Day hiking in the San Jacinto Mountains takes a little planning. You need a pair of sturdy hiking boots, a couple of layers of light weight clothing, a hat, sunglasses, two bottles of water, some sunscreen, a snack – peanut butter sandwich, some trail mix and a couple of apples fills the bill nicely – and a fanny pack to hold your supplies. Intrepid hikers pack a lot more including: a change of socks, a compass, field guides for identifying flora and fauna, whistles to attract the attention of search parties, pocket knives, band aids for blisters (don’t wear new shoes on a hike), some TP (I carry a small packet of Kleenex) and a walking stick.

Yesterday I joined The Living Desert’s volunteer hiking group for a ramble to Round Valley at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. On the Palm Springs Valley floor the temp rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit by 3 PM. At the top of the tram, at 8,516 feet above sea level, it’s almost always 33 degrees cooler. So as we disembarked from the tram around 10 AM we pulled on jackets and sweaters. However within minutes the exertion from high altitude hiking had us removing the extra layers.

From the Upper Tramway Terminal hikers spill down a steep concrete sidewalk to the trail head and a short walk to the Long Valley Ranger Station where all trekkers are required to get a free, day hiking permit.

Here we fell into single file with Dave Valentino in the vanguard and Sue Valentino bringing up the rear of our ranks. Dave and Sue are veteran volunteers at The Living Desert. They organize nature outings for their comrades in order to grow the group’s awareness of the desert’s ecology. These diligent docents want to be informed in order to answer all questions thrown at them.

Eleven of us filed behind Dave headed for Round Valley Camp, a two and a half mile tramp, from the Ranger Station. A cobalt blue sky – not a cloud in sight – domed above us. Jeffery and Ponderosa Pines thrust their mighty forms skyward. Their needles carpet the forest floor. Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch our boots padded along the well marked trail. Breathing deeply, hearts pumping we adjusted to the altitude.

First stop – a Snow Plant. This coral colored fungus pokes its flame shaped form up through the forest floor shortly after the end of winter. We stared in awe realizing that eight thousand feet straight down in Palm Springs, summer was in full blaze. Dave and Sue challenged us to identify the form in an imposing rock formation – “a witch with a wart on her chin”, “a bearded old man”, “a jack rabbit”… Sharon, outfitted in her volunteer ranger uniform insisted we sample the needles of a White Fir. Indeed they did taste like tangerines. The tone for the hike was set. This was not to be a Zen ramble.

Chattering, we were kids again on a school outing, eager to be the first to spot a new sight. Lodge Pole Pines recognized by their distinct bark began to fill the forest as we climbed, iridescent Violet Green Swallows swifting in a meadow, a patch of Skunk Cabbage, snow drifts in the deep shade, Dark Eyed Juncos, a Pinyon Jay scouting the banks of a stream and Mountain Chickadees unseen but calling “look at me, look at me, look at me”, from the brambles. A particularly beautiful set of small but coursing water falls, one after another in steep series, raced icy water to the Valley’s aquifer far below.

In a cool surround of granite boulders we listened as my friend Barbara performed on a Native American flute. She shared a melody composed as a tribute for her husband. The soft notes lingered in our midst and then drifted away through the trees. Lost in our own thoughts we reached Round Valley camp in silent single file.

Hunkered on an out cropping of flat rocks, overlooking a meadow, sandwiches and trail mix were freed from fanny packs. Gone in a flash. Bahri dates harvested from the Living Desert’s palm trees were passed around by Midge. These little grape shaped morsels are delicious and the group discussed how to use them. Best idea was Midge’s – stuff with blue cheese, wrap with bacon and fry. Dave suggested that bacon would enhance any dish. His motion passed unanimously without any further discussion.

We flew down the mountain to the Tramway Terminal. Soon returned on the Valley floor and a sizzling summer afternoon. Back to the routine but musing about the Island in the Sky we had just encountered.

I suggest that hikers, keen on exploring desert trails, purchase and read a copy of Philip Ferranti’s best selling book 140 Great Hikes in and near Palm Springs. You can find this excellent publication at Boarders at The River in Rancho Mirage.

RM