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Canyon trails offer wildlife viewing in Palm Desert's backyard

Is there a chance to spot bighorn sheep? Ewe better believe it!

Post Date:09/30/2017 8:00 PM

Carrizo Canyon hikerRinged by mountains soaring dramatically from the desert floor, Palm Desert is a hiker’s paradise. Trails traverse across rocky hillsides and climb up ridgelines to higher elevations, affording panoramic views of the Coachella Valley.

Two of Palm Desert’s trails, however, offer up a completely different viewpoint. Rather than climbing rapidly uphill, they meander into two secluded canyons marked by deep rock walls, fan palm oases, dry waterfalls, and boulder fields. Here, the panoramic views found elsewhere are exchanged for up-close trailside views of dramatic desert scenery, plants and wildlife.

These two trails, Carrizo Canyon Trail and Dead Indian Canyon, are known to many hikers but are often overlooked by casual visitors in part because they are closed the majority of the year. The trails enter into the habitat of the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, listed as endangered in 1998. One of the steps taken to protect this population was to close trails during both the spring lambing season and the summer season when it is critical that the sheep be able to access their water sources.

With a seasonal closure that lasts from January 1 through September 30, fans of Carrizo Canyon and Dead Indian Canyon rejoice when October 1 rolls around and gates allowing access to the trails are unlocked. Well-timed to take advantage of cooler fall temperatures, the opening of these trails feels like the symbolic opening of hiking season in Palm Desert, as well.

Dead Indian Canyon is a stunning canyon with colorful rock walls. The big draw here has long been the oasis featuring a couple dozen native fan palm trees, and all the birds and wildlife that are drawn to this desert refuge. The trail is initially flat and easy, and particularly well suited for everyone from small kids to our more seasoned hikers. Reaching the oasis itself, however, is considerably more difficult and involves picking your own route and scrambling over and around boulders. If you feel like you’re prepared for the terrain, give it a go. If not, enjoy the view of the oasis from a distance. Watch and listen for bighorn sheep on the canyon walls early in the morning and at dusk as they head to the oasis for water.

Carrizo Canyon provides a unique desert canyon “ambience” and yet another possibility of spotting bighorn sheep. The trail goes up a sandy wash for a short distance before entering the mouth of the canyon itself. The narrow nature of the canyon enhances the feeling of entering a passage and truly getting away from it all. The canyon walls themselves are accentuated by rock layers that appear to be twisted into odd patterns, and lend themselves to great photos. After climbing through a small boulder outcropping, you will eventually reach an area where the canyon branches off in two directions. The right branch heads to seasonal waterfalls with near-vertical faces, which should only be attempted by experienced hikers. The branch straight ahead continues uphill through a dry creek bed and eventually hooks back around to the right and looks down on the waterfalls and out to the valley beyond. It would be the most appropriate choice for the casual hiker looking for a less strenuous walk.

Carrizo Canyon tourBoth of these trails fall into the easy to moderate category, and can be hiked on your own. If you prefer to walk with a group, however, volunteer trail guides from the Friends of the Desert Mountains lead hikes into the area as part of their seasonal Thursday morning hikes. They can point out rare plants, help you search for wildlife and direct your attention to obscure objects like an Indian grinding stone. For more information, visit their website or check out their Facebook page.

Driving and Trailhead Directions:

Head south on Highway 74, approximately 4 miles from Highway 111. Park at the Art Smith Trailhead parking lot on the west side of Highway 74, just past and across the street from the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center.

From the parking lot, the fence closing off Carrizo Canyon is readily visible, and the gate is a short distance from the southwest corner of the lot. Reaching Dead Indian Canyon involves walking north from the parking lot and following along the trail that hugs the ridgeline (not the trail that parallels the earthen berm). Eventually you will see the fencing that stretches across the canyon. Follow the trail to and through the gate.

Special notes:

The two biggest safety concerns to remember on these trails are the perils of too little or too much water. The most serious issue any hiker on any trail in the desert faces is dehydration, so it is suggested that you carry two liters of water per person. Secondly, while Palm Desert is blessed with excellent weather, smart hikers keep an eye on the sky. Do not venture into Carrizo Canyon or Dead Indian Canyon if it is raining, threatening to rain, or appears to be raining in upper elevation areas of the same watershed. Flash flooding is always a possibility under these conditions.

Bighorn sheep see all canines as predators and seeing one even from a distance will cause unnecessary stress for this endangered species. All dogs, regardless of their size or breed, are prohibited on these trails at all times. 

Updated September 2017