February in Chicago means one thing… a google search for the warmest cities in the U.S. so you can get out of this cold and dark city. When Palm Springs came up as a result, I didn’t know much about it. After seeing that the high was 90, hiking was close by and Joshua Tree was just a drive away- we booked it. I didn’t realize how astounding this trip was truly going to be.
From the moment we got off the plane it was blue skies and palm trees, with mountains surrounding the entire city. Mike found the Ace Hotel, which I highly recommend. It has such an eclectic, laid-back feel with an undertone of hip rock n roll vibes. The pool is the perfect place to spend the afternoon while listening to the latest DJ and ordering your ice cold beverage from the pool bar. As you lay out, the sun hits you from right over the palm trees and stays there until it sets over the mountains… every single day. Perfection. From the Ace Hotel you can you walk into the downtown area for food and drinks, music and local shopping. There is even a trolley that rolls in and out of downtown, called the Buzz. It’s available Thursday-Sunday and is the perfect mode of transportation when you aren’t up for walking or not in the mood for driving.
Let’s get to the real stuff though… the game changers… the life changers… the, 'oh my god, I am never leaving' feels.
I never expected the hiking here to be as spectacular as it is. You are literally in the valley, between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. There are trails in every direction and the only decision you need to make, is which one you want to get lost in today. We discovered a new trail to hike each day, however, we didn’t cover nearly as much ground as we would have liked to. Therefore, consider this a starting point to your next hiking trip in Palm Springs.
Tahquitz Canyon, South Lykken
On our first morning out in Palm Springs, we started out (as we begin most mornings on our day off) with a cup of coffee and a morning walk. As we approached the downtown area, Mike suggested we go search for a trailhead. Seeing as we were right next to a large mountain, there must be one close. Off we went, coffee in hand and it wasn't even 30 minutes into our walk when we began making our way up South Lykken Trail. Literally, a backyard hike in Palm Springs. Not only is it just a short walk from the downtown area (you can literally see the trails while eating breakfast), but the trail also takes you up and over the city as you travel through each vista point. The South Lykken Trail is 4.4 miles long with an elevation change of 1,004 feet. It is considered strenuous and you are completely exposed to sunlight throughout the entire hike (cue: water, sunscreen, early morning hike). The trail does not loop back around, so if you want to hike the entire 4.4 miles you’ll need to figure out your way back to your car (parking only available on the South end off South Palm Canyon).
We ended up hiking this trail 3 times; once from the south end and twice from the north end. I’d suggest trying out both to get different views and experiences. Definitely a must hike/trail run.
Indian Canyons is literally 6 minutes from the Ace Hotel. To enter the park, it is cash only so make sure you have that on hand. We arrived at Indian Canyons with a backpack full of water and snacks. It was our second day in Palm Springs and we were ready for some adventure! As we passed the sign that read, extreme caution: rattlesnake habitat, I knew it was going to be a great day! We were on our way! The Palm Canyon trail is most likely the trail you will begin on. It is a 15 mile trail that begins with a descent into a canyon of palm trees (hence the name). It felt cool, calm and damp. After bumping into a few families here and there, Mike and I were off and away into a hike of our own. The trails wind around and connect with signs, forcing you to draw a conclusion on which way you will turn next. After about 3 miles, we made our way up and over the canyon and into the mountainous range of the desert. This was the first time I had ever experienced the desert mountains. There aren’t pine trees, here as I was used to seeing on a mountain, but instead small bushes and cacti.
It was another bright blue sky and hot sunny day. We quickly felt the warmth of the sun upon us and began to drink our water. Once you are on top of the mountains, it feels like you can run forever on these trails. Just when they swept you up, you were slightly turning and then back down again. They were quick, rolling and free. You could see for miles. And, suddenly there we were, just as we wanted to be-in the middle of nowhere feeling nothing but the hot sun, the sweat rolling down our face and the happiness that results from fully engaging yourself in nature.
