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Desert Hiking In Whitewater Preserve: Pacific Crest Trail To Red Dome

Apr 2
  • Best Season: Spring Winter
  • Check Trail Conditions: Whitewater Preserve (760) 325‐7222
  • Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 413 feet
  • Route Type: Loop, as written below
  • Trail Type: Dirt (single track) and river bottom
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Parking: Paved lot (donations accepted)
  • Locality: Colorado Desert
  • Nearest City: Morongo Valley, CA
  • Kid-Friendly: Yes
  • Dog-Friendly: Yes

As Southern California hikers, we know that there are good hikes for summer (shaded or near the coast), and hikes that can only be done in the winter–especially some of those out in the desert.  One of our favorite hikes last year was one of those “winter hikes”, Devil’s Punchbowl and Devil’s Chair, out near Palmdale in the High Desert.  We’d hoped to get in some more desert hikes this winter, but the unseasonably warm/hot temperatures have actually forced us to hit the coast three different times since November!  Finally a few weeks ago, temperatures were projected to be low enough to head out to a desert hike we’ve been wanting to get to since before last summer–Whitewater Preserve, between Banning and Palm Springs, off I-10, past the Morongo Casino.

I’d seen pictures of it posted on Facebook by several of my friends who live out in the Inland Empire, and all had posted about how beautiful it was (though they also warned about the wind…).  And since the two most popular trails in the Preserve were only about 4 miles round trip, which is within our current poor-fitness range, we took advantage of the first cool day to get out to the desert.  Of course, if you want to go farther than four miles, the Pacific Crest Trail cuts through the middle of the Preserve, so you can take a leisurely 725 mile hike to Tuolomne Meadows at Yosemite, or if you really want to stretch your legs, you can go the full 2,445 miles to Canada!

In one of my favorite trailhead encounters, just as we got ready to start our measly 4 mile hike, which does, in fact, overlap the Pacific Crest Trail for a mile or so, a couple pulled up in a brand new Corvette with dealer plates, and the girl in the passenger seat asked, “Are there hiking trails here?”  I nodded in the affirmative, and she asked “How far can you go on them?”  I answered, “Canada!”  Her eyes got really big and she asked, “How long does that take?”  I answered that it took about 4-6 months usually, and she stared at me, said thank you, and they took off back down the road.

The grounds around the trailhead and parking lot are very nice, with shaded picnic tables, a visitor’s center, and some big ponds full of giant trout, a tribute to the property’s past as a fish hatchery and trout farm, where they still hold youth fly fishing days to this day.

The Preserve itself is almost 3,000 acres, surrounded by the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and featuring the year round Whitewater River running through a valley right through the middle of it.  The eastern wall of the valley is pretty steep and rocky, and is a common place for spotting bighorn sheep, while the western side is a little more rounded. The road into the preserve features hillsides covered with energy producing windmills–hinting at the near constant winds in this area.

Weather-wise, this is an interesting spot, as we were in dark cloud cover and occasional rain on our drive all the way from Orange County to Whitewater.  Nearly exactly at the offramp for the Whitewater Preserve, we came out from under the cloud cover, and were suddenly in the sunlight. 
Over the western wall of the canyon, we could see the dark, rainy clouds, which looked like they were blowing on over us, but somehow they never did.  It was fascinating to watch them appear to be moving towards us, but never getting to us.  It was the kind of meteorological effect that I wish I understood better.  It stayed quite windy the whole time, but it remained sunny in the canyon, even as it was cloudy and wet on the ridge.

Head north from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, where you’ll find the mileage monument above as well as an informational display and even a trash can designed for your “dog waste”.  The trail is very clearly marked, and lined with small rocks along the initial stretch.  There are two quick junctions, one where you go straight, and one where you turn left, but both decisions are pretty obvious, by following the signs and the rock lined trail.

Shortly thereafter, the rocks lining the trail disappear, but it is easy enough to figure out what the proper path is.  In a wet season, or after a rain, you may have several water crossings on the initial stretch, but on this particular day, most washes were dry, and the ones with water in them were easy to cross on rocks, so we didn’t get wet.  About a half mile from the visitor’s center, we came to the last one on the initial stretch, across the largest stem of the river. It had a wood bridge laid across it, though older hiking reports indicate that it is frequently washed away. Make sure you take a head touch with you as you will need this if you extend your walk into the darkness.