Wildflowers on the Randall Henderson Trail. Credit: Theresa Sama

For a few years before the pandemic, I helped organize the 5k on the Randall Henderson Loop Trail that kicked off the Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival on the first Saturday every March. Many of the participants still proudly wear “I survived the Wildflower 5k!” shirts.

Today, as COVID-19 remains a threat, many people are still trying to avoid crowds. In the interim, we must use our creativity and find a safe way to continue on, so instead of the 5k, the Wildflower Festival is promoting something called the 30x30x30 (30 miles in 30 days to raise $30) during which we can get out and enjoy the trails safely in small groups.

More on that later; in the meantime, let’s talk about the Randall Henderson Loop Trail. It is a 2.5-mile (give or take) loop beginning at 1,000 feet, with around 425 feet of elevation gain. It includes three smaller loops (the Wash, Cholla, and Canyon loops) within the perimeter of the main trail; this offers a variety of mileage and workout options. The trail is located just off the parking lot at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center, on Highway 74 north of Palm Desert. It’s a perfect trail for beginners, and it’s good for a quick run or mountain-biking workout as well. Note that dogs are not allowed on the trail.

The best time of year to be on this trail is from October to March, so now is a perfect time to get out and enjoy all the new blooms, cholla and ocotillos as you meander along the trail, through some small canyons, up a gradual incline, and then along the ridges as you wind your way back down to the starting point. You may even be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the endangered peninsular desert bighorn sheep. If you do happen to see the bighorn sheep (or any desert animal), be careful; keep your distance; and do not disturb them. You are in their territory, so please respect that.

Guided hikes are offered January through March by Friends of the Desert Mountains’ fabulous volunteers, who support the staff at the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is currently closed due to the pandemic, but you can schedule your guided hike online at www.desertmountains.org/calendar. As you can see on the online calendar, interpretative hikes and other events are offered on many trails throughout the Coachella Valley. The Randall Henderson Trails interpretative hike is currently scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Thursdays. The entry gate should be open, but if it is closed, you may park across the street or around the area—but use caution if you will be crossing busy Highway 74.

Ada Nuckels, a Friends of the Desert Mountains volunteer and hike leader, said that their “full moon hikes” exceed everything else they do in terms of popularity. She went on to say that pre-pandemic turnouts for the full moon hikes were unlimited and well above 100.

“Now, due to the pandemic, every hike has limited numbers of small groups (10 to 12 people), and everything must be scheduled using the calendar on the Friends website. … You can click on the map and send directions directly to your cell phone. It’s pretty cool,” Nuckels said.

She also pointed out that pandemic-era hikes often reach the limited capacity, so they have expanded the number of tours to accommodate the growing number of interested hikers. A $5 per person donation is suggested when signing up for these guided hikes.

Ada Nuckels leads a hike at Willis Palms. Credit: Michael Rosenkrantz

The hiking tours are most informative. Nuckels talks to her groups and explains how the missions of the Friends of the Desert Mountains, whose volunteers also help maintain the land, and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument are pretty much one in the same: to “protect and preserve the land for future generations to enjoy!”

When I asked Nuckels about her favorite trail in the Coachella Valley, her response came as no surprise: “It’s hard to choose any particular trail as a favorite, because they all have certain uniqueness about them,” she said immediately. I couldn’t agree more; I have so many favorites myself.

She did mention that one of her many favorite trails is the Indio Hills Badlands Trail. To reach it, take the Golf Center Parkway exit from Interstate 10; the trail is just north of the freeway, at the end of Golf Center Parkway and Avenue 42. It’s a moderate loop, a little more than 5 miles, that traverses the San Andreas Fault, with twisted and distressed rocks that have been uplifted and moved over millions of years. The trail also features beautiful wildflowers and is best used from November to April. Dogs on leash are welcome. According to Nuckels, the trail starts out being pretty boring … until you get into the slot canyons. As she explains: “Holy Cow! I never knew anything like this existed in the Coachella Valley. … If you continue on and go up to the ridge, you can see all of Coachella Valley, Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea, all the way down to the Cottonwood entrance of Joshua Tree.” This is one trail I have not experienced, but I will soon be checking it out—with Ada as my guide.

Nuckels also has a huge role in helping to prepare for and organize the Friends of the Desert Mountains’ annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival. It takes place Saturday, March 5, and will return to the Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park this year, with a huge thank you to the city of Palm Desert as the main sponsor.

In addition to the in-person one-day festival, the CVWF will run the entire month of March with various do-it-yourself activities, such as the aforementioned 30x30x30. You can walk, hike, run, ride or roll regardless of where you live, and challenge yourself and as you help the Friends raise funds. Participants will have their own unique fundraising page at www.desertmountains.org/cvwf. Everyone who completes the minimum of 30 miles within the month of March will earn a special CVWF T-shirt.

Other fun virtual activities include “Flowers in the Field.” You can grab your hiking boots, water and camera, and jump in your car with the Friends’ Field Guide to go visit all the wildflower hotspots in and around the Coachella Valley. There will also be a scavenger hunt, a youth art contest, a silent auction and more.

Please continue to be vigilant and be safe out there. Remember to keep your distance; wear a mask (even if you’re vaccinated and boosted); and use hand sanitizer. Also, don’t forget the 10 Desert Essentials when you’re out and about on the trails.

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Theresa Sama

Theresa Sama is an outdoor enthusiast who writes the Independent’s hiking/outdoors column. She has been running and hiking the Coachella Valley desert trails for more than 10 years and enjoys sharing...

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