Nestled in the mountains just south of glamourous Palm Springs are three desert canyons that give hikers a glimpse back to the time people first populated the Coachella Valley. Collectively known as Indian Canyons, the sites lie on land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the tribe that first settled in the valley 5,000 years ago.
Hiking trails through and around each canyon give visitors an intimate tour of the variety found in a desert landscape and a glimpse of the features that first brought settlers to the area.
1. Touch The Cooling Waters Of Andreas Canyon
Traits: Quick Hike, Lush Landscape
The best place to start and the easiest of the three canyons to navigate is beautiful Andreas Canyon. With a short, 1.2-mile loop rising only 200 feet, the Andreas Canyon Trail quickly carries hikers into an oasis that seems right out of the movies. Towering California fan palm trees hug the banks of a gurgling stream, inviting visitors to reach down and feel the cool water of Andreas Creek flowing from the San Jacinto Mountains. Hikers on the trail enjoy shade on their way up the path, thanks to both the palm trees and the impressive rock overhang of Pride Rock, a jutting stone formation that thrusts out over the upward trail.
The trail offers few obstacles for even the most amateur of hikers. Much of the path consists of sandy segments interspersed with rocky steps up and down. It’s easy to set your own pace, stepping off the trail to pause creekside before resuming your walk.
As hikers approach the top of the loop, they’re treated to a view of stony cabins built along the creek as it flows down from above. Fenced off from the trail, the houses make up the Andreas Club, a private society that bought the land from the tribe 100 years ago and has used it ever since for primitive camping and sports.
From the peak of the trail, hikers head out into an open stretch of desert above the canyon to begin their descent back to the trailhead. This vantage point offers a view above the oasis, looking down on the palms and the water below. A short walk from there brings visitors into a picnic area back at creek’s edge and the end of the trail. Visitors can take in all Andreas Canyon has to offer in an hour or less, making it the perfect stop for those with limited time to visit.
Pro Tip: The best photo opportunities will be found here in Andreas Canyon. Have your camera ready to capture the natural beauty and your companions enjoying it.
2. Cross The Desert Landscape To Reach Murray Canyon
Traits: Customizable Hike, Classic Desert Scenery
Those with time for a longer hike will enjoy the variety of a trip to Murray Canyon. The entrance to Murray Canyon Trail is situated adjacent to Andreas Canyon. Visitors will instantly see this is a much different walk than what’s found on the previous hike. The trail sets straight out into the open desert, a narrow path shared by hikers and horses alike (accordingly, it’s important to watch where you step on the trail). The scenery here is in stark contrast to the lush oasis of Andreas Canyon. The terrain is flat and dry, with good views of the San Jacinto Mountains towering behind and the Coachella Valley off to the left. Visitors will see scrubby desert vegetation along the path, and perhaps a little bit of wildlife, including the white-tailed antelope squirrel. Rattlesnakes are possible in the area and should be given a wide berth if spotted.
The terrain is level across the mile-long portion of the trail that leads to Murray Canyon. The path is quite narrow with sloping edges, so hikers should be careful of slipping on loose sand that can make sloped rock surfaces quite slick. There’s no shade along the trail, so prepare with adequate protection against the sun.
After traveling about half the trail’s length, visitors will arrive in Murray Canyon. In contrast to the lush beauty of Andreas Canyon with its flowing water, Murray Canyon runs dry for much of the year, leaving its canopy of palm trees dusty and dry overhead. Even without a flowing creek, hikers can see how even a part-time water supply can drastically change the nature of the desert landscape. When the creek is dry, it’s possible to walk in among the palms through the creek bed and see the power of the water in this area.
After a short visit to the canyon entrance, visitors can head back to the trailhead for about a 2-mile total hike lasting an hour or so. Or they can push further along Murray Canyon Trail to see more of the canyon, including the Seven Sisters waterfall at the end of the trail (this waterfall is seasonal, as well, with the best time to catch it flowing being when melting snow is running down from the mountains in the early spring). Visitors returning from the end of the trail can take an alternate path along Coffman Trail, which loops out of the canyon and rejoins Murray Canyon trail back at the mouth of the canyon. A complete roundtrip is about a 3-hour commitment and will involve just under five miles of hiking and a change in elevation of 450 feet.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to rush along the Murray Canyon Trail to reach the palm oasis you’ll see off in the distance. But take your time along the open desert part of the route, keeping your eyes open for plants and wildlife that are the signature of the deserts of the Southwest.
