Hike Willis Palms Oasis: May 2020

Updated: Jan 9

Hike Distance: 4.4 miles


Our extended winter stay in Palm Desert was coming to an end and I wanted to bring Dave on a hike of the Willis Palm Oasis Trail. I had hiked a portion of this trail during the 2020 City Nature Challenge to capture nature observations. Click here to navigate to that blog. I had enjoyed the trail even though I completed less than half of the trail loop. So despite daytime temperatures closing in on 100°, we planned the hike to start in the late afternoon and take advantage of the setting sun.


The 4.4 mile lollipop trail sits at the base of Little San Bernardino Mountains in the Coachella Valley Preserve. The trail started out in a sandy wash at the base of hills that have been uplifted by tectonic plate movement. In fact we were walking along the Mission Creek fault which is part of the San Andreas fault network. For more details about the impact of the faults on these hills, click here to navigate to an earlier blog about the nearby Pushawalla Palms trail.

Sandy wash on the Willis Palms Trail Loop

A great way to start the hike, in the distance we spotted a coyote wandering around the desert flats.

Coyote in Willis Palms Oasis

The first sign that we were hiking along the fault line was the abundant and diverse plant growth. 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. But there is direct evidence visible in these hills.


Groundwater dammed by the fault percolates through bedrock fractured and pulverized by plate movement. As shown in this aerial shot (courtesy of USGS), these action results in a 'green zone' of lush plant life along the narrow fault zone.

Despite the blazing temperatures these plants look very healthy.

Flowering Encelia at Willis Palms Oasis
Lush plants along Willis Palm grove

The desert iguana was disturbed by our presence. He's standing more upright to make himself look bigger and more threatening to a predator.

Desert iguana on Willis Palms Trail Loop
Desert iguana on Willis Palms Trail Loop

It wasn't long before we approached the start of the Willis Palms.

Willis Palm grove.  California palm trees along Willis Palms Trail Loop

This oasis of California palm tree stretches over 1,200 feet along the base of these uplifted foothills.

Willis Palm grove.  California palm trees along Willis Palms Trail Loop

Willis Palms is a testament to nature’s resilience. A fire burned much of the grove in November 2010. Ten years later the trunks are still black, but the bats and birds that lost their homes when the fire destroyed the palms’ skirts have since returned.

Willis Palm grove.  California palm trees along Willis Palms Trail Loop
Charred trucks from November 2010 fire in Willis Palm grove

A picture of the Willis Palms less than 3 months after the fire (courtesy of Desert Stories).

After passing the palms, we continued following the trail through the wash.

Sandy wash Willis Palm Trail Loop

We passed two large mounds covered in a light tan hard sand/clay formation that stood out starkly against the brown sand and rock. These mounds are an exposed portion of the Imperial Formation - the only marine sedimentary layer (laid down under ocean water) in the valley. It's comprised of marine clays, sandstone and fossils; its thickness is reported as 2,000-2,500 feet.

Exposed portion of the Imperial Formation on Willis Palm Trail

There are only 3 areas within the valley where this Imperial Formation is exposed. Elsewhere the formation is overlain by thousands of feet of younger rock and debris formations eroded from the surrounding mountains. These mounds are clearly visible in the aerial shot posted earlier in the blog.

Exposed portion of the Imperial Formation on Willis Palm Trail

The wash was full of typical plant life taking advantage of rain water runoff from the hills. To our left and directly in front of us were the foothills of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Foothills of the Little San Bernardino Mountains on the Willis Palm Trail.

To our right were hills comprised of small rocks/pebbles, sand, and clay conglomerate that under pressure had formed a concrete-like surface. The two sides of the wash look different even though they are both the result of extreme geologic forces.

Conglomerate formation Willis Palm Trail Loop

A closer look at the conglomerate formation. The conglomerate is similar to what we see hiking in the Mecca Hills.

Conglomerate formation Willis Palm Trail Loop

It looks like a flower arrangement of orange desert sunflowers, yellow desert dandelions and purple desert san verbena was intentionally placed in the wash.

Arrangement of orange desert sunflowers, yellow desert dandelions and purple desert san verbena

Looking back at the wash and the San Jacinto Mountains rising tall above the valley floor.

San Jacinto Mountains rising tall above the valley floor

After 2.2 miles we started climbing the hills above the wash.

Climbing to the plateau on the Willis Palms Loop Trail

Once at the top, the trail followed the ridgeline.

Hiking on West Mesa Trail to Willis Palm grove

Looking down into the wash we had followed.

Wash on Willis Palms Loop Trail in foothills of Little San Bernardino Mountains
Wash on Willis Palms Loop Trail in foothills of Little San Bernardino Mountains

Along the trail we spotted a small lizard in the rocks. It took a while to find it because it blended in so well with the color of the surrounding sand - a Desert Horned Lizard. This lizard was 2-3 inches in length.

Desert Horned Lizard along the Willis Palms Loop Trail.

I think these lizards looks like small dinosaurs with the spiky tails and large pointed scales protruding from the back of their heads. This picture I found online really highlights their dinosaur-like qualities.

By Churnice - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22407935

Although the trail began a gradual descent, it looked like we were hiking on a small plateau. Splashes of green creosote and encelia plants dotted the terrain.

After hiking for a mile, the Wallis Palms came back into view. Only this time our view was looking down into the stand of trees.

Hiking down to the Willis Palm Grove from Willis Palms Loop Trail- West Mesa Trail
Charred trucks from November 2010 fire in Willis Palm grove

As we walked into the palm oasis, everywhere we looked there were grasses, large plants and a variety of palms.

Lush plant life in Willis Palm grove.  Dammed groundwater along the San Andreas Fault Network

Describing the environment as lush was an incredible understatement

Lush plant life in Willis Palm grove.  Dammed groundwater along the San Andreas Fault Network

The dammed groundwater trapped by plate movement, along the fault, supported this incredible 'green environment'. The sound of birds was everywhere.

Lush plant life in Willis Palm grove.  Dammed groundwater along the San Andreas Fault Network

It was like we had entered a different world.

Lush plant life in Willis Palm grove.  Dammed groundwater along the San Andreas Fault Network

I can only imagine the number of animals that call this oasis home. Off in the distance we could hear small animals rustling in the ground cover as we walked through the area.

Lush plant life in Willis Palm grove.  Dammed groundwater along the San Andreas Fault Network

Even today, the trunks of many palms remain blackened by the 2010 fire. What an amazing place to walk and enjoy

Charred trucks from November 2010 fire in Willis Palm grove

We exited the oasis through a steep section of trail that rejoined the wash. It was back to the dry, sandy, brush environment.

Willis Palm Loop Trail

The white patches on the hillside at the base of the trees are oyster fossil fields. Oyster shells stick out of the soft rock. The fields, visible because of erosion, formed over 3 million years ago when the valley floor was at the bottom of an warm shallow sea 30-100 feet deep. It is illegal to collect the ancient marine fossils.

Oyster fossil fields along the Willis Palm Trail Loop

Three hours after starting the hike, we were back to the car. Willis Palm Loop was an amazing adventure and I highly recommend this hike to experience a California Palm Oasis.

Sunsetting on the Willis Palm Loop Trail wash

The trail as captured on MapMyRun

To top off this excellent day, we had a beautiful sunset that evening.

Sunset over San Gorgonio Pass and San Jacinto

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