With rental car rates and gas prices skyrocketing, a lot of us are looking at whether we need a car on vacation. The compact nature of Palm Springs offers an easy car-free getaway. But if you want to sample some of the excellent mountain hiking in the Coachella Valley, you can catch a ride to some spectacular trails for just a buck or so.
Your low-cost path to desert hiking is the local SunLine Transit Agency, which operates buses for the bulk of the Coachella Valley. One line in particular, Route 1, can take you from your downtown Palm Springs hotel to six trails in just minutes. Buses on this route run every 20 minutes or so, are clean and safe, have professional drivers, and perhaps best of all, are generously air-conditioned.
The fares also may be the best part of this bus experience. A single adult fare is just $1 per ride. Seniors (aged 60 and older) ride for just 50 cents. If you’re thinking of trying out multiple trails on a single day, an all-day pass is just $3 for adults and $1.50 for seniors.
You can pay for single rides in cash on the bus when you board, but for the all-day pass, you’ll need to download the Token Transit app (found in the Apple and Google Play stores) and enter your information there. The app will display a screen to show the driver each time you enter the bus.
Phone and app in hand, you’re ready to sample six trails an easy ride away. Grab the first Route 1 bus headed east toward Coachella and you’re on your way.
The first trail you’ll encounter is the Araby Trail, still in the city limits of Palm Springs. It’s about a 10-minute bus ride to this stop from downtown. Get off Stop 636 (Palm Canyon at Horizon Mobile Home Park). The bus stop is right in front of a mobile home park, but hike west along Palm Canyon Road about 200 yards and you’ll see Southridge Drive climbing up the hill to your left. The trail entrance is about 50 feet up the hill, above the mobile home park and below a group of condos clinging to the hill above.
The Araby Trail is of moderate difficulty due mainly to its steep rises and falls, but all that climbing pays off right away. As you get above the condos, the views of the Coachella Valley start to come into sight. Nearing the end of Southridge Drive at the top of the first hill, the strange, UFO-shaped house you see there once belonged to entertainer Bob Hope. The trail offers the best view of this $30 million house, including its private golf hole Hope had put in.
Rising above the Hope house, Araby Trail proceeds about 2 miles up and back into the mountains, with hikers doubling back the way they came to return to street level. It takes most hikers a little less than 3 hours to complete a full round trip, due mainly to the 1,400-foot elevation change of the trail. Some inclines along the trail are quite steep, with loose sand and rocks making it necessary to take care on the slopes.
Dogs are allowed along the first part of the trail, with a sign indicating the point beyond which they cannot go. There’s no shade along the trail, so come prepared for constant sun. Hikers should carry at least a liter of water to make this trip across the desert terrain.
Once back down at Palm Canyon, grab the next bus headed east toward Coachella to catch a stop with two trails.
Hermit Crest And GT Grind Trails
Once back on the Route 1 bus, it’s just a 3-minute ride to the next trail stop. Get off when you see the Vons supermarket on the right, Stop 15 (Palm Canyon at Gene Autry Trail). There is a jumble of trails that start here, going by a number of different names depending on what map you use.
To find them, walk back into the Vons parking lot and head toward the left (east) side of the strip mall. Past the parking lot at the end of the building, you’ll see a big gravel parking area. Near a gate at the top of the lot lies the opening to the trails that start here.
Hermit Crest Trail (also known as “Palm Hills” or “Goat Trails”) has been around for a long time but recently came under the conservancy of the Oswit Land Trust, meant to protect the land as a bighorn sheep habitat and maintain it for visitors to explore. The 3-mile loop trail climbs more gently from the valley floor that the Araby Trail, rising and falling a total of 770 feet.
The trail offers more of those great valley views from its summit and connects with multiple trails in the higher elevations. Like the previous trail, there’s no shade here either, meaning hikers should bring plenty of water and wear the right clothing. The trail can be crowded in the cooler months, so it may take close to 2 hours to complete the loop. No dogs are allowed on this trail, but there’s a place for them right next door.
GT Grind Trail (also known as The Ramp) starts as a wide expanse rising from the desert floor next to the Hermit Crest Trail. Bicyclists can ride this path up into the hills, and dogs are welcome. Hikers favor this as a nighttime spot for dog walking under the stars, enjoying the cooler temperatures that quickly arrive once the sun goes down. The trail rises gently at first, never reaching more than a couple of hundred feet above where you started. But if you follow the entire 2-mile stretch, you’ll log about 1,300 feet in elevation changes. This trail has no shade either, so come prepared with water and protective clothing.
Once off the trails, head back through the Vons parking lot to catch the bus where you got off. Be sure to catch the eastbound bus headed toward Coachella.
