Southern CA Living: Understanding the Beauty and Risks

Updated: Mar 30

A year after buying the townhouse condo in Palm Desert we are as confident as ever that we made the right decision. Although from a travel perspective it's not as convenient as having a condo in FL; for us the extra travel time and distance is worth it. In fact whenever friends or family come to visit, it only takes a few days before they recognize why we have come to love our time in CA.


We live in a small development with only 100 units. People are friendly and welcoming; they've come to refer to us as "the boys".

Park Palms Condo community in Palm Desert

There's always fresh fruit (lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges) available on the citrus trees in the development. In fact, every morning in the winter Dave picks a pink grapefruit from one of the nearby trees.

There is nothing like enjoying breakfast every morning on the back patio. We've even managed to enjoy it during early winter when morning temperature are in the 50s.

Breakfast on patio in Park Palms Condo community in Palm Desert

The weather is great for playing pickleball, our new favorite sport. Pickleball is becoming incredibly popular everywhere, but we were introduced to the sport here in CA. We originally thought it was an 'old person's game' but quickly learned that wasn't the case. We play competitive games at an indoor league in Palm Desert but we also play at the courts in our development with residents ranging in age from 50 - 80 years. It's great exercise and a fun social event.

If you've seen any of our CA blogs you'll know we spend endless hours hiking in the surrounding areas. The trails vary not only in terms of skills-level requirements and but also terrain (i.e. desert to high mountain environments). So there is no need to highlight this issue, but what may surprise you is the diversity of wildflowers in the desert. I found a quote that summarizes my feelings about the desert, "What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides it so well." Here are just a few of the desert wildflower pictures I've taken over the past few years.

Since the 15-mile wide Coachella Valley is bounded on the northeast by the San Bernardino and Little San Bernardino Mountains, and on the southwest by the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains, there are mountains everywhere you look.

City Palm Springs at base of San Jacinto Mountains

But the reason we have these magnificent mountain views is because of millions of years of tectonic plate activity and the impact of the San Andreas fault system which caused these mountain ranges to uplift sharply on either side of the valley. Virtually all traces of the ‘giant crack in the ground’ that people imagine has been erased. Erosion fills and covers the fault; plows and bulldozers reshape the surface, roads and neighborhoods are built on the fault. In some cases, evidence of the fault is subtle. One example is the large number of geothermal sites caused by the fault in the town of Desert Hot Springs.


In other cases, evidence is more direct. Faulting has created a subterranean dam in the Coachella Valley Preserve that impounded water which then bubbles to the surface to form the oasis that supporting the Thousand Palms grove and other plants and palm tree stands in the area. The pictures below were taken in the immediate vicinity of the fault zone. In the top picture, groundwater has been dammed by the fault creating a palm oasis with abundant lush plant life in this 'green zone'. In the picture below, palm trees grow along a trace of the fault where earthquakes have pulverized rocks that allowed groundwater to percolate and nourish these plants.

Not far from the palm oasis are 'hills' formed when the earth's crust moved along the fault creating a fault scarp where the ground surface on one side of the fault is higher than the other. Pictured below is a fault scarp along the Mission Creek Branch of the San Andreas Fault. The hill in the background is rising relative to the flats at the base of the hill. This is the Coachella Valley Preserve as viewed from the Pushawalla Palm trail.

Fault scarp along the Mission Creek Branch of the San Andreas Fault.

How much has the land masses moved as a result of tectonic plate activity. Geologists believe that the total accumulate displacement from earthquakes and slow creep is at least 350 miles along the San Andreas fault since it came into being 15-20 million years ago. This means that at one point in time LA and San Francisco were neighboring land masses. Although its hard to imagine that amount of shifting, it is consistent with the rate measured in historical time. We have a great examples right in Pushawalla Canyon of horizontal land displacement caused by movement along the fault.


In the picture below, the black line identifies the original Pushawalla Canyon alignment that existed millions of years ago. This significant displacement, in excess of 0.3 miles, along the fault (right-lateral deflection or offset) has resulted in a new and smaller wash being created. Right lateral slip/displacement means that if you stand on either side of the fault the land in front of you has moved to the right.

Pushawalla Canyon displacement occurring over millions of years .

This map (courtesy of the USG) shows the approximate location of the Mission Creek, Banning and San Andreas Faults that dissect the communities surrounding Palm Desert. We will definitely have problems when the big one hits, but we've accepted that risk. Circled in blue is the area where the above pictures were taken.

