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By Karoline Cullen
Photos by CullenPhotos

A lush rolling fairway is fringed with fluttering palm trees and backed by snow-capped mountains. As you pass one golf course after another, this is the quintessential view in the desert valley stretching from Palm Springs to La Quinta in southern California. Golf is the definitive activity for many visitors here. What to do, though, when golf, tennis, golf, shopping, golf, eating, and more golf aren't calling your name? My advice: get outta town!

You won't have far to go for a choice of outdoor explorations that don't have a manicured green in sight. Within a radius of less than ninety minutes driving are desert oases, fan palm tree packed canyons, and a National Park full of the spikiest trees you will ever see.

For an easy foray out of town, start with a short drive north. Once the watered lushness of the desert cities disappears from your rear view mirror, you realize how harsh, barren, and empty this landscape is. Ahead on the dusty brown hills, veiled in a shimmer of heat, is a lonely patch of green, the Thousand Palms Oasis. Imagine how welcome that sight would have been to the early travelers braving the desert en route to the west coast.

Growing tall and close together, the California fan palms look like furry exiles from hobbit land. Palm fronds, as they die, hang down around the trunk and make for it a shaggy coat.

Wend your way into the shadowed midst of a palm huddle and there is a hushed, peaceful silence. Leave the shelter of that bunch of palms behind and walk across the creosote bush covered flat to the Macallum Grove. Wander through the many palms surrounding a spring fed pond and listen as they rustle in the desert wind.

A good supply of water supports the largest fan palm oasis in the world in Indian Canyons, on the southwest outskirts of Palm Springs. The Aqua Caliente Cahuilla Indians made their homes among the stands of palms in these canyons. Hiking in any one will take you along and across gurgling streams; stepping stones in the creeks test your balance as you hop from one to the next and hope you don't fall in. The layered dark brown rocks of the canyon walls form a textured backdrop to the green fronds. The reward at the end of Murray Canyon is the set of small waterfalls and pools of the Seven Sisters. Many trails network through these canyons and one local told us he has hiked here for twenty years but hasn't done them all. Hiking here is as far removed from a golf course as you can get.

One of the best day trips from the desert valley entails heading northeast to Joshua Tree National Park. Entering from the south, one of the first must-sees is the Cholla Cactus garden. At first glance, the cacti are bushy and cute like teddy bears but looks deceive. Go too close and you'll be combing sharp spines out of your hand or jacket. The massive rock formations around the Natural Arch are a festival of shapes and textures. Narrow channels lead to the Arch and a good scramble loops you up and through it. Smooth curves of golden granite are a delight of shapes and sizes.

Further north in the Park is a flat plain speckled with the iconic Joshua trees. They are actually giant yuccas, with long spiky leaves, twisted gnarly branches, and bare trunks; tough trees ideally surviving in a harsh environment. Some are more than eight meters tall. Each stands as a lonely sentinel on its own patch of barren desert.

Finish the day's tour with a hike in Hidden Valley. A narrow set of stone stairs leads up to the entrance and a loop trail meanders through the box canyon, sheltered by steep rock walls. Cattle rustlers used to hide here, amongst the boulders and trees.

As sunset approaches, it's time to rustle your way down the highway. A forest of wind turbines lines the approach to Palm Springs and all those golf courses. Tomorrow, golf or another excursion out of town?


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1. Quintessential Palm Springs. K Cullen photo
2. Fan Palm Oasis. K Cullen photo
3. The author in Andreas Canyon. G Cullen photo
4. The author under Natural Arch. G Cullen photo
5. Rock formations, Joshua Tree National Park. K Cullen photo
6. The author by a Joshua tree. G Cullen photo