Roadrunner And Chuckwalla Trail
The bus now takes you out of Palm Springs to Rancho Mirage for a loop trail with some fantastic views of the city. After 14 minutes, get off the bus at Stop 642 (111 and Frank Sinatra Drive). The bus stop is right in front of the Rancho Mirage City Hall. Cross its parking lot and turn left up Frank Sinatra Drive. Look for the trailhead on the right about 50 yards up. The Roadrunner and Chuckwalla Trail moves up the face of the hill and then turns back toward the main part of the valley. The first part of the trail is pretty easy going with wide paths and plenty of places to stop. Once the trail turns hard right and heads up the hill, you’re presented with a point that overlooks the valley — a different vantage point than the earlier Palm Springs trails. The total elevation change is only about 500 feet, making this 3-mile trail ideal for novice hikers.
The trail does get narrow at points, requiring one foot in front of the other to proceed. But there’s never any fear of falling over the side of a steep embankment. A second overlook about halfway through the loop offers a great place to watch planes taking off and landing from Palm Springs International Airport.
As the trail turns away from the valley, hikers get close-up views of some spectacular mountain homes built along and inside the trail loop. Depending on the time of day, this back part of the trail can offer some shade from the overhanging cliffs, but come prepared with protective clothing and plenty of water all the same. Near the trail’s end, you have the chance to veer off into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in case you want to wet your whistle with something from one of its many bars. If not, follow Frank Sinatra Drive down to the bottom and get back on the Route 1 bus headed east toward Coachella at the same stop where you got off.
Bump And Grind And Hopalong Cassidy Trails
Back on the bus, ride 8 minutes leaving Rancho Mirage and entering the community of Palm Desert. Your last stop is Stop 536 (Highway 111 at Desert Crossing). You’ll exit the bus in front of a large power center. Walk to the corner of Highway 111 and Fred Waring Drive and turn left to walk west past the Total Wines & More store to get behind the power center. Turn left and walk south on Painters Path for about 300 yards. You’ll see the trailheads behind the large orange, blue, and white CV Link structure. All told, it’s about a 10-minute walk from the bus stop to the trailheads.
The Bump and Grind Trail is the shorter of the two leaving this point, a 4-mile loop that rises rapidly to escape the back of the power center and reveal the Coachella Valley below. The trail can be busy due to its easy access from the entire valley. There are some steep passages on the trail — which has about 1,100 feet of elevation change — and veteran hikers there suggest taking the loop counter-clockwise to make the final descent a little bit easier. The trail does not allow dogs but does allow mountain biking, so keep an eye out for those on two wheels.
The Hopalong Cassidy Trail is the longest you’ll find on the bus route, an out-and-back trail that runs nearly 7 and a half miles if you traverse the entire run. Most hikers take about 4 hours to make the round trip and report this trail can be quite a workout with a total elevation change of more than 1,700 feet. This trail is not quite as scenic as the Bump and Grind Trail, putting more of its effort into the trip than the view. As with Bump and Grind, mountain bikes are welcome, but dogs are not.
Both trails offer a chance to see some of the Santa Rosa Mountains’ wildlife, including abundant bird life brought in by the desert wildflowers along the way. Like the other trails along the bus route, neither of these trails offers any shade, so hikers should dress accordingly and bring plenty of water — probably 2 liters for each trail. Depending on the time of year, insect repellent may also be a good item to pack. Swarms of gnats can be a problem in the late spring and summer months.
Once finished, return to street level on Painters Path, turn left and head north to follow it back to Fred Waring Drive, then turn right and east along the road back to the intersection with Highway 111. To get the return Route 1 bus, cross both Highway 111 and Fred Waring Drive to get to the westbound bus stop in front of Big 5 Sports and other strip mall stores. Route 1 buses stop here at Stop 71 every 20 minutes. Look for the westbound bus headed to Palm Springs. The return trip downtown will take about 40 minutes.
In addition to the Token Transit app to pay your fare, riders should download the myStop app (available in Apple and Google Play stores) to get a live, real-time display of the buses on the route and when they’ll arrive. It also displays the stop names and numbers so you can be sure to get off at the right place. Once you download the app, you’ll select “SunLine Transit Agency” from its list of transit authorities. Then you’ll be presented with an interactive map and trip planner.
One final note about the time of year to visit these trails. Summer temperatures in the Coachella Valley can easily reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Summer visitors most plan for early morning hikes to beat the summer sun. The desert does not cool down fast enough for early evening hikes to be bearable. Visitors in the late fall, winter, or early spring will find good climbing weather most of the time.