We turned around and ran back down from the mountains, into the canyon. Thankful for some much needed shade, we ran into a group talking about ice cream (mmmm…). Onward! At this point, we had the option of taking the trail back towards the trading post or veering off and discovering what other trails had to offer. I looked at Mike and could see the magic in his eyes. He wanted more. So up and over we went to discover some new views. At this point, I am not even sure what trail we were on. Maps aren’t really our thing. We were just busy getting lost in the landscape. It must be pointed out that these trails are relatively easy to navigate and if you are doing out and backs, paired with the signs, you should be fine as far as navigation goes. That is to say if you have enough water with you… We had been out in Indian Canyons for most of the morning now and I could sense the sun only getting hotter. I mean middle of the desert hot. You start to feel the heat burn over your dried up sweat. No bueno. Our water was low and I knew it was time to head back to the trading post before any signs of dehydration started to appear (or should I say any additional signs). While heading back to the trading post, we took the round-about way while running the trails. After a few climbs, we were finally beginning to descend and you could hear a cheer come from me as I saw the trading post in sight. You know your calories are running low, when you begin asking, “If you could have anything to eat or drink right now, what would it be?” I dreamt of a cold smoothie hitting my lips and cooling my insides. A few more twists and turns, when we bumped into an older charming couple. As they pulled off the trail a bit so we could run quickly past them, the man mentioned, “You know you’re suppose to enjoy the scenery too, right?” We thanked them for moving aside and I laughingly said, “Oh, is that how it works?” At this point I had seen all the sites I needed to see, just get me back to the trading post where cold water is readily available!
As we dipped back down into the canyon, we said hello to people resting in the shade. I thought about how re-energizing a break in the shade could be, but decided we should push on and finish the trail. Sooner to the trading post, sooner to my smoothie. Just up the road and through the parking lot, we passed the trailhead map and we were back at the trading post. When we arrived at the trading post, I bought two fresh, ice cold waters. We sat on the picnic tables and reflected on Indian Canyons, in all it’s glory. While taking it all in, we overheard the park ranger warning people of where he last saw rattlesnakes on the trails. He said, they usually hang out in the canyon where water and cool temps are readily available. I imagine that our quick running feet kept them from slithering across the trail or maybe they went to go grab smoothies.
Joshua Tree, Ryan Mt Skull Trail
Holy mother of pearl. You know those people that come back from an experience and say that they feel like a whole new person, something inside them changed, they see things differently now… that my friend is, Joshua Tree.
Mike and I left Palm Springs at 5:45am so we could watch the sunrise over the mountains as we drove into Joshua Tree. It is only about a 50 minute drive from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree. We grabbed our coffees, packed some lara bars, trail mix and hit the road. We knew we wanted to hike Ryan Mountain as our first adventure into Joshua Tree and I suggest you do too.
As we drove into Joshua Tree on our search for Ryan Mountain, there was no one. The cars had yet to make their way into the park, campers were still asleep and everything turned magical. Here we were in this enormous canvas of wild beauty with nothing but the sunrise to make our eyes and hearts grow as we turned down this winding road. You could feel the excitement fill up in the car as we drove. There are stopping points along the drive into Joshua Tree, where you can view the changing terrain and read information about it. When we stopped at the first one and it turned out to be a quote from Edward Abbey, I knew we were in the right place. It was windy, but the sun warmed your face, warmed your soul. Everything felt right here. You know that feeling you get right before you’re about to do something you know you’ll never forget, that happened. We got back into the car and continued to drive in search of Ryan Mountain. We weren’t really sure where we were suppose to go. It was too early for the park ranger to be out at the entrance and we never took the time to look at a map before we went, because what kind of adventure would that be? Luckily, Joshua Tree is easy to navigate and you really just follow the road through the park until you see the Ryan Mountain Trialhead. It is more towards the middle of the park.
WooHoo! There it is!
We threw on jackets to block the wind and headed up! Since we started early, the sun was still on the east side of Ryan Mountain, slowly making it’s way over. This meant that half of our climb up was in the shade. The trail begins with a short walk over to the climb and then you begin to hike up the trail.
Most people compare it to a stair-master. I actually think it was relative to the hikes at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. You are climbing the entire time until you reach the top, only a few switchbacks. The trail does wind around the mountain and eventually we hit the sun. Every single step led to a new and stunning view of the sun, landscape, mountain and desert air. Each view was breathtaking and filled you with wonder, imagination, new ideas and the curiosity to see what was going to come next. It was only Mike and I, the whole hike up. Even the roads were still empty. As we made our way towards the top, you could feel your breath getting heavier and warmth building in your lungs, but mostly light filling your soul. We arrived at the top and tagged the Ryan Mountain sign. I’ve hiked other mountains, i have seen other scenes from the top… but this, this was different. The view that Joshua Tree provides you with, is one you have never seen before… there aren’t pine trees, but instead clusters of large dinosaur like rocks, the landscape gives you a feeling of everything new, yet filled with historic value. Suddenly, you feel humbled and a sense of gratification that you haven’t seen it all, you haven’t experienced everything… life is no longer filled with the same tastes, scenes and routine... everything is new again and there is no limit to the possibilities. We are kids again. Playing in the rocks, getting our shoes dirty, eating snacks, laughing, jumping, swinging, dancing... With no time limit and no schedule to follow. No deadlines or competitive edge. It’s just us and this glorious sun, desert air and this beautiful mountain. Time stood still.
