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From Desert Wilds to Civilized Trappings

This is a loop drive to right winter wrongs. Why suffer light and heat deprivation as long as there’s desert?

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, image
Photo caption
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the largest rotating tramway in the world.

When the torrid blasts of summer give way to balmy winter days, come see the desert. Watch its dawn ignite to neon sky, its red dusk kindle to cool night. Walk its trails, invitingly mysterious with plants poised like kinetic sculpture.

Start in Palm Springs where Mt. San Jacinto lords its vertical mileage over cactus-studded desert. No place else in the world has contrast in elevation this startling, and the celebs knew it when they cornered the once-humble area as their playground.

Before your trip is over you can experience the headiness of rising in a short time from the sun-blanched desert through five botanical zones to Jacinto’s crisp alpine air. 

In addition to entrancing scenery along the way, this drive offers surprise finds—a mission, winery, tiny museum, casino, and a preserve and visitor center for those who prefer soft adventures in the desert.

Lodging in the Palm Springs area and Borrego Springs, you can drive this circle, about 200 miles, in two days. Or stretch it longer, alternating between the wild and civilized—desert expeditions, soaking in spa waters, sampling world-class gastronomy, avoiding the rough.

From Palm Springs, I drove east on I-10, south on Hwy 86, remarking the glaze and shimmer rising off pale land until the date palm farms of the Coachella Valley. The date empire stretches to the Salton Sea, its quivering fronds evoking the sensuality of Arabian oases and a fond memory of the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival. Celebrating the 35 million pounds of the sweet brown fruit produced annually, the fair is February 13 to 22 this year, on Arabia Street in Indio. You won’t regret timing your visit for it. It mingles the pageantry of Queen Scheherazade and her Royal Court, date and other cuisines, rides, a climbing wall, puppet shows, hypnotists, magicians, pig and ostrich races, and all the best of an old-time carnival.

I settled for a stop at Santa Rosa Date & Fruit Company in Oasis, a brown clapboard building, where people queued up for frothy date shakes (or kiwi or prickly pear ones). Free date samples were available, including the soft, melting- fleshed medjools and khadrawys, the firmer deglet noors, the silken-textured barjis.

The dark mirror of Salton Sea, a well-known engineering gaffe from 1906, stretched in the east, but I was more attracted to the naturally occurring—smoke trees, mesquite, creosote. So at Salton City, it was west on S22.

Gaining elevation, I entered Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with its haunting piles of chocolate-brown and ruddy rocks rambling from the Santa Rosa Mountains south to the Mexican frontier. Fissured and fractured after untold freezes and thaws, the rocks make for fanciful imagery—prehistoric lizards and reptiles morph into ancient wrinkled faces, all shape-changing with the flow of desert sun.

Borrego Springs, the small park-enclosed community, marked the trip’s midway and layover. I had enough daylight to stalk one of the lusher aspects of California’s desert—the native palm oases that proliferate where springs seep up along fault lines. Across town, past the homey green, signs led to the state park visitor center. A cool shelter sunken into the earth, its roof shoulders part of a garden with some of the more than 600 species of desert plants—indigo, elephant tree, jojoba, desert lavender, ironwood trees, palo verde, and the deceptively cuddly cholla cactus.

About 300 to 400 of the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep (borrego in Spanish) munch the desert’s desiccated shrub and slake their thirst in Anza-Borrego’s natural springs. Palm Canyon, a popular three-mile round-trip hike is one of the sheep’s favorite watering holes. A handy brochure led me past the high-rise shrub of the desert, gangling-limbed ocotillo. Flushed with small green leaves from recent rain, it stood beautiful against deepening sky.

Within a half mile you can get acquainted with creosote, cheese plant, brittlebush, and the red tubular blossom of chuparosa, nature’s way of accommodating the nectar-seeking beak of hummingbirds. You’ll see desert varnish on boulders that rode down on flash floods in the wash long ago. Up canyon flitted the white-crested phainopepla and at the narrow end, the spring-fed pool was thickly wooded with Washingtonia filifera, California’s native palm. But no sheep, just their droppings.

