Hike Cactus Spring Trail: Mar 2020

Updated: Jan 18

Hike Distance: 5.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,204 feet

The Cactus Spring hike is also referred to as the Horsethief Creek trail.


Today was our first venture into the higher elevations of the Santa Rosa Wilderness Area. Our previous major hike in the Wilderness Area, Bear Creek Oasis, started in La Quinta Cove on the valley floor. The starting elevation for this trail was approximately 4,880 feet; along with the elevation gain came a welcomed drop in temperature.


The Santa Rosa Wilderness is a 72,259-acre wilderness area is located in the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert, above the Coachella Valley. Most of the Wilderness is within the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. This area, managed by both the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, was established by the US Congress in 1984.


The views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains from the parking lot. We've had similar views but from much lower elevations. We had driven 17+ miles on Hwy 74 and gained 4600+ feet in elevation.

San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains from the parking lot of Cactus Spring trailhead

Martinez Mountain (6,562 ft) is one of the most significant summits in the Santa Rosas.

Martinez Mountain from Cactus Spring trailhead in Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

From the parking lot you can see the snow covered Santa Rosas (6,000+ ft elevations).

Santa Rosa Mountains from Cactus Spring trailhead

From the trailhead we followed a dirt road/wide trail to the junction of the Cactus Spring trail straight ahead and the Sawmill trail to the right. From the start it was clear we'd be seeing a different variety of plant life along the trail.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Being responsible hikers, we signed the trail register at the entrance to Cactus Springs.

Signing the trail log on the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

At this elevation, we began walking in the transition zone between the transmontane or desert chaparral and desert ecosystems. Transmontane chaparral refers to the desert shrubland habitat and chaparral plant community growing in the rainshadow of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges; it's typically on the eastern slopes of major mountain range systems on the western sides of the deserts of California.

Snow covered Santa Rosa Mountains from Cactus Spring trail

Transmontane chaparral grows above California's desert cactus scrub plant community and below the pinyon-juniper woodland. The desert species were near their upper elevation ranges and the montane species were near their lower elevation range. On the trail there were plenty of desert plants like beavertail cactus and agave alongside area of open woodland with redshank, manzanita and pinyon pines.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Pinyon pines (below) and juniper are abundant on the early sections of the route and they mix in with chaparral plants. These trees are more representative of upper chaparral and higher elevation ecosystems.

Pinyon Pines along the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

I don't consider myself an amateur botanist, but it's amazing to look at a single picture and observe such a diverse plant life. In the foreground manzanita (transmontane), left of center beavertail cactus (high desert), center redshank (transmontane), and right of center a pine tree (upper transmontane and pinyon-juniper region). You can see why nature lovers find this trail so enjoyable.

Transmontane region. Manzanita, beavertail cactus and redshank along Cactus Spring trail in the Santa

After a little more than 0.5 mile we encountered some abandoned mining equipment that once served a handful of old dolomite mines. You’ll know dolomite by the white rock littering the ground, as well as the cone-shaped, gleaming white hill where the mining occurred.

Old Dolomite mine along Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness
Old Dolomite mine along Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

After the dolomite mines, the trails became more of a rollercoaster with the occasional rise followed by a more rapid lose in elevation.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Red shank was the dominant shrub in the chaparral and can grow as tall as 18 feet. This evergreen shrub gets the name red shank from its red bark. Another name for the plant is ribbon wood so named because the outer bark peels off in long ribbons, revealing a red bark underneath. Leaves are small and needlelike and their yellow-orange foliage is the perfect contrast to the red bark. Red shank is extremely drought tolerant, requiring no water once established. Various plant parts have been used by natives to treat arthritis, colds and stomach ailments.

Redshank shrub along the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

The trail dropped into a number of drainage areas for the surrounding terrain.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

After less than 1.25 miles we entered the Santa Rosa Wilderness area.

Entering Santa Rosa Wilderness along the Cactus Spring trail
Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

We crested a small hill and from here on out we were losing elevation quickly bringing us closer to the trail's lowest point at Horsethief Creek.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness. Martinez Mountain from Cactus Spring trail

Here's a great picture that highlights how north facing slopes are dominated by more wooded areas while south facing slopes are dominated by desert plants. Plant diversity is driven not only by elevation but also orientation and other factors such as slope and proximity to water sources.