3. Descend Into Palm Canyon For The Gateway To Hiking Heaven
Traits: Challenging Hikes, Numerous Trails
Hop back in your car to make your way to the final canyon. A total of seven trails start there and allow you to explore the mountain foothills and desert. Once back on the road, you’ll wend your way across the tribal land, passing through scenic Split Rock (RV drivers beware — you will not fit through this stone passageway) to ascend above the valley to the parking area situated above Palm Canyon. Once out of your car, you’ll descend a steep, switch-backed path about 75 feet down to the floor of the canyon. Here you’ll once again find massive palms lining the bank of East Fork creek, offering a shady, peaceful place to relax.
But the big attractions at Palm Canyon are the multiple hiking trails departing from this spot. One popular route is to take the easy Palm Canyon Trail departing the canyon floor, meeting up with the Victor Trail about a mile out of the canyon, climbing to the ridge over the canyon and back down to the parking lot. The Victor Trail portion of the walk gets to moderate difficulty with a change in elevation of 365 feet and a somewhat rugged path. It will take most hikers about 90 minutes to complete this loop.
The East Fork Trail Loop and West Fork Trail Loop follow the two creeks for which they are named up into the surrounding hills, providing a strenuous course for only the most serious hikers.
The East Fork Trail Loop starts as the Victor Trail leaving the canyon, and it totals just under 7 miles and involves more than a 1,000-foot change in elevation. Hikers can expect it to take between 4 and 5 hours to complete, but along the way, expect to be treated to views of multiple canyons and the desert backcountry. The West Fork Trail Loop totals nearly 6 miles around a ridge and leads back to the Coffman Trail near Murray Canyon, at which point hikers can connect back to Palm Canyon along a gentle, 2.5-mile route. The main part of the trail is rated as strenuous throughout, covering 9 miles and rising in elevation more than 2,200 feet. Hikers will spend at least 5 hours covering the trail and should expect to find challenging conditions throughout. It’s a great spot if you don’t want to encounter a lot of other visitors but is tough to traverse in the summer due to extreme heat.
Pro Tip: Children will love seeing the looped-over palm trees here that offer a great picture spot or the replicas of the ancient woven houses used by the Agua Caliente people when they first settled the area.
Visiting The Indian Canyons
Admission to all three canyons and their trails is through a single gate located at 38520 S. Palm Canyon Drive, about a 15-minute drive south of downtown Palm Springs. A day pass costs around $12 for adults with discounts for seniors and children. Anyone with a military ID gets in free. The trails are open from 8 a.m. to 5 pm daily from October 1 through early July, with the last entry at 4 pm. From early July through September, the trails are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday through Sunday only. See current operating hours here.
The tribe has some specific prohibitions for those entering the canyons, including no alcohol, no smoking, no pets, and no drones. Hikers must stay on trails at all times and refrain from climbing on rocks. Parking is provided at each trailhead, and visitors must park in designated spaces.
Though open year round, most hikers will prefer to avoid the summer months, when temperatures in the canyons can approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the day. If visiting in the late spring through early fall, plan to arrive as soon as the trails open to beat the heat as much as possible. Late fall through early spring provides a more comfortable environment, with daytime temperatures usually in the 70s or 80s. Regardless of time of year, each hiker should carry at least a liter of water to stay hydrated while in the canyons. There is also plenty of shade in many spots along the trails that will provide some much-needed relief from the desert sun.
Don’t miss the free, 90-minute ranger-guided interpretive hikes offered Friday through Sunday from October through June, touring either Andreas or Palm Canyon. The tours cover about a mile each and leave at 10 a.m. from the trading post for Palm Canyon and at 1 p.m. from the parking lot at Andreas Canyon.
Once finished in the canyons, visit the tribal trading post located near the Palm Canyon trail entrance. The shop carries Native-made crafts, books, and items for children that will serve as souvenirs for the visit. And there’s an outdoor snack bar with burgers, burritos, and more. Finally, it may go without saying, but be sure to bring a camera to capture the beauty you’ll find along the trail. The variety of sights will surprise even veteran hikers.