If conditions are right for wild flowers, you might see them as early as late February bleeding color across the desert floor, from the bolting reds and magentas of cactus to cobalt blues of indigo, and yellows of sunflower.

La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, with its luxuriant roses and garden landscape on Yaqui Pass, deserves its star status. Suites are in desert pastels with decks over pool and Jacuzzi. High rollers from the coast fly into Borrego Springs just for this classy hideaway with tennis, golf, and a AAA four-diamond rating. Yet La Casa is very friendly, as befits a place surrounded by so much "earthiness."

You can restore body and soul there, stretching the evening around a sumptuous meal in La Casa’s Podium Restaurant. Chef Gary Leiser strikes a balance between restraint and embellishment, as demonstrated by a rare yellowfin tuna with sesame-spiked greens and tender lamb chops with smoked chili sauce.

There is much to see in Anza-Borrego, from its well-signed front country to its labyrinthine backcountry. Unless you are confident with topo and compass, best to hire a guide for the latter. With Desert Jeep Tours’ "Borrego Paul" I drove down a sandy wash off Borrego-Salton Seaway to the badlands at Font’s Point, the rippled "baked mudpie" that stretches to Mexico. Marshlands back in Pleistocene times, they once were trampled by 17-foot camels, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats. Paul pointed out petrified wood and even a petrified bone joint. From the wrinkled wonder we drove to an old Kumeyaay Indian site with grinding stones, morteros, metates.

Desert Jeeps also offers a romantic sunset tour with fruit and champagne, when creatures of the night come out and watch you.

Heading west out of Borrego Springs on S22, feast your imagination on the dramatic and weird geology. The mountainous sea of rocks along the Imperial Highway undulates up to grassy, boulder-strewn high desert with its pinyons, junipers, oaks.

Turning north on Hwy 79, I made my first stop at the brilliant white Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi in Warner Springs. You’ll see the sparkling 1830 wood-beam adobe, on a hill to your right, with the familiar mission bell. St. Francis serves a native congregation and is associated with Santa Ysabel Mission, 20 miles to the south. A plaque commemorates the church as starting point for a historic "trail of tears" of native peoples who today dwell on Pala Reservation.

Back on Hwy 79 north came a surprise lunch spot, Shadow Mountain Vineyards tasting room, recently up and running by vintners Alexander and Paul McGeary. The winery is the only one in the San Diego County Vintners Association to grow its own grapes—for premium varietal table wines—here at 3,400 feet. The tasting room features a handsome redwood bar made from an old winery’s cask and an array of cheeses, mustards, fresh bread, and other gourmet picnic items.

About 10 minutes past the winery, the pint-size museum on your left is a visit to olden days when Hwy 79 was part of the Butterfield Overland Stage Route from St. Louis. You can’t miss the Oak Grove Stage behind wrought iron gates, with period-costume mannequins steering it.

Slots, blackjack, bingo might be next at the Cahuilla Creek Casino in an unglamorous galvanized structure on the right, for anyone not adverse to smoke-filled, light-deprived rooms.

North on Hwy 371 through the Aguanga and Santa Rosa mountains, the drive is a roller coaster one, the barren rocky landscape evoking the feeling that the Mars rover might roll by any minute. Savor its grand scale at pullouts. At the base of Hwy 371 near Hwy 74 is Palm Desert’s Bureau of Land Management Visitor Center. Here you can satisfy much curiosity about the high and low desert that occupies one-third of California, including Colorado, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts.

In a corner of undeveloped hills is Palm Desert’s Living Desert, the last stop on this day’s drive. A zoological park and shorthand way to safari, the 1,200-acre reserve is dedicated to preserving endangered plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world. Its 400 desert animals include coyotes, zebras, cheetahs, and the bighorn sheep I couldn’t find in the wild. The sleek brown mountain lion alone was worth the stop. The extensive gardens feature most of what you might see on a desert hike, which you can take, either on the paved trails, or on a three-mile rugged loop near Eisenhower Mountain.

