Hike Distance: 6.3 miles
Pushawalla Palms Trail is located in the Indio Hills of the 17,000 acre Coachella Valley Preserve Area, home to the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard and the spectacular Thousand Palm Oasis. Unlike last February when I completed a short hike on this trail focused on the super bloom (click the hyperlink for the blog), today's hike was all about completing the loop.
The area is brimming with interesting geology. The reason we have the magnificent mountain and hills is because of millions of years of tectonic plate activity. The San Andreas fault system caused the mountain ranges to uplift sharply on either side of the valley and the Indio Hills to be uplifted on the valley floor.
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 direct evidence visible in the Coachella Valley Preserve and surrounding trails.
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. On the left, groundwater has been dammed by the fault creating a palm oasis with abundant lush plant life in this 'green zone'. On the right palm trees grow along a trace of the fault where earthquakes have pulverized rocks that allowed springs to burst to the surface.
An aerial view further highlights the presence of lush plant life along the Mission Creek Fault. Courtesy of USGS.
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. The resulting groundwater dam has created the fertile ground for Palm Trees and other plant to thrive at the base of the hill. This picture was taken from todays hike.
Yes, if the 'Big One' struck along the San Andreas then all those car as well as Dave and I would be in the 'wrong' spot.
The trail is popular among locals as well as visitors but we were hoping most of these people were only interested in admiring the wild flowers in the wash.
A few people were hiking in the wash to our left, but we chose to hike the ridgeline to Pushawalla Palms.
The crowd thinned out quickly with each hill that we climbed. The well-beaten trail was easy to follow. What a difference a year makes. During the super bloom of 2019 this trail was lined with wildflowers but now there were just occasional clumps to photograph.
To our north was a dry wash with sparse plant life.
To our south, a line of palm trees and brush thriving from the water that percolates through bedrock that's been fractured by movements along the fault lines.
There were only a few remaining hikers by the time we reached the last hill.
We were almost 900 ft above the valley floor. There was extensive erosion on the north facing slopes and the line of palm trees were barely visible at the base of the hills.
We reached the junction where the trail heads down to the wash.
After 1.75 miles we could finally see Pushawalla Canyon where the grove was located.
We began our descent.
After less than 15 minutes, we arrived at a small stand of palm trees growing on the hillside.
We crossed a small plateau before continuing our descent to the wash.
Small wildflowers were in bloom after recent rains including these lilac sunbonnets..
Lupines, much smaller than last year.
Sand blazing stars
Tiny Desert Five Spot flowers less than 1/2 inch in diameter. The flowers are dark-pink to lilac with five overlapping petals, each with a dark red/purple spot near the base. They open in the afternoon and close at night.
This last section of the route was heavily eroded from recent heavy rains and flash flooding.
The wash was a thick green lush environment. Just look at the color of the bushes lining the slopes. Everywhere we looked where palm trees.
These are the California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), the only palm native to the US. Primary populations are found in desert riparian habitats at spring-fed and stream-fed oases in the Colorado Desert and at a few scattered locations in the Mojave Desert. Notice the flowing water in front of the palms. The stream flowed through the wash but would sporadically disappear into the sand and then mysteriously reappearing further down the wash.
The California fan palm can live up to 80-130 years; grow up to 75 feet tall; and has leaves shaped like a fan that fold like accordion. Their leaves can reach about 6 feet long and wide.
Hard to believe this picture was taken in the middle of a desert.
The telltale sign of the California Fan Palm is the “skirt” of old dead palm fronds that cascade downwards around its trunk rather than dropping off, like other palms. The shelter that the skirt creates provides a microhabitat for many small birds and invertebrates.
We continued following the trail through the Pushawalla Canyon but after a short distance we met a group of hikers who told us the trail was washed out and not passable so we turned around.
Back at the spot where we had entered the wash, we proceeded to hike further downstream. This section of the trail looked more like a walk through a wetlands area. Notice how the flowing water was now just a trickle in the sand.
There was no longer any visible surface water but the health of the plants indicated there was a reliable source of groundwater.
From the map app and local topography, it was clear that following the wash out of the canyon would drop us a considerable distance from the car/trailhead. In addition, storm clouds were moving into the area.
So once again we turned around to begin our hike out of the canyon.
Palm trees were not always synonymous with Southern California. As a part of the Los Angeles beautification program prior to the 1932 Olympics, 25,000 palm trees were planted all over the city putting many of the city’s unemployed back to work.
Once on the plateau above us, we could connect with a trail that brought us to the palm tree lined wash that we had seen at the start of the hike.
A trail from the plateau led us to this grove located at the base of the hills.
We followed the wash until we reached a spot where we could climb to the ridge and follow the last of the trail back to the car.
Cheesebush is a common desert plant in the daisy family. It is covered in white or yellow flowers from March to June. These flowers have a pungent limburger cheese scent when crushed.
Creosote bushes are a prominent species in the desert The root systems of mature creosote plants are so efficient at absorbing water that fallen seeds from nearby plants cannot accumulate enough water to germinate, effectively creating dead zones around every bush.
To minimize water loss, their branches are mostly oriented to the SE to take advantage of the cooler morning sun.
Creosote also secrets lots of waxy, resinous compounds. One study showed that when desert woodrats eat creosote leaves, the compounds within caused the rats to lose more water through their urine and feces. They also caused a reduction in the amount of energy the rats were able to absorb from food. In other words, any mammal that regularly feeds on creosote runs the risk of both dehydration and starvation.
Barring major disturbances, creosote can live a long, long time. In fact, one particular patch of creosote growing in the Mojave Desert is thought to be one of the oldest living organisms (somewhere around 11,700 years old) on Earth.
Barrel cacti in are found across the deserts of Mexico and Baja California, and four species grow in the American Southwest; only one, the California Barrel Cactus, is found in the state. They are typically found growing along desert washes. Yellow flowers grow in a crown around the top of the plant, blooming from April through June. We caught any early showing here.
Look closely and you'll see hikers on the ridge above us. A look at the storms clouds that had concerned us when we were looking for alternative routes out of Pushawalla Canyon.
Thanks to the San Andreas Fault System, we can look back at this ribbon of palm tree that line the lower hillside.
Walking through the wash was a nice break from the lush green wash in Pushawalla Canyon. This area served as a reminder that we are in the middle of a great desert.
Fortunately, the clouds passed by without dropping any rain. To be honest, I wasn't too thrilled about the possibility of being in the canyon wash if a thunderstorm hit.
The Pushawalla Canyon is a perfect example 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.
This was our last hike of 2020 before the state-wide stay-at-home order was issued by CA Governor Newsom on March 19, 2020.