Martinez Mountain from the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

After less than 1.5 miles we saw a prominent yellow-green color that stood out from the brown sandy hillside.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

It was an entire slope was covered in prickly pear cactus. We had never seen such dense coverage.

Hillside covered in prickly pear cactus along the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness
Beavertail cactus. Prickly pear cactus

I can't imagine what this area will look like when the cacti are in full bloom.

Hillside covered in prickly pear cactus along the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

There was also a significant number of Chaparral yucca. This plant is also known as Our Lord's Candle and Spanish bayonet. It produces a stemless cluster of long, rigid leaves which end in a sharp point. The leaf edges are finely saw-toothed. It often grows in sandy washes in the desert or inland valleys. Chaparral yucca typically takes 5-10 years to reach maturity, at which point it amazingly shoots up a flower spike to about 10-15 feet in about two weeks of growth. The spikes bear a spectacular display of hundreds of bell shaped white to purplish flowers. Unfortunately, we were a little early for the bloom.

Chaparral yucca, Lord's Candle and Spanish bayonet along Cactus Spring Trail in Santa Rosa Wilderness

After the cactus covered hill the route followed along the wooded northern slope.

Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness
Hiking the Cactus Spring trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

As we approached the bottom of this ravine, we heard a trickle of water from a small creek. Historically, this trail was used by the Cahuilla Indians for centuries, mainly because it passed water sources as they traveled from the low to high elevations with the change of season and harvesting times. I wonder of the creek dries up in the heat of the hot dry summer.

Creek along the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Up the other side of the ravine and on to the next step down toward Horsethief Creek.

Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness
Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness
Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

From here it was just a few short switchbacks to reach Horsethief Creek which was surrounded by the bright lime green color of cottonwood and ash trees this time of year.


Bright green cottonwood and ash trees along the Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

Fed by springs upstream, the Horsethief Creek flows year-round to provide an important watering source. For March, there was a generous amount of water flowing in the creek and pools by the crossing. We decided to stop on our way back and to continue hiking.

Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

The trail rises quickly above the canyon floor.

Bright green cottonwood and ash trees along the Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

The steep, no-nonsense climb brought us to the western slopes of Little Pinyon Flat.

Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Looking into the wash on the other side of the canyon bordering the creek.

Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

We continued hiking to the top of this ridge where we'd stop for lunch and turnaround.

Hiking the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

Returning to the creek would be one of the few downhill sections of the hike back to the car.

Hiking down Horsethief Creek ravine in the Santa Rosa Wilderness
Hiking down Horsethief Creek ravine in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

Re-entering the canyon with the creek directly below us.

Hiking down Horsethief Creek ravine in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

Back at the creek, we chilled on the rocks along the water's edge.

Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

There was a frog swimming in one of the pools.

Frog in the Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness
Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness
Horsethief Creek in the Santa Rosa Wilderness

After the break we started our uphill climb back to the car.

Hiking over rocky and eroded section of Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

I'm not sure how we missed this cholla cactus covered hill on our way to the creek.

Hillside covered in cholla cactus along the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain

All along the trail were Big Berry Manzanita. Manzanitas are the second most common chaparral plant in both California and Oregon. In fact, California is manzanita central; all but three of the ninety species found in the wild are endemic to the state. The shrub reproduces by seed and by layering. Seeds require exposure to fire before they can germinate, and seedlings often appear in profusion after a fire.

Manzanitas along the Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

They are characterized by mahogany-cinnamon color smooth bark and twisted trunks and branches. The leaves are bright shiny green and smooth wedge-shaped. In the desert these plants hold their leaves perpendicular to the sun to minimize water loss. Manzanitas bloom with small white flowers in the winter to early spring and carry berries in spring and summer.


Native Americans treated poison oak rash using a tea made from manzanita leaves. The leaves contain chemicals with a mildly disinfectant quality and can be used for mild urinary tract infections. It's also been shown that chewing on the leaves, without ingestion, can cure stomach issues like cramps and aches. The berries have also been used to treat bronchitis and kidney problems.

Did I already mention that the return hike was almost all uphill.

Hiking over rocky and eroded section of Cactus Springs trail in the Santa Rosa Mountain Wilderness

We will have one unusual memory from this hike. As we were approaching the end of the hike, my nephew called to tell us that he and his wife were expecting a baby in October. A nice and very different way to end our first hike in the high elevations of the Santa Rosa Wilderness.


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