Lodging was just a few miles away—west on Hwy 111 to Rancho Mirage, right on Bob Hope Drive. I checked into Marriott’s Rancho Las Palmas, from where I could visit the evocatively named desert communities—Indian Wells, Thousand Palms, and a favorite, Desert Hot Springs.

Compared to the glittery Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs appears remarkably modest and understated, though it’s rimmed by mountains, capped by big sky. Over 20 spas provide access to the 300-foot-deep well waters, which come from a different aquifer than Palm Springs’ natural mineral waters. Health seekers compare Desert Hot Springs with Baden-Baden and claim that for drinking, this water is as refreshing as an Evian or Vitel. European tourists have long frequented Desert Hot Springs Spa and Hotel for its soothing attributes.

An intended few hours can stretch to a full day of coddling at Desert Hot Springs Spa and Hotel. In cool cabanas, you can enjoy the therapeutic touch of a facial that includes neck, shoulders, hands and feet, a joint-loosening deep-muscle massage, and other hands-on body work. In the open-air courtyard, you can soak in various spa waters, cooled down from the 207½F at which they bubble up. Swim laps in the olympic pool.

Rancho Mirage, with its tony country clubs, proved to be an ideal locale, minutes from the growing town of Palm Desert and its upscale shops, and ten easy miles from Palm Springs, where even a non-golfer, non-jet-setter can find attractions:

• The Palm Springs Tram, west of downtown Palm Springs, rises on tons of strong cable laid in 1963, to Mt. San Jacinto State Park, at 8,516 feet. Stunning views take in Salton Sea, 11,000-foot Mt. Gorgonio, and cathedral peaks. In winter, it’s fun to go from warm desert to deep snow in 12 minutes, and cross-country ski or snowshoe (rentals available up top).

• The Indian Canyons, just south of Palm Springs, belong to Agua Caliente Indians. Many people just drive in as far as the Trading Post, near a lush 15-mile-long oasis of native palms. But even short hikes can give you solitude in barrel-cactus-studded canyons. A good way to explore the canyons and learn about the many plants and animals that have adapted so well to the harsh desert is with Desert Adventures. You’ll see their red open-air jeeps all around the Palm Springs area.

• Le Vallauris, of AAA four-diamond excellence, is a French restaurant on Tahquitz Way in Palm Springs in a former home with a tree-shaded patio. In its courtyard under the stars, we enjoyed several dishes—duck, lobster ravioli, bisque—that fused the best of California ingredients with classic French cooking methods.

• Whether you remember the good old times or not, don’t miss the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, performed nightly in the venerable Plaza Theater. It features performers who must be at least 50 years of age to be in the show—and the older the better. Long-legged, shapely dancers and singers headline this high-energy show, billed as a happy return to the music and memories of the ’30s and ’40s. In the style of the Ziegfeld Follies, the revue is a brisk-paced two hours and some of the best live entertainment in the area. Expect to see a juggling/acrobatic team, fabulous tap-dancers, comedians, Andrews Sister look- and sound-alikes, and much more.

• As you head out of the follies, still snapping your fingers, tapping your foot, you might browse the Village Fest, if it’s Thursday between 6 and 10 p.m. For the past eight years the weekly market has closed Palm Canyon Drive to traffic between Tahquitz and Baristo. As an old-fashioned street fair with musicians, food, arts and crafts vendors, and a farmers market, the pedestrian-friendly bazaar draws huge crowds. Cafes and boutiques lining the street keep their doors open, and lounging al fresco in the balmy evenings is highly encouraged.

• Palm Springs has the excellent Palm Springs Desert Museum with collections of classic western American and contemporary California art. The museum also features natural science exhibitions and a full schedule of performing arts in the 450-seat Annenberg Theater.

Photography courtesy of Matthew Field/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.