Desert Hiking In Whitewater Preserve: Pacific Crest Trail To Red Dome
- Best Season: Spring Winter
- Check Trail Conditions: Whitewater Preserve (760) 325‐7222
- Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 413 feet
- Route Type: Loop, as written below
- Trail Type: Dirt (single track) and river bottom
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Parking: Paved lot (donations accepted)
- Locality: Colorado Desert
- Nearest City: Morongo Valley, CA
- Kid-Friendly: Yes
- Dog-Friendly: Yes
As Southern California hikers, we know that there are good hikes for summer (shaded or near the coast), and hikes that can only be done in the winter–especially some of those out in the desert. One of our favorite hikes last year was one of those “winter hikes”, Devil’s Punchbowl and Devil’s Chair, out near Palmdale in the High Desert. We’d hoped to get in some more desert hikes this winter, but the unseasonably warm/hot temperatures have actually forced us to hit the coast three different times since November! Finally a few weeks ago, temperatures were projected to be low enough to head out to a desert hike we’ve been wanting to get to since before last summer–Whitewater Preserve, between Banning and Palm Springs, off I-10, past the Morongo Casino.
I’d seen pictures of it posted on Samsoutