Barreling across the desert toward Palm Springs, I measured my progress on Interstate 10 by the unsightly roadside landmarks I passed: a sprawl of outlet malls, a pair of larger-than-life concrete dinosaurs, brigades of windmills marching through the Banning Pass.
California's desert usually enchants me, but scenery like this repels. On this particular February day, however, a prize awaited just a few miles down the highway: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
The long-winded name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. And don't feel bad if you've never heard of it.
Even though the park just celebrated its 10th anniversary, many people show up at its visitor center in Palm Desert and ask, "Where's the monument? I didn't know it existed."
No, there's no Mt. Rushmore-like attraction here. Nonetheless, the park truly is a monumental treasure: 280,000 acres of spectacular mountain terrain that rises abruptly behind the desert towns of the Coachella Valley, offering recreation, a home for endangered bighorn sheep and a magnificent backdrop for the luxurious homes, stately date palms and acres of verdant golf courses that line the valley.
Visitor center workers enjoy telling people: "It's the national monument that's right here in your own backyard."
With spring around the corner — and parts of the monument bursting into color from verbena, lupine and other wildflowers and cactus — Mountains National Monument would seem to be a natural. If only more people knew about it.
"It's an ongoing issue," said monument manager Jim Foote of the Bureau of Land Management. "We're doing our best to alert people and let them know what kinds of treasures we have and how to get out and appreciate them."
I'd learned about the park while researching new places to hike. How had I overlooked a national monument? Especially one that's 60 miles long, 13 miles wide and only 100 miles from downtown L.A.
I needed to take a hike and do some research — maybe several hikes and several days of research. Not that anyone needed to twist my arm. The Palm Springs area in the spring? What could be more pleasant?
My first stop was at the park's visitor center, at the edge of Palm Desert where it intersects the Santa Rosa Mountains. As I walked toward the building, I scoured the surrounding hillside for Peninsular bighorn sheep. I'd been told a herd of about 20 of the endangered animals roams the steep slopes near the center and can sometimes be seen.
I didn't spot sheep, but I found plenty of information inside the center, where I collected lists of hiking trails, took a walk along a nature path, bought a nifty hiking cap and learned a bit about the park. It reaches south to the San Diego County line and sticks up, thumb-like, past Palm Springs. If you drive along Highway 111 through the Coachella Valley, you're roughly following the base of the monument.
I also learned that some of my favorite desert locales are within the park's boundaries.
Among them: Indian Canyons, Tahquitz Canyon and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, all clustered near Palm Springs; the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, a spectacular desert-mountain drive; and the Cove Oasis Trailhead in La Quinta.
Indian Canyons — an oasis of streams, fan palms and stunning desert scenery — quickly moved to the top of my research list. I hadn't visited in several years, and I couldn't wait to see whether the canyons had changed.
A VISIT TO ANDREAS CANYON
The area, just off Palm Canyon Drive (Highway 111), is on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; there's a fee to enter ($9 adults, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6-12). But it's well worth it.
Palm Canyon, 15 miles long and the trailhead for several desert loops and trails, draws most visitors because of its large number of Washington palms, but my favorite spot is nearby Andreas Canyon. I drove to its parking lot, got out and looked around. Nothing had changed, thank goodness.
A stream still tumbled down from the foothills, shaded by enormous skirted fan palms. It cascaded into quiet pools before plunging over rocks to form new pools below as it made its way to the desert floor.
I bent down, touched the water, then shivered. Probably melted snow; the mountains above the canyon were covered with a fresh dusting of it.
I heard a noise, looked up and realized it was the scream of a hawk; perhaps it had found lunch. I could hear the flap of wings as it soared across a brilliant blue sky.
The light was luminous as I followed a mile-long loop trail that skirted the edge of the stream. Bizarre outcroppings of brick-red rocks — some the size of a barn — lined one side of the walkway.
As I neared the end of the trail, I could hear the soft strumming of a guitar. A man was sitting at a picnic table playing, and I sat down and listened.
"This place brings me serenity," he said quietly a few minutes later, introducing himself as Dennis Wilson. "When the business of the city gets me down, I come here. It's like a different world."
PROTECTING A TREASURE
Wilson and other monument visitors can thank a coalition of desert groups for the existence of the park. The coalition feared that encroaching urbanization would spoil the region and worked for the national monument designation. On Oct. 24, 2000, legislation introduced by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was signed into law.
"People recognize this is a very special place," said Mack, one of the key advocates and supporters of the monument's creation. "We are preserving spectacular landscape and diverse recreational resources for future generations to enjoy."
Her favorite part of the monument? "It's very beautiful on the desert floor," she said, but she also likes the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway (Highway 74 to Highway 243) and "almost any part of the Pacific Crest Trail," which runs for 57 miles through the monument.
Mack's appreciation of the Palms to Pines drive convinced me to tackle it next; I'd also heard that it's considered one of America's great drives because of the scenery and diversity of terrain. The serpentine road, which requires a 100-mile-plus loop, begins near the visitor center.
The highway climbs steeply from desert scrub through the Santa Rosa Mountains to pine forests in the San Jacinto Mountains before descending again to I-10 in Banning. Along the way I found vista points, a reservoir, horse ranches and pine meadows that reminded me of Montana, craggy mountains and the friendly community of Idyllwild, where the snow was 18 inches deep.
As I started back down, the sun was beginning to set, flaming the mountain tops with rosy light.
A QUICK TRIP TO THE TOP
My mountain drive had taken half a day; my next trip into the San Jacinto Mountains — on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway — would take just 10 minutes.
The tram, which boasts of being the world's largest rotating tramcar, actually does revolve as it climbs, so regardless of where you're standing in the car, you can watch the desert floor sinking below your feet as you climb toward the mountain top.
The tram ascends through rugged Chino Canyon, from the Valley Station at 2,643 feet to the Mountain Station, elevation 8,516. More than 13 million people have gone for the ride since the attraction opened 37 years ago. About 10 years ago, the system was modernized and the revolving cars came on line. (Tickets range from $23.25 for adults to $16.25 for children 3-12. An evening ride-and-dine program is also available.)
Wind and 30-degree temperatures kept me from doing much hiking when we arrived at the top. The Mountain Station is in the heart of San Jacinto State Park, and fair-weather visitors — or people looking for snow play — can choose from easy nature walks or rugged hiking trails that explore 10,000 acres of wilderness.
With a blustery wind blowing, I was happy just to stand at the edge of Mountain Station and look at the panoramic view stretching out below me.
I promised myself I'd return and try San Jacinto's trails in the near future. If I'm particularly ambitious, I could walk all the way, eight miles, to Idyllwild, but I'll probably just explore the state park trails closer to the tram.
As I cruised back down I-10 heading for home, I thought about the other hikes I could take the next time I visit. Cove Oasis, near La Quinta, offers interesting trails, one of which takes hikers to Lake Cahuilla. At about five miles roundtrip, it sounds fun and easy. And I've never hiked into Tahquitz Canyon, just north of Palm Springs; its 60-foot waterfall was the setting for the film "Lost Horizon."
I was so busy planning my next trips that I forgot to be incensed about the windmills, dinosaurs and outlet malls lining the interstate as I buzzed by.