The Coachella Valley abounds with breathtaking beauty — both natural and man-made — from panoramic mountain vistas to whimsical works of art. We asked several local photographers to share some of their favorite scenic spots, locations that are perfect for taking great photos and that can be enjoyed even on hot desert days from the cool sanctuary of an air-conditioned automobile.
Head to the water
Palm Desert-based photographer Scott Campbell enjoys taking pictures at California’s largest lake: the 376-square-mile Salton Sea, located about 30 miles south of Indio. Agricultural runoff has created high salinity levels in the lake, resulting in a contrast of beauty and decay. Salt-encrusted trees rise out of the water, serving as dry perches for hundreds of bird species, including great blue herons and ospreys. Wildlife refuges, marinas and beaches line the shore.
Campbell said he especially enjoys the sunsets here. “I don’t know if it’s the vapor that comes off the water [but it] creates this incredible pink and purple mauve sky that I’ve never really seen anywhere else,” he said.
The photographer also digs the vibe at the public Desert Willows Golf Resort in Palm Desert. Nestled between the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa and Chocolate mountains, the clubhouse and restaurants overlook the two championship golf courses that are surrounded by a picturesque landscape of lakes, desert and colorful native plants.
“For some reason, both the people that work there and the environment make me feel very happy,” Campbell said. “I think it’s because you’re up higher, so the views are just stunning. It’s a really beautiful country-club environment.”
Another of Campbell’s favorite photo spots is Bear Creek Trail, a paved 4.75-mile walkway that begins at the corner of Eisenhower Drive and Calle Tampico in La Quinta. The family-friendly path winds past views of public art, architecturally diverse homes and majestic Washington palm and oak trees. “The plants on the trail are kept up beautifully,” Campbell said. “You see beautiful estates that are amazing samples of the Mediterranean architecture we’re so known for here.”
A slightly more challenging road is Highway 74, a part of the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway that climbs sharply to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet above Palm Desert. There are several turnout points for parking and enjoying spectacular views of the mountains and nearby valleys. As the altitude increases, the foliage changes from desert to pinyon pine forest and the temperature drops. In winter, snow is a common sight, replaced in the spring by wildflowers. The Pinyon Flat Geophysical Observatory is accessible from this road and restaurants can be found along the way.
“I love the whole drive up,” Campbell said. “The road goes up very quickly and it’s [winding]. It’s not for the faint-of-heart.”
Enjoying the wind
Outside Palm Springs, off Interstate 10, is what Palm Springs-based photographer Daniel James Ryan calls a dramatic sight: 3,500 giant white windmills that comprise a wind farm generating electricity in the San Gorgonio Pass for many local homes and businesses. Ryan says he likes to drive down Indian Canyon Road, turn onto Gasline Road and park at the end to enjoy the sights — and sounds — of the windmills up close.
“The blades are so huge, the sound of all those windmills turning is really cool,” Ryan said. “It’s spectacular in the morning because you have the blue skies, the white windmills, the sand and (Mount) San Jacinto jutting up right against them.”
Another of his favorite spots is the Thousand Palms Preserve, one of three areas set aside for conservation as part of the larger Coachella Valley Preserve. Located east of Palm Springs in the Indio Hills, the preserve sits atop the San Andreas Fault, which forces deep groundwater to the surface. The result is a fertile grove of California fan palms that contains a lake, streams, wildflowers and wildlife. The shaded enclave is often 20 degrees cooler than Palm Springs, Ryan said.
“We like to go there in the summertime when it’s scorching hot in the valley because we can go for a cool picnic without having to drive up to the mountains,” Ryan said. “There’s a lake that’s gorgeous with blue sky reflecting with the green — a postcard shot.”
In the Mecca Hills about 15 miles southeast of Indio is the Painted Canyon. An ideal hiking spot, its ancient layered walls feature unusual, colorful rock outcroppings created by years of erosion and earthquakes.
“I was awestruck when I first saw it,” Ryan said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
And last but not least, the 10 giant murals painted on the sides of buildings in downtown Indio are among Palm Springs photographer Gregg Felsen’s favorite shooting subjects. The murals, commissioned by the Indio Chamber of Commerce to help revitalize the Old Town area, depict the city’s history from its early days as a quiet village to the present. Painted by different artists, the murals are located between Sun Gold and Fargo streets off Indio Boulevard and cover subjects such as agriculture, electric power, transportation and water. Twenty more murals are planned.
“I like these murals because of how colorful and realistic they are and because they bring art to the public,” Felsen said.
At 70 acres, Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park, located at Fred Waring Drive and San Pablo Avenue, is the city’s largest park and its main public gathering place. The park features a grassy-banked man-made lake; playing fields; picnic facilities; playgrounds; tennis, volleyball and basketball courts; skate and dog parks; an amphitheater; unique sculptures; and memorials to the Holocaust and to peace. Felsen said he especially loves “The Dreamer,” a 14-foot-long bronze sculpture by David Phelps that looks like a man relaxing in a hillside, his hands behind his head and his eyes closed as if napping.
Felsen also can’t resist Joshua Tree National Park, located about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs. The world-famous park contains nearly 800,000 acres of giant rock formations, varied bird inhabitants, colorful sunsets and, of course, huge expanses covered by the spindly shaped Joshua trees.
“It’s quiet and a fantastic place to unwind, commune with nature and watch the interesting cloud formations and brilliant sunsets. The very dark night sky makes the stars and constellations appear extremely bright,” Felsen said.
– Sophia Fischer, Custom Publishing Writer