Indian Canyons: Just Add Water

I read somewhere that as deserts go, America’s are the wettest. Compared to the Sahara, Atacama, or Taklamakan, we’ve got bupkis. And it really makes me wonder what those sandboxes are like, because the land around Indian Canyons is baked to a radiantly golden shade of “desolate.”

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On the road to the Indian Canyons.

Oh, sure, you have tumbleweeds and some particularly masochistic lizards, but as company goes, that’s about it. The funny thing? Palm Springs, and the rest of the resort towns of the Coachella Valley, in all their leafy, flowery, frond-y glory are just a few minutes away (ah, well pumps). But let there be no doubt: You know exactly when you leave the city limits. As “wet” as it may be, it’s not called the Sonoran Desert for nothing.

It makes the Indian Canyons as jarring as they are sublime. The surrounding San Jacinto Mountains are high enough to get snowpack in winter; enough, in fact, to keep a lacework of constant, if modest, trickles running down the mountainsides in summer. And “modest” is all it takes. Four separate streams make up the Canyons: Palm, Andreas, Murray, and the sacred Taquitz, with its 60-foot waterfall (never did get to that one. Rassa-frassa). And as any scientist will tell you, where there is water there is life. Take the lonely road out of Palm Springs, past some even lonelier ruins of past homesteaders (talk about a hardy breed), and BANG! Oasis.

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Palm Canyon: A bird’s-eye view of an Eden. That hut in the lower left is a replica of a “ramada,” or typical Aguas Calientes Indian shelter.

And in that magical way oases do, the greenery of the Indian Canyons suddenly “start.” The tumbleweeds and masochistic lizards stop and a cathedral of palm trees rise from the ground, presto-style. What makes it even more dramatic is that none of the Indian Canyons are what I would call canyons, but rather clefts. That some angry god ripped the living earth open is not that melodramatic a description once I got to Andreas Canyon. Flanked by walls of blonde stone 200 feet high, the trees form a surreal-looking ribbon of rippling green in the middle of the Sonora.

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Andreas Canyon: The magic forest of the Sonora.

Remember that old phrase “just add water?” Well, that goes triple here. With a constant, joyful rill of crystalline water in the background, at Andreas it was like I entered a nature-made Zen garden. Shaded by the cliffs and a myriad of palm fronds — this is the world’s second-largest California fan-palm site — there is no sign you are in one of the driest environments in the USA. The summer temps may hit 108 regularly, but here the heat evaporates to cool. The sun beats down 350 days a year on the Sonora, but here is reduced to a gentle dappling in the glades and water-shine. It’s all very magical.

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Water in the desert.

Or so it must have seemed every time this place was discovered. Evidence of people taking advantage of a good thing goes right back to the Aqua Caliente Indians (on whose land the Indian Canyons sit), and probably a lot further back than that. Along one pathway is Gossip Rock, famous not only for the chit-chat said to have gone on there, but also because of all the mortars ground into the granite; the latter led to the former, it seems. In one nook in the cliffside are the remains of a stone shelter, and petroglyphs spangle the whole site. In this environment, once you found water you did not stray far from it. Palm Springs is just the latest footprint in a long trek.

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Shadows and light in Indians Canyons.

Always being one to idle in forests and by stream banks — I am easily entertained — Indian Canyons was a two-in-one tailor-made respite from the party-hardy life in town. The whole canyon complex is lined with trails (human and horse) treading both within the forests as well as the cliffs and lands around them, and there are picnic areas where you can take a load off, enjoy the shade, and make a day of it. The sunsets are suitably spectacular, and the landscape, brutal and barren as it may seem, is awesome day or night, summer or winter. My camera was busy.

And I cannot wait to go back. I still have Taquitz to go, and I always was a man for getting the full set of something.

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