Explore the wonders of the Coachella Valley Preserve. This unique desert oasis is rich with wildlife and stunning landscapes that will amaze you.
If you’re heading to Palm Springs or the annual Coachella Music & Arts Festival, visit the Coachella Valley Preserve. It is only 16 miles northwest of the Empire Polo Field in Indio and 26 miles east of Palm Springs.
A popular feature of the Preserve is the fantastic Thousand Palms Oasis which is the main reason to visit.
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Reasons To Visit
Located in the lower Colorado Desert, the Coachella Valley Preserve and Thousand Palms Oasis feature clusters of skyscraper-tall desert fan palms that seem out of place in this barren environment. The desert fan palm is the only type of palm tree native to California and the western United States.
Several water features, including a pond, surround the impressive fan palms. Aquatic features are out of place here, considering the Preserve receives three inches of rain yearly. The small pockets of water in the Preserve are natural, resulting from underground water seeping up from the San Andreas fault.
The San Andreas is one of the world’s most active geographic fault zones. But don’t let that fact dissuade you from visiting!
If you find being surrounded by giant fan palms in the middle of the desert captivating, the Coachella Valley Preserve contains other clusters of huge fan palms.
The Preserve is home to Paul Wilhelm Grove, where the Preserve’s visitor center is located. Other palm oases in the Coachella Valley include Indian Palms, Hidden Horseshoe, and the Willis cluster.
Being in the Coachella Valley Preserve differs from the amazing, quasi-religious experience of visiting a giant redwood grove in the Sequoias. The oases in the Coachella Valley aren’t as Dr. Seussian as the Joshua Trees, which are only a 40-minute drive away. Yet it’s still pretty impressive to see these bearded palms up close.
The Preserve is worth the trip if you’re vacationing in the desert cities nearby (Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta, etc.).
Besides being awestruck by giant palms, there are several miles of hiking and equestrian trails, ranging from easy to strenuous for hikers. You can make an all-day trip in the Preserve, hiking from palm oasis to oasis. In addition, there are docent-led photography and naturalist tours.
History Of The Coachella Valley Preserve
In 1928, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. was hired by California to conduct a survey identifying lands for the fledgling State Park system. Olmstead famously identified the need to preserve the giant redwoods in northern California.
Lesser known is that roughly 300 miles southeast of the southernmost strand of redwoods, Olmstead recognized the importance of the fan palm groves in the Indio Hills section of the San Andreas fault.
In 1983, California State Parks acquired property at Indio Hills, creating Indio Hills Palms. In 1990, the land became part of the Coachella Valley Preserve.
Today, the Coachella Valley Preserve protects 20,000 acres. This sanctuary is home to several species of increasingly-rare wildlife, serving as a corridor for the fauna between the sand dunes here in the Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.
The Thousand Palms Oasis is relatively flat, ideal for young kids. But because this is the desert, bring plenty of water, a hat, snacks, and sunscreen. There are better times to bring the kids here than summertime. Temperatures routinely exceed 110 in summer and sometimes reach 120.
Visiting the Preserve is free, but a small donation is greatly appreciated.
Dogs and other pets are not allowed at the Preserve.
A stone’s throw from the massive fan palms is Aeolian sand dunes. The dunes are shaped almost entirely by wind and flooding that originates in the San Gorgonio Pass.
The Pass is one of the deepest mountain passes in the 48 contiguous states, with the mountains to either side rising almost 9,000 ft above it. At the northern side of the Pass, San Gorgonio Mountain eclipses those impressive heights at 11,503, making it the tallest mountain in Southern California. On clear days, San Gorgonio is visible from the Coachella Valley.
Wildlife And Plants In The Coachella Valley Preserve
Nearly 200 species of birds and other wildlife are protected in the Preserve, including the Desert Bighorn Sheep and the endangered fringe-toed lizard. (Look for the lizards on the Pushawalla Palms Loop.)
The fringe-toed lizard is a reptilian Michael Phelps. The scales on its toes make it ideal for “swimming” on the sand. Other species protected by the Preserve include the flat-tailed horned lizard, giant sand-treader cricket, black-tailed jackrabbits, bobcats, and sidewinders.
As for native fauna in the Coachella Valley Preserve, there are smoke trees, desert lavender, and creosote bushes.
According to a signpost at the Preserve, the ecosystem could disappear without protection in as little as half a century. Because of development in the Coachella Valley, only 20% of the original sand dune habitat remains today.
A Natural Pond In The Middle Of A Desert
A short walk past the Coachella Valley Preserve Visitor Center, the mile-long trail in the Thousand Palms Oases begins. On this easy trail, you’ll walk on sections of wooden-plank boardwalk that hovers above small pools. The pools are home to the endangered desert pupfish, and this section of the oasis offers precious shade.
On the edge of the Thousand Palms Trail, there’s an option to take a two-mile hike to McCallum Pond. Unfortunately, the walk to the pond is exposed to the sun, and the trail is sandy (wear closed-toed shoes). Furthermore, the pond itself is subject to closure.
Although the Coachella Valley Preserve is jointly administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Center for Natural Lands Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California State Parks, and other agencies, the Preserve is primarily run by volunteers.
If you visit the Preserve, read the posted signs at the visitor center (the center is closed Mondays and Tuesdays) to ensure the pond is open. The pond itself isn’t all that impressive, but seeing a natural pond in the desert is a novelty.
If you want to do longer hikes in the Preserve, these trails are your best bets:
- Moon Country (moderate; 3.84 miles, with an option to extend to 5.47 if you make it to the canyon)
- Hermans Loop (difficult; 7.26)
- Pushwalla (moderate/difficult; 4.81)
- Hidden Palms (moderate; 1.75)
- Horseshoe Palms (moderate/difficult; 4.95)
- Willis Palms (moderate; 3.81)
- Indian Palms (easy; 1.75)
- Smoketree Ranch (easy; 0.34)
Remember that even during fall and spring, the sun can be intense—even on a 70-degree day. There is no shade on most of the trails. The exceptions are when you are directly in one of the oases of fan palms.
Directions To The Coachella Valley Preserve
Off Interstate 10, take the Monterey Avenue exit approximately 10 miles east of Palm Springs (Exit 131). Turn left on Monterey. Then, Turn right at Ramon Road. Turn left on Thousand Palms Canyon Drive. Drive about two miles. The entrance is on the left, but you’ll park on the shoulder.
The Visitor Center itself is nothing more than a shack. It once was a cabin named the “Vagabond House,” which belonged to Paul Wilhelm, who lived in this oases grove from the 1930s until he died in 1994. Wilhelm built his cabin from fallen palm fan trunks, and one of the oases in the Preserve is named in his honor.
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