After taking in the silent moments, two other hikers joined us at the top. We greeted each other with smiles and good morning! What a glorious morning it was. Much different than the, “Good morning,” you give walking into work or grabbing your morning coffee from the corner cafe. This was an epic, “Good morning,” a look where we are before 8:00am and how gratefulness fills your roots kinda morning. We began to make our way down the 5,456 ft mountain, we saw a few cars driving through the park now and bumped into a few hikers on our way down. One man said he saw us dancing and celebrating at the top! Looks like we weren’t alone up there after all! I knew with his full smile, he felt the same joy I did. The trail downward feels a bit more technical and steep on our way down. Each new winding turn downward, gave us another new view that we didn’t quite capture on the way up. And, just like that we had made our way through the 3-mile hike with a gain and loss totaling 2,114 feet of elevation. Now a couple more cars filled the lot by the trailhead and a group had just arrived, wondering what trail to take to begin their trek up. One woman was deciding whether or not to bring her jacket. With the sun shining so bright, I wanted to go tell her that she should be ok with her long sleeve and that it gets a bit windy at the top and that it is going to be beautiful, it is going to be awe-inspiring, inspirational and maybe I should just come with you. I wanted to go again and feel all the emotions that went along with it.
There is something to be said for first experiences. Even if I did go with her or decide to take another trek up, the first experience of any event is so powerful, so mind-altering and so child-like. Seeing something completely new again, like a child splashing in the ocean for the first time.
After Ryan Mountain, we walked around the surrounding trail and rocks before heading back to the car. We made our next stop at the Skull Rock Trail. We quickly figured out why it is called Skull Rock, as these colossal rocks literally looked like massive skulls. There is a 1.7 mile trail that loops the monstrous clustered skull rocks, but we paid no attention to that and began climbing over each one. The granite on the rocks, scuffs up your hands just like when you were a child on the playground. We climbed and climbed, until we didn’t see anyone, no cars, no voices… just us. We stopped and sat on top of one of the enormous rocks, pulled out some turkey jerky and sat still; knowing that this was a moment we never wanted to end. Bright blue skies and the warmth of the sun shined over us. Sitting gave the legs a rest and felt sweeter than ever. Even the jerky tasted like the best in the world. We finished up and climbed our way back to the trailhead. This proved to be a bit tricky, as every rock looks the same. A little lost and a little confused, made the return all the more fun. I even think we heard someone yelling for their child. It's an easy place to get lost and found…
The magic of Joshua Tree never leaves your warmed soul. These are just a few highlights the National Park has to offer you. Visit and I can assure you, you will be dreaming of your return.
Mount San Jacinto and the Tram
Right outside of the downtown area there is a tram you can take up to Mount San Jacinto. After driving to the Valley Station at an elevation of 2,643ft, you will grab your ticket inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Center. The tram runs every 15 minutes, which means you can show up at virtually anytime during the day and grab a ticket up. The ride up to Mount San Jacinto (elevation of 8,516ft) takes approximately 10 minutes. It reminded me of a round ski lift with windows all-around. Only difference is, this goes straight up and every single time it hits a tower, everyone on the tram reacts with world-ending screeches. Ok, maybe that was because our tram was jam packed on our way up. Isn't anyone else nervous in small confined spaces?! By the last one (there are 5 towers I believe), you’re used to the shaking the tower will cause this all glass elevator and a sense of relief hits you at the top.
Time to hike! John Muir was right. The views from the top of San Jacinto are insane and well worth the short-lived panic attack they call a tram. Within just minutes we went from a 90 degree desert to a full on, pine tree, snow covered, windy mountain within minutes. With a jacket, hat and water, you could stay up there and adventure all day long. Definitely, a must in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs held all the tools one needs to gain a sense of enlightenment, a chance to reflect and a refueling of all things vital to fulfilling our spirit. A profound reminder that we need to take the time necessary to engage our soul in our deepest passion and reignite the flame that keeps us feeling alive! Although, this provides you with some ideas on where to start your journey in Palm Springs, know that this is truly just the start of the great wonders and mysteries you can find in Palm Springs. This majestic place already has us planning our next trip.