Ah, the pleasures of Palm Springs – sitting poolside, soaking up the
sun and sipping on a cool drink. That’s the pampered Palm Springs that
most Western New York vacationers think about when they hear the name
of this Southern California desert oasis.

But there’s another side of the resort city that won’t put a big
burden on your pocketbook and will provide lots of fun, exercise and
some very memorable moments. Think of it as the rugged Palm Springs.

Not from this ritzy desert city are two places where you can break
out the rock-climbing gear, hiking boots or cross-country skis for some
high adventure.

Joshua Tree National Park is less than an hour’s drive up California
Highways 111 and 62. At Joshua Tree, visitors experience the wonders of
the high desert. It is also acclaimed as one of the world’s best places
for serious rock climbers. For a native of the East Coast, used to
almost daily precipitation and lush greenery, going to the bone-dry,
sparsely vegetated Joshua Tree and seeing the Dr. Seuss-like trees for
which the park is named is like journeying to another world.

San Jacinto State Park, accessible by the Palm Springs Aerial
Tramway, is just minutes from downtown off Highway 111, and offers
incredible vistas of the sun-scorched Coachella Valley. It also
welcomes hiking and cross-country skiing on its snow-covered peaks.
That’s right, there are alpine settings just a stone’s throw from
downtown Palm Springs.

Visitors can make a day trip to both parks, or plan extended visits.

Joshua Tree National Park

Driving
north on Highway 111 from Palm Springs through the Coachella Valley,
motorists first pass by the expansive windmill farms that populate the
desert landscape. For those into “green” energy, these windmills are a
sight to see. The giant machines whirl endlessly in the hot breezes
that sweep through the valley.

Getting on Highway 62, the road slopes up through a windy canyon
dotted with yucca and brown cacti. Toward the top of the canyon, you
get your first glimpse of the elusive Joshua Tree, which grows in these
higher elevations.

As you near the park, you drive through the dusty Morongo Valley,
passing by the Happy Cooker restaurant and Sundown Trail “where there’s
a yard sale open every day,” according to the sun-faded sign. About 45
minutes after leaving Palm Springs and 50 miles later, just past the
outskirts of the city of Yucca Valley, there are some small, unassuming
signs announcing the entrance to Joshua Tree National Monument and
Park. Make a right turn and you’ll find the Joshua Tree Visitors
Center. Here, park rangers and docents will provide information about
the park and point you on the way to the entrance, which is still
another five hilly miles away.

The road winds through the desert and into the park. A $15 entrance
fee per carload allows you a week’s access. An annual pass is just $30.

The
actual Joshua Tree is a funky yucca and is known as the “Tree of Life.”
The trees grow primarily in the Mojave Desert and provide food and
shelter for the desert wildlife. Orioles can be seen near their woven
nests hanging beneath Joshua Tree limbs, and ground squirrels and other
small critters eat the creamy white blossoms that the trees produce.

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the 794,000-acre
park. For a day trip, the park rangers suggest two of the easier trails
which still provide spectacular views and enjoyable hiking.

We started on the Hidden Valley trail which, as its name implies,
was largely isolated until 1936 when a rancher named Bill Keys blasted
an opening through the large rocks to find pastureland for his cattle. 
The mile-long trail winds along the base of Hidden Valley. From here,
rock climbers are visible with their ropes and picks scaling the sides
of sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the cloudless blue sky.
There are also information kiosks along the way, explaining the exotic
flora and the fauna.

This
is a fascinating place. Hidden Valley provides a microclimate in the
hostile desert. The massive rocks that ring the valley block the wind
and collect moisture, which helps support a variety of plant and animal
species, including the humble Joshua Tree. The valley has also been
known to provide protection from the unforgiving desert for humans
through the years. There are plenty of places to wander off the trail,
but the park service discourages doing so because of damage to the
vegetation. It’s also requested that visitors don’t take anything out
of the park, like pebbles, rocks or plant samples.

Another trail, the mile-long Barker Dam route, is mesmerizing. The
path winds between sheer rock cliffs ending at a small, mostly dried-up
pond, which seems out of place in the desert. About a century ago,
there was more rainfall in the desert than there is today. Ranchers of
the past took advantage of that rain by building a small concrete dam
to hold the water that drains down from the canyon walls during the
rare rains. As rainfall has decreased, cattle ranching has ceased, but
the desert survivors such as lizards, hawks and the Joshua Tree have
remained. The day we rounded the trail, there were two mallards
swimming in the stagnant little pool that remained, apparently on their
migratory route up north.

There are plenty of places to camp, and there are longer and more
challenging hiking trails at Joshua Tree. Boy Scout Trail, for
instance, is a two- or three-day trek. Biking is welcomed along the
roadways and there are special spots for rock-climbing enthusiasts. The
weather, of course, is sunny and windy. The day we visited in March,
the breeze was cool and the temperature hovered around 50. Desert
doesn’t necessarily mean hot, we learned. Come prepared with good
sunglasses, layers of clothing and some good hiking boots because the
sand on the rocks can make for tricky footing.

San Jacinto State Park

Getting
on the Palm Springs Aerial Tram at an elevation of 2,643 feet in the
searing heat of the Coachella Valley, visitors are whisked over
two-and-a-half miles in altitude in just over 10 minutes and into the
splendor of San Jacinto State Park. As the brochure states, “It’s like
taking a trip from Mexico to Alaska in just minutes.”

The tram leaves every 15 minutes or so and it’s not unusual to see
hikers bringing their backpacks or alpine enthusiasts carrying on their
cross-country skies.

The trip up the tram, which costs $22.50 per adult, is worth the
price of admission itself. As the tram heads from the Valley Station to
the Mountain Station, the car slowly rotates giving all 90 passengers
panoramic views of the desert below and the mountainous majesty of
Chino Canyon. One can’t help but wonder how they built this aerial
railway along the side of a steep mountainside.

Once
atop the mountain, passengers disembark at the Mountain Station which
features a restaurant, bar, gift shop and the state park visitors
center. The center includes balconies from which you can view the
Coachella Valley southward to the Salton Sea  and northward to the San
Bernardino Mountains. The views from here are simply spectacular,
something we East Coast residents just aren’t used to seeing. That’s
probably why they call this area “the great American southwest.”

San Jacinto is a 14,000-acre park that offers 54 miles of hiking
trails, picnic areas and “primitive” campgrounds. Signs also warn
visitors to be on the watch for mountain lions, which have been known
to prey on young children.

Once away from the park’s visitors center, hikers soon find
themselves in the company of nature. In Long Valley, a short walk from
the bustling center, visitors find a ranger station, picnic area with
restrooms, a ski center and a self-guiding nature trail. On the day we
hiked the trail in March, the sun warmed the temperature into the 50s,
but there was still plenty of snow around – enough even for a spirited
snowball fight. Along the trail, the park offers views of snow-capped
mountain peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation.

The park does offer camping, but permits are limited.