here.
This section is also called “The Citadel,” and it’s the most picturesque area. A walk around the pond is refreshing, and the shade provided by these massive fan palms offers hikers respite from the summer heat. The loop trail has benches and shady spots to rest and enjoy everything this beautiful, fragile oasis has to offer.
The sand dunes are visible in the distance, but it’s strictly prohibited to walk on them, as this would affect the habitat of the lizards and the beauty of the dunes.
Apparently, it’s also necessary to state the obvious with a NO SWIMMING sign on the shore. The very thought of going for a dip in this very shallow pond is ridiculous. However, not everyone may have taken that into consideration in the past. Hence the sign.
Hikers can continue onward from the Oasis along the Moon Trail for another 2 miles, or return to the visitors center.
Tips to remember before you go
- Although parking is free, spaces are small. Call ahead if you plan to arrive with a large vehicle, such as a camper, or by tour bus.
- Summers are hot, and the sun is intense, so appropriate attire and water are essential.
- Use the ½ rule too: always turn around when your water is ½ gone.
- Dogs aren’t allowed.
- Stay on the designated path.
- If you encounter venomous snakes, simply walk away and don’t provoke them.
- Don’t smoke or lite fires.
- Be respectful of the preserve.
- Hours: sunrise to sun down. The visitors center is closed for the summer from May 1st to August 31st.
- Directions: The entrance is located at the of Ramon Road in Thousands Palms.
The preserve is a great gateway for a half-day or full-day trip. There’s so much to do and enjoy in the Preserve other than hiking. Bird watching, for example, is great, and you may see Wilson’s warbler, American kestrel, turkey vultures, and phainopepla.