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Palm Springs, California, is a fabulous hiking destination with desert trails, historic canyons and steep mountain climbs. A popular hike that’s easy to access from downtown is the two-hour Palm Springs Museum Trail. It’s a tougher climb than the name might suggest, so don’t go unprepared like I did.
Hiking the Palm Springs Museum Trail
Gripping a jagged rock I pull myself up the hill. My sandal is delicate but doesn’t slip in the dust. From the edge of a ridge, I gaze down over Palm Springs, a desert spread of hotels, palms and neat suburban streets. Beyond it, a soft light gives the San Bernadino Mountains a warm fleshy glow.
At my back are the San Jacinto Mountains, and I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking they’ve never seen a more unprepared hiker on the Palm Springs Museum Trail than me.
A man comes striding down the mountain and pauses. “Well, you win the best-dressed hiker award.”
I’m pretty sure this isn’t meant as a compliment (although my sundress is rather sweet and my sandals are sparkly). On the downside, it’s not my first choice for hiking.
Hiking do’s and dont’s
Mentally, I go over the list of basic desert hiking rules:
- Bring water. I forgot.
- Wear sensible shoes. No.
- Let someone know where you’re going. Well, I kind of did. I’d asked an elderly couple on the street where a nice trail was and they’d sent me here. Of course they have no idea who I am, where I’m staying or when I’ll return, so they wouldn’t be much help in an emergency. But they did give me solid advice by recommending the Palm Springs Museum Trail. A two-mile round trip up into the San Jacinto Mountains, it’s a convenient hike if you’re in downtown Palm Springs as the trailhead is at the back of the Palm Springs Art Museum’s north parking lot.
The thing is, this steep sun-beaten track is tougher than the shaded paved path I’d been envisioning. When I’d first seen the sharp incline I’d considered going back to my hotel to change, but by the time I did that it would have been dusk. Hiking alone in the dark clearly isn’t recommended either.
I couldn’t win either way.
Hiking Palm Springs in the winter
On the plus side, this is Palm Springs, California, in the winter. The temperature is pleasant not searing. And it’s not as if I’m tackling the Skyline, an arduous 10-mile hike that extends from the Palm Springs Museum Trail up to the Aerial Tramway Mountain Station on San Jacinto Mountain, gaining a fast elevation of more than 8,000 feet.
The Skyline Ridge Trail
Part of the ambitious Cactus to Clouds Trail that climbs to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, the Skyline Ridge Trail is one that claims lives, a punishing hike that sends the Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue on countless recovery missions.
Then again, the Palm Springs Museum Trail has had its share of distress calls, too, gaining an elevation of nearly 900 feet in a mile. I don’t want to cause foolish-hiker problems.
But I also don’t want to give up my hike.
A Palm Springs hike with a view
I’ll just go a little farther, I decide, lured onwards by the chance for some solo time in this bleakly beautiful landscape. After all, according to naturalist John Muir, San Jacinto Peak is “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” At least this way I can get a taster.
Keeping an eye on Palm Springs below so I don’t get lost, I follow a series of switchbacks past shelf-like rock, bristly cacti and silvery shrubs. Hopefully, there are no scorpions or rattlesnakes.
I pause at a fork in the trail. One sign says Trail. Another says More Difficult.
Hikers on the trail
A trio of hikers overtakes me.
“You’re thinking I’m wearing all the wrong things aren’t you?” I blurt out.
“No.” A sporty-looking blond woman motions to one of the men she’s hiking with. “He’s wearing sandals.”
I look down at the man’s flip flops and feel better. Not only is there solidarity in wearing the wrong shoes, I can follow them (the people not the flip flops) and there won’t be any danger of getting lost on my own. Things are looking up, which is exactly how an uphill climb should be.
I don’t want them to think I’m stalking them, so I lag behind but keep them in sight as they choose the sign marked Trail.
At a viewpoint where the trail curves around the mountainside, I catch up and we look out over the Coachella Valley, once a vast inland sea. The fading light illuminates the far hills in gold, while Palm Springs is lost in the shadows.
The contrast between the light and dark landscape reflects the battle in my mind.
Part of me is screaming, Keep going! This is desert bliss! You’ve escaped the urban grind. Plus, you haven’t even made it to the picnic tables, which are only a mile away.
The other part of me argues back, Don’t be more of an idiot than you already are. Night slaps down over Palm Springs fast, and you’re completely unprepared. What if you fall?
I’m close. Soooo close to the end. But the thought of wasting the resources of the Mounted Police Search and Rescue team if I get myself into trouble sways me. Sighing, I shake a pebble out of my shoe. “I’m going back.”
The man in flip flops (hi, Justin!) decides to return, too.
The Palm Springs Museum Trail is a terrific desert hike, with a landscape that reminds me a bit of the Negev Desert in Israel, but if you’re as unprepared as I am, heading back is probably an even more terrific (though frustrating) thing to do.
Travel tips for hiking the Palm Springs Museum Trail
Facts about the hike
Hiking the Palm Springs Museum Trail takes about 2 hours round trip. Free to access, the trailhead can be found at the back corner of the north parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum. (101 Museum Drive.) Look out for the Welcome to the Museum Trailhead sign. Follow the trail up a few feet. Cross a small road and you’re set to go.
If you want a longer hike, the Museum Trail connects to the North Lykken Trail, which continues into Chino Canyon. Only very experienced hikers should tackle the Skyline Ridge Trail.
The Museum Trail is rated moderate. I did get confused about which way to go at times. Coming down we ended up on the ‘Difficult’ trail by accident. And just so you know, my sparkly sandals held up nicely.
Palm Springs hikes that are not too difficult
One of Palm Springs’ main claims to fame is the outdoor adventure it offers and the abundance of hiking trails. While the Palm Springs Art Museum Trail is great for the desert views, you can get some completely different settings if you go farther afield.
The Andreas Canyon Trail – A California Fan Palm Oasis
A spectacular walk is the Andreas Canyon Trail in Indian Canyons. This is a 2-mile fairly level hike in Indian Canyons located at South Palm Canyon Drive. (There is an admission charge.) Feast your eyes on giant California Fan Palms, the burbling freshness of Andreas Creek, lush vegetation, impressive granite and schist formations and ancient rock mortars ground into the rock by the Agua Caliente Cahuilla people who made this their home. Rated easy.
Hikes from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – True mountain wilderness
This is a good way to escape the summer heat. From the Mountain Station at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway you can access a number of forested trails. It’s hard to believe the climate can be so different, but when you take the tram up from Palm Springs you’re reaching an elevation of 8,516 feet. Two easy trails to try are the less-than-a-mile Long Valley Discovery Trail or the moderately-strenuous Desert View Trail (1.5 miles.)
Palm Springs hiking tips
Clearly I’m the wrong person to advise you, but nonetheless take water, a cellphone and wear sunscreen. Be alert for rattlesnakes and don’t try the Museum Trail in the heat of a summer day. Conversely, it’s a lot colder up at the Aerial Tramway Mountain Station so bring a warm jacket. Protect the environment and protect yourself by staying on the trail.