Mission Creek,  Banning and San Andreas Faults

ShakeAlertLA app




As a homeowner in southern CA proximity to the fault system means we need to be smart and prepared for an earthquake. I downloaded the 'Shake Alert LA', the early earthquake warning app. The app sends alerts to users within Los Angeles County that an earthquake of greater than magnitude 4.5 intensity has been detected and that they may soon feel shaking. Click on the hyperlinked text above to download the app.















The Big One podcast hosted by Jacob Margolis from KPCC

In terms of being prepared for an earthquake, there are a ton of resources available from local and state agencies. I found a great podcast 'The Big One' hosted by Jacob Margolis, Science Reporter for KPCC (#JacobMargolis). He's a great story teller and asks some pointed questions that will make you question your readiness to survive the big one. It was great listening for my runs in Palm Desert.


The first podcast starts out by stating, "There's a 50% chance that some time in the next 30 years, Southern California will be crippled by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. It'll take less than two minutes for more than 10 million people to lose water, power, internet. So let's start our journey to understand what the disaster means for Los Angeles, the U.S. and the world."


You know the saying, 'The best time to prepare for any disaster is before it happens.'. We've used a number of earthquake planning guides to help get us ready. We reviewed the condo for 'shake risk' items such as mirrors, pictures, televisions and objects that hang on the walls. Rule #1 is that nothing heavy or breakable hangs on the wall above a bed. We assembled supplies to help us weather 5-10 days without services post-quake. Among the items in our supply cabinets are 15 gallons of water, foods for 2 weeks (mostly canned good and freeze dried camping foods), sleeping bags (if we cant safely go back into the condo), first aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, tools (including a crowbar that stays under the bed), and a 'portable toilet' consisting of a 5-gallon pail and bag of kitty litter.

We also have 2 portable, foldable solar charging stations for cell phones. Dave picked them up on Amazon. I think we are as ready as can be.

Quick update: On April 3, 2020 we experienced our first earthquake. A 4.9 quake, centered in the mountains above the valley, hit in the middle of dinner. It was an experience we won't forget. There were a series of aftershocks that evening and during subsequent days. Full details are available in the 2020 California Events blog.


The mountains that surround us not only add to the desert's beauty but also are a major factor influencing rain and wind patterns in the Coachella Valley. When storm systems move through Southern California, the mountains, especially San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, block the passage of rain-producing weather systems.


As storm clouds approach, they are forced to rise over the mountains which causes the air to cool and drop its moisture before it crosses the mountain tops. The air, without much moisture left, advances across the mountains creating a drier desert climate on the leeward side. This phenomenon is called the 'rain shadow effect'.

By Meg Stewart at https://flickr.com/photos/54129171@N00/8644087724

The mountains also strongly influence wind patterns in the area. Just north of Palm Springs at the entrance to the Coachella Valley is the San Gorgonio Pass. Air is funneled from the ocean to the valley through this pass, which is one of the deepest passes in the 48 contiguous states. With San Jacinto rising 10,833 ft on one side and San Gorgonio rising 11,503 ft on the other side, it is also one of the windiest spots in the US. So it's a great place to install wind turbines. In fact, there's an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 turbines in the pass with a combined total output of 600-900 megawatts of electricity.

Wind turbines in San Gorgonio Pass

On a typical sunny day, the sun beats down and warms the desert floor creating a high pressure area. Slowly the hot air rises and begins to create an area of low pressure. As pressure falls, air starts rushing into the Coachella Valley from the coast through the San Gorgonio pass. It takes several hours for this process to start, but sometimes meteorological condition combine to really enhance this effect. We know this is happening when we get a buildup of clouds on the mountain tops that looks like these pictures.

Wind storm clouds over San Jacinto Mountains
Wind storm clouds over San Jacinto Mountains

Then usually during the evening, the wind ... and I mean strong winds ... barrel down the mountains to the desert floor. Occasionally wind advisories are triggered from the National Weather Service. When everything settles down, we go outside pick up the fallen palm tree bark and fronds and clean off the outdoor furniture which is covered in a layer of fine dirt particles. Life in the CA desert!

But these mountains and meteorological conditions also combine to provide us with some amazing sunsets.

Sunset over San Jacinto Mountains
Sunset over San Jacinto Mountains
Sunset over Salton Sea and Santa Rosa Mountains

Living in Palm Desert provides us with a higher quality of life in the winter but along with that comes some higher costs of living. But it's worth it. During early March 2020, the lowest gas price we could find was $3.15 which was about $0.80 per gallon more than back home in NH.

High gas prices in Sothern California

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