Exploring the Coachella Valley, California

Coachella is more than a Music Festival!

What do you think of when you think desert? Coming from the lush west coast of Canada, my first thought as we considered visiting Palm Desert in California was dry, barren and boring. But that was before I’d actually experienced the Coachella Valley, about 4 hours drive inland from Los Angeles.  

Almost ten years ago, after long road trip for work, during which I hit late January snowstorms in both Newfoundland and New Brunswick, it was good to get home to rainy Vancouver. My sister Karen had recently bought a house in Palm Desert, and generously offered a brief getaway and we jumped at the chance for a break from winter.

Migration of ‘Snowbirds’

Today, my husband and I are now confirmed “snowbirds”. Neither of us plays golf or tennis, the mainstay for most of the influx of both Americans and Canadians from cold climates.  So, what’s the lure? The warm weather (21C to 32C) in February and March is the obvious answer. For me there is so much more.  

Believe it or not, it’s the beauty of the desert – the birds, the flowers and the trails. My husband is an avid birdwatcher and now I am, and since that time of the year is the beginning of the Spring migration for many birds, there is a lot to see.  Early morning sessions for keeners are available at the Living Desert (a zoo), Morongo Park, Thousand Palms Preserve and various other locations in the Valley. But you don’t have to go that far to see variety: there are hummingbirds everywhere, ravens overhead, and even the occasional roadrunner on the trails.

Spring is the Perfect Time to See Flowers in the Desert

Where my husband is interested in the birds, my priority is the flowers and again, Spring is the perfect time to see blooms.

Beavertail Cactus

By the middle of March, the cacti are in bloom. It’s a wonder to turn a bend on a trail and come upon the magenta blooms of a beavertail cactus. Gradually, I’ve learned the names of trees and flowers. Inevitably, someone in the hiking group is good at identifying plants. If you are lucky to visit during a “super bloom”, a rainbow of flowers appears in waves everywhere.

Meadow in the Coachella Valley

And the Perfect Time for Hiking

The Coachella Valley is hemmed in on three sides by mountains, even snow-capped peaks. To a hiker that means endless options for a day’s adventure. We started with local hikes, The Cross and The Bump and Grind. Each are visible from Highway 111 and easy to get to on our borrowed bikes. The Cross is only about 500′ elevation gain and maybe 3km total distance—about an hour up and down, but it is a good warmup for house bound legs and there are even beautiful views from either hike.

Notch Leafed Phacelia

We’ve enjoyed so many hikes in the Valley and it seems every year we find new trails to explore. Some involve altitude where the payoff is astounding views. Joshua Tree National Park is only a few hours away and well worth a day trip. Other hikes are in greener spots like White Water, where you can pose against the Pacific Crest Trail marker and pretend you’ve done the 2,653 miles from Mexico to Canada. Early on, we discovered the hiking club, Desert Trails and signed up for two or three hikes a week, all within a few hours of our accommodation. So, if all this activity, is a bit much, there’s always Cabazon and its hundreds of luxury outlet stores!

Painting in the Desert

As an artist I’m inspired by what I see. On our outings, I take dozens of photos and use them later to remember the experience. And I’m fortunate in the desert that my sister lives close to us and is also an artist.

Velvet Oasis 20” x 26” Acrylic on Canvas

Indian Canyon and Murray Canyon are close to Palm Springs, about 30 minutes from Palm Desert. This painting, Velvet Oasis was inspired by a hike in Indian Canyon.

Murray Canyon 16″x12″ Acrylic on Canvas

Murray Canyon is a popular hike just outside Indian Canyon. The trail is fairly flat and criss-crosses a spring fed creek. I’ve been told there are rattlesnakes in the area that like to sun bathe on the rocks but I’ve never seen one. In this painting, I was attracted to the patterns of the palms and their exaggerated shadows.

Challenging the Painted Canyon

A little further afield, is a hike near Mecca, a town at the south end of Coachella Valley. This one is unexpected as it doesn’t fit the desert image at all. Getting to the Painted Canyon (aka the Ladders) trailhead, is a little challenging as the route is a weird interweave of expressways and highways crisscrossing the valley.

The Challenging Route!

Last time I went, I missed the turn off but it’s worth the effort to persevere. Once you get to the parking lot, there’s a large stone arrow directing hikers to turn left off the canyon about half a kilometer in. Beware, there is a more challenging route that involves ropes not ladders. Pass that one by unless you’re really up for an adventure. Intriguing experience…if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia…and about 30 minutes of it. Eventually, having climbed about 500 feet you come out on the rim of the canyon. After enjoying the views, and maybe a packed lunch, the trail plunges down the side of canyon to the sandy floor to complete the circuit back to the car.

Painted Canyon 36” x 30” Acrylic on Canvas

The rock formations on every hike are so varied and I often use them as a subject to paint.

The Coachella Valley is an extraordinary ecosystem and is a perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts. We look forward to meeting other like-minded people on the trails. There is plenty of time to chat and learn about other parts of North America and beyond. Someone is bound to offer some tidbit of information about what we’re seeing. The birds, the flowers, and the surroundings keep us coming back.

About the Author


Lynda Fownes  Hailing from three generations of North Vancouverites, Lynda has always had mountains and trails at her backdoor. Blessed with the opportunity to travel and hike worldwide she has enjoyed a lifetime of enjoying outdoor adventures. In the past ten years, Lynda has returned to a focus on painting and combines both passions.

You can see her work at www.lyndafownes.com and on the website of the North Shore Artists’ Guild.

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