I have numerous “favorite” hiking places around the Coachella Valley—but one of my all-time favorites is one of the most majestic areas around, the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.
This desert oasis is one of the 10 largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California. The 31,000-acre wildlife preserve sits among the Little San Bernardino Mountains in the Sand to Snow National Monument, in the transition zone between the higher-elevation Mojave Desert and lower-elevation Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert. The upstream end of the canyon lies in the Mojave Desert at an elevation of 3,000 feet; the downstream portion, the canyon floor, is at 600 feet of elevation and opens into the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert. Its diverse landscape has been an important part of the Morongo Basin’s natural and cultural history for almost 2 billion years.
The preserve is open year-round from 7:30 a.m. to sunset (when the gate is locked) in Morongo Valley, just northwest of Desert Hot Springs, between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. The entrance is one block south of State Highway 62. There is an information kiosk upon entering the preserve from the parking area, where you can find trail maps, brochures, plant and wildlife pictures, and a bird identification system that’s most interesting. There’s no charge to enter the preserve, but donations are welcome. A picnic area and restroom facilities with flushing toilets are located near the parking lot. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed in the preserve.
Several different hiking trails, at a variety of levels, can be found within the preserve; there is also an easy, mostly shaded interconnecting boardwalk, the Marsh Trail, that meanders through the marsh and stream habitats of the preserve. This is a flat and most-amazing half-mile, wheelchair-accessible nature walk that consists of a maze of sections, with secluded areas that are great for meditation, having a picnic, bird-watching or just taking a rest break.
More than 240 species of birds have been observed in the preserve, and it is home to many animal species, especially during the spring and fall migration seasons. The water attracts desert bighorn sheep, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes and other mammals.
The water also attracts bears and mountain lions, so remember to never hike alone. It’s always a good idea to make noise so you don’t startle any animals as you approach them coming around a corner or at any point along the trails. It’s smart to carry an air horn—but only use it if needed. Should you see a mountain lion or bear, never run. Make yourself big, and blast your air horn/make noise to scare them away. Fortunately, I’ve never come across a mountain lion or bear while hiking, but I’ve seen tracks and traces, so I know they’re around. It’s rare to see them during daylight hours, but it’s possible, so always be prepared, especially if hiking in the early morning or at dusk.
Back to the trails: Beautiful and majestic ridge and canyon trails branch off from the boardwalk, with varying levels of difficulty. You can do any of the many trail loops, or make your hike an out-and-back. One of my favorite things about the preserve is that you can make your hike what you want it to be.
From the Mesquite Trail loop, you can often hear the calming sounds of the tree frog while enjoying the beautiful desert flora. From this trail, you can connect to the Canyon Trail or West Canyon Trail and go all the way to the canyon; it’s about 4.5 to 6 miles one way, depending how far you go. If you take that route, and you are not familiar with the area, I recommend turning around at the metal fence, at about 4.5 miles one way. If you continue beyond the metal fence, consider yourself warned: It’s basically open desert and can be kind of trashy, as the area seems to be used as a dumping grounds. Also, the area just beyond the fence at the edge of the canyon is often used as a shooting range. My hiking buddy and I have continued through this area, and although people are shooting away from you and into the canyons, it feels sort of like what I’d imagine a battlefield feels like. The shooters can’t see you coming through, so it can be quite frightening at times.
I had the pleasure of introducing this trail to a family friend, Char Lene Mowery, an emergency-room nurse from the Midwest, during her first visit to California. We did not hike all the way into shooting area, even though Char is not a novice hiker by any means; hiking is her main escape and breakaway from her work. Char stated that hiking and enjoying nature is an uplifting experience for her, and has both physical and mental benefits, such as reducing her blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as improving her overall mental health. Also, it helps to reduce her back pain.
The best part? “It’s free!” she said.
When I asked Char about the differences between hiking in the Midwest and the Western deserts, her first response was somewhat obvious: The surroundings are very different. Although there may not be much difference in the elevation, there can be significant differences in the heat index, the humidity and the terrain.
“Considering the terrain, I quickly noticed that it can be easy to get disoriented and lost,” Char said. “The pathway was unique, as it was mostly small rock, gravel and dry powdery dust that blended throughout the area. Here, you’re surrounded with beautiful canyon walls that have openings at times with views for miles, whereas the terrain that I am used to consists mostly of moist green and sometimes muddy pathways, with large canopies of trees that line the pathways.
“The most enjoyable part of my visit at the Big Morongo Preserve was seeing the varieties of beautiful cactus and wildflowers starting to bloom, along with the many species of birds and butterflies that greeted us along the way. It was a most beautiful walk with nature.”
The preserve is managed by the Bureau of Land Management with the assistance of the nonprofit Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve; there are also 147 acres managed under a cooperative agreement with San Bernardino County to protect rare and endangered wildlife, enhance sensitive riparian zones, promote the growth and restoration of a wide variety of plants, and offer educational opportunities.
For more information about the preserve and its trails, visit www.bigmorongo.org.