Hiking in Palm Springs

First off, my apologies for the cyber silence!  I had two consecutive very busy weeks on service with a whole slew of call smack in the middle, and as such my blogging endeavors were temporarily abandoned.  Let us put an end to this drought with my review of hiking in Mount San Jacinto State Park!

Due primarily to the incredible mentorship of Dr. Yevgeniya Ioffe and Dr. Linda Hong in the department of Gynecologic Oncology at Loma Linda, I had a poster accepted at the Western Association of Gynecologic Oncologists annual meeting held in Rancho Mirage June 14-17.  With the meeting coming to a close on Saturday, my lovely friend Eliza and I found ourselves looking for something athletic to do in the area.

I must briefly digress for a public service announcement.  Palm Springs is a super cute town that is at once old-timey and modern.  There are beautiful resorts, golf courses, and tons of excellent restaurants.  There’s a lot of great mid-century modern architecture and lots of outdoor activities.  However, if you haven’t been to Palm Springs in the summer, be warned that it is hot.  Like, really hot.  Like oh-my-God-my-skin-is-on-fire-and-I-think-I-might-die hot.  This is truly the desert, where temperatures of 120 degrees are common during the day, and at night maybe it cools into the 90s.  You feel like you are wilting merely lying by the pool immobile, much less attempting anything remotely resembling exercise after dawn.

There is, however, this gorgeous national park just 10 minutes away, over 8000 feet above the desert floor, where the temperature is about 30 degrees cooler.  You can go hiking, camping, and horseback riding without feeling as though you might keel over from heat stroke after 5 minutes in the ambient air.  And you get to take this really fun/slightly scary tram ride to the top.  Brilliant!  Decision made, we were on our way to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Mount San Jacinto State Park, air conditioning set to Maximum Stun.

The desert as viewed from the Palm Springs Aerial Tram.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world’s largest rotating tram car.  It travels 2.5 miles from the desert floor to Mountain Station at 8,516 feet and takes about 8-9 minutes.   As you travel, the tram switches cables at each of 5 towers along the route, which sends the tram car swinging and evokes mild screams from any children aboard.  If you visit Palm Springs, it is an experience not to be missed!

When you arrive at the ranger station on the road to the tram, there is an attendant who directs you to a parking lot based on availability.  Some of these lots are a little ways away from the tram station, and there is a bus that will take you to the base of the tram.  However, Eliza and I are pretty fit chicks, and we couldn’t abide standing in the heat waiting for said bus.  This is how we came to be dripping with sweat when we rolled in 10 minutes later – though we did beat the bus and the masses it carried!  We picked up our tickets and boarded the tram, marveling at the views as we traveled.  The air grew blissfully cooler the higher we went, and when we arrived at Mountain Station the afternoon sunshine felt pleasant as a light breeze played across our skin.

Looking down from the tram.

We had decided to do the 5 mile Round Valley hike, and we set off toward the Ranger Station to pick up our hiking permits.  They take safety very seriously around here; when you go out on the trail, you have to first fill out a form stating where you plan to go, how many people are in your group, the type of car you drove, etc.  One copy stays at the ranger station.  The other copy you take with you, returning it only when you are back from your adventure.  At the end of the day if they are missing that second copy, the park rangers go looking for you.  It’s reassuring to know that if something happens to you, help will soon be on the way.  Safety first!

Hiking through the forest.

We set off along a little creek, hiking up a path shaded by tall pine trees.  Within 10 minutes we were well away from civilization, the only sounds our voices and the burbles of the creek to our left.

There we were, minding our own business when we were set upon by a literal swarm of lady bugs.  From a distance they looked like gnats, but as they landed on various body parts I saw that I was, happily, mistaken.  The polka-dotted little critters were everywhere!  Tickling our arms and legs, swishing by our ears, and getting a little fresh with Eliza as one or two tried to fly into her sports bra.  What was this, lady bug mating season?!  I had never seen so many in one place!  We hurried along, swatting lady bugs out of our faces, finally emerging from the swarm and flicking the last of our erstwhile passengers off of our skin.

Eliza, shortly after our harrowing lady bug encounter.

Having escaped the lady bug hoard, we continued traveling upwards, clambering over boulders and rock formations, greeting the occasional fellow hiker along the trail.  We crossed over the brook and the trail led away from its burbling course, curving along a gentle slope through more pine forests dotted with the occasional green meadow.  A few times we had to stop and look around when the trail seemed to disappear, always figuring it out eventually.  I was always very reassured when we came upon signage – I really did not want to end up lost out here!

Signage! Yay!

About 3 miles into the hike the terrain changed a little.  We temporarily left the forest and found ourselves walking through a chaparral with stunning views of the surrounding mountains.  Without the shade of the forest trees it was much warmer, though still nothing like the desert floor below!  We sipped from our water bottles frequently as we took in the beauty around us, amazed that a place so peaceful and majestic existed mere minutes from the bustling resort town below.


The trail dipped back into the forest, and we were struck by a very loud rapping sound echoing around us.  It almost sounded like someone chopping into a tree, but there was no one in sight.  Eliza looked up and found the source of the noise – a wood pecker!  I had never seen one before.  The relentless bird rammed its pointed beak into a sturdy tree over and over again, the sound reverberating around us.  I couldn’t help but laugh in delight!  Soon other wood peckers, unseen in more distant trees, joined in, creating an incredible acoustic environment for us as we walked along.

The beautiful Round Valley trail.

The trail eventually wound back and deposited us at the ranger station 2 hours after our departure.  We turned in our form documenting our successful return, then trudged up a steep concrete set of switchbacks leading to Mountain Station.  We enjoyed the tram ride back to the desert floor, though neither of us were particularly excited to return to the sweltering 114 degrees that had transformed our car into a sauna.  Once we had the air conditioning blasting in our hot faces, we both felt a wonderful fatigue that comes from a good athletic experience…and realized that we were absolutely famished!

We hurried back into town, desperately in search of food.  We burst into Lulu California Bistro like women on a mission, eschewing the seating hostess and making a beeline for the seat-yourself bar area.  Fresh ceviche with lime and cilantro, ahi tuna tatar served with a seaweed salad and pickled ginger, and a delicious hummus with veggies and pita were washed down with multiple glasses of ice water.  Perfection!  Lulu is one of these wonderful Palm Springs establishments that has a prolonged happy hour – meaning it’s happy hour for most of the day – and I was astonished by how inexpensive our meal was!  The food is tasty and healthy, the decor is eclectic, the service is speedy, and you can’t argue with the price.  Lulu California Bistro is definitely worth a visit the next time you find yourself in the area.

Our energy stores replenished, it was time to head back to our hotel for a much needed shower – we were both covered in a fine layer of dust and parts of our clothes were stiff with dried sweat.  We were very pleased with ourselves, and we felt wonderful!  Hiking in Mount San Jacinto State Park was an awesome way to spend the day, and I will definitely be back for more wilderness adventures in the future.