June in the Palm Springs Valley guarantees three digit temps. Love the heat. Early morning walks, afternoons holed up with books that you’ve been meaning to read since they were unwrapped at the Holidays and nightly swims under the stars. Rancho Mirage resort guests are into summer too. They chaise lounge alongside our resort pools – all June Gloom immigrants – getting their attitudes readjusted and their tans jumped started.
Tee shirts, board shorts, flip flops, movies in the afternoon (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a wow yesterday), top down on the car at night, white wine and salads and a little color on the skin. Love summer. But just as easterners flee winter’s bite to Florida, desert rats also occasionally need a little relief from the soaring thermostat. As the crow flies we can find it only 15 miles away. But by car it’s 47 miles and 5000 feet up into the alpine world of Idyllwild.
Here times stands still. A-frame houses nestle amongst the pine trees. Tie-dyed tee shirts, paint spattered Levis and Birkenstocks can be seen on natives looping along the main thoroughfare. Galleries are brimming with hand-made accessories, paintings and sculptures. Restaurants, lining the main drag, serve scrumptious fare with lots of vegetarian choices. A Zen retreat center and monastery is tucked back in the woods. The Idyllwild Arts Academy has attracted the best of the best of our high schoolers for a world-renowned summer program that has launched the careers of many American artistic luminaries.
It’s always at least 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor in Idyllwild.
When my friend Barbara called to ask if I’d like to join a group of Living Desert volunteers for a day hike near Idyllwild I jumped at the chance. Barbara and her cohort strive to be prepared for any question thrown at them by visitors to the Living Desert. They work hard to bone up on the flora and fauna of the region and deserts around the world. But not all is hard work. This group knows how to have fun while learning.
I lolled in the back seat of Barbara’s car half listening and staring out the window at the landscape spinning by while she and a friend chatted. We zipped from the desert floor in Palm Desert up Highway 74 passing a wild scape of house sized boulders into chaparral and in no time entered the forest and then the limits of Idyllwild.
Here, at a cafe, we met up with a gang of thirteen and our guides for the day, Dave and Sue Valentino. Central casting couldn’t identify two better-looking guides; nor more equipped ones. Both Dave and Sue are un-paid helpers, who have “done it all” volunteer-wise, and now through seniority and interest have settled on their specialty at our premier desert attraction – the Living Desert. Dave shows off the predator birds to visitors and Sue heads a group that works on an enrichment program for the animals. They hand craft sculptures, filled with treats and surprises. These assemblages, designed to be destroyed, are left in the animals enclosures to the delight of all. You might happen on a zebra encountering and destroying art at the Living Desert.
In caravan, we drove along Highway 74 to Sanders Meadow Drive (careful there are two intersections with the same name) and within minutes we were parked at the trail head for the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. This is an easy 2 1/2 mile, slightly up hill hike, through a pine forest. Sheer rock mountain peeks loom ahead and glorious views of the valley floor below can be enjoyed from every turn.
We headed out in single file; Dave in the front and Sue bringing up the rear. Slowly we snaked past groves of red trunked Manzanita laced with pink bell blooms. A cluster of coral colored snow flowers on our left jolted us into realizing that here it was just barely spring and on the other side of the mountain and straight down 10,000 feet it was already sizzling summer. Cool in the shade, but sweaters came off as we climbed. The western side of Mount San Jacinto remained cloud shrouded otherwise blue skies prevailed. Lupine only days away from full glory lined the pathway. A cluster of larkspur poked their purple pride heavenward.
Rat-a-tat, rat-at-tat, rat-a-tat-tat rang through the forest. Fifteen sets of eyes right and up and there working a mighty skeletal Jeffery Pine were a dozen Hairy Woodpeckers stashing conifer seeds in the trunk of the giant. Red patches on the backs of their heads flashed as the descent of peckers raced at their task as if winter might start tomorrow.
Smell a Jeffery Pine and it herbal fragrance will seduce but, as Dave wryly pointed out, its best to whiff high on the tree because if you stoop down and sniff at the base of the trunk the fragrance might be more German Sheppard than herbal. Dogs walk this trail a lot and unfortunately their owners do not obey the leash requirements.
The canyon narrows. Pines clasp boulders in their roots. The sound of rushing water. A stream is crossed, stone to stone. Woops – one foot wet. We arrive at the half way point. Snacks come out. We sample dates offered by a thoughtful fellow hiker. Mouths filled with a delicious sweet meaty flavor, we perch on rocks happily munching away while surveying the distant valley.
Behind us a car pulls up! Out hops a man and a woman. The trunk is popped. He slings a loaded backpack on his shoulders, kisses the woman good bye and disappears on a trail across the road. Dave suggests that the hiker will spend the Memorial Day weekend in the high country, descend on Sunday via the tram to Palm Springs where the woman will most likely welcome him with a kiss and return him to civilization.
We are wimps! The spell is broken. We stream back down the trail talking the entire way about favorite restaurants in L.A. Hop in the cars and within minutes we’re devouring scrumptious lunches on the patio of Restaurant Gastrognome. My grilled zucchini sandwich was gone in a flash. Take that Mr. Backpacker.
Go to http://www.towncrier.com/ for information about Idyllwild. Philip Ferranti’s best selling book 140 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs is the definitive source of information about hiking in and around the Palm Springs Valley. The book can be found at Boarders at The River in Rancho Mirage.