Reba and I recently returned form a two month sojourn in France. Every moment of the holiday abroad was sublime, but as we were landing at the Palm Springs International Airport, we caught a glimpse of the groves of California Palms that crown the Indian Canyons, and we agreed that a hike was in order to remind us why we have settled in Rancho Mirage in the Heart of the Palm Springs Valley.
California Fans Palm (Washingtonian Filifera) are indigenous to the desert oases of the U.S. Southwestern deserts. In good conditions, they can grow to an impressive height and live up to 250 years or more. They thrive in the sheltered canyons at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, where their tops can remain dry and their roots moist thanks to the year long run-off of the snow capped peaks nearby. Hiking under the palms can be a spiritual experience akin to walking around the interior of Chartres Cathedral. Well I suppose it depends on how you are wired but both experiences work wonders for Reba and me. When we heard that the Volunteers from The Living Desert were taking their monthly educational hike in the Indian Canyons, we jumped at the chance to join friends and Dave and Sue Valentino, the intrepid leaders of the group.
Dave and Sue Valentino have been volunteers at The Living Desert for so long that they have been elevated to a kind of emeritus status allowing them to select whatever volunteer task they’d enjoy. Dave can be found on some days at the entrance to the zoological gardens with one or another of America’s elegant falcons or owls perched magnificently on his arm. He answers the visitor’s questions, chats with the children and reminds everybody, just by his demeanor, of their personal responsibility to help preserve our natural heritage.
Sue Valentino heads a group of volunteers at The Living Desert that produces complex hand-crafted three dimensional constructions that are made to entertain and keep the animals stimulated. Appropriate snacks are often hidden deep inside of the constructions, that once placed in an animal’s enclosure, receive the apt and gleeful attention of the recipient. Reba and I once observed a zebra at The Living Desert kick the living bejeebers out of what looked to us like a fourth graders California history project. Now we know.
It’s startling to discover that a great percentage of the animals at The Living Desert were once owned privately. Of course as they grew from cute and cuddly to large and ferocious their “owners” lost their capability to manage their “pets”.
Dave and Sue Valentino were waiting for us at the entrance of the Indian Canyons on the day of the hike. We caravanned to the Trading Post and within minutes we were trail bound. With Dave in the lead and Sue bringing up the rear twelve of us snaked up the eastern bank of cliffs above Palm Canyon. This can be a fifteen mile hike, but today we were committed to a five mile loop that would take us high above the palm filled gorge and then down into the canyon before looping back to the Trading Post.
We forged a stream listening to Cactus Wrens call to their mates and began the push to the top. Hawks soared over-head, lizards dove for cover as we hiked up the trail. Grand vistas to the north and east at every turn. Suddenly we were at the highest point of the trail and the lip of the canyon. Reba is a bit queasy when standing unprotected at the edge of a precipitous cliff. Not Dave who’s toes hung out in space as he surveyed where we’d come from and pointed out where we were going. From the cliffs above, the palms seem to snake down the long canyon that courses from north to south. On the western side of the canyon, the shear cliffs of the San Jacinto rise 8000 feet to a snow capped summit. Racing streams can be seen feeding the canyon, and as we sat silently on the cliffs edge, the sound of gurgling icy water could be faintly heard far below us.
The Indian Canyons in Palm Springs were the original home for the Cahuilla Band of Indians that resided in the canyons in and around Palm Springs for millennia. By hugging the mountain ranges on the edge of the vast desert, these native people lived in harmony with the harsh environment. The palm filled canyons provided shade from the scorching summer heat as well as abundant water, wildlife, and plant material to build shelters and feed families. The Canyons were sacred to the Cahuilla in ancient times and they remain so today.
Palm Canyon is one of the great hiking destinations in Western North America. The canyon’s indigenous flora and fauna, which the Cahuilla peoples so expertly used, and its prolific California Fan palm tree oasis (Washingtonian filifera), are breathtaking contrasts to the stark, rocky gorges and adjacent barren desert lands. A hefty fee is charged by the Indians to enter the canyons and it’s just as well. Those that are not serious about nature’s preservation can play poolside at the resorts in the Palm Springs Valley, leaving the unique pristine silence of the canyons for those that are ready for the experience.
We descended into the canyon with the temperature dropping with every step. Soon we were under the cover of the Palms, shaded and cool. Great piles of fronds covered the floor of the narrow canyon. Blacked palm trunks – scars of past fires – remind intrepid travelers of ancient temples. Humming birds darted between the trees and in and out of the shadows. The pathway was damp, and then the stream was visible, gurgling just ahead of us.
Seated on a tiny beach, with a zephyr rustling the fronds overhead, we munched on our peanut butter sandwiches and fresh Medjool dates thinking about the people that at one time called this place home. Reba and I drove home in happy silence. We could live anywhere, but are happy to call the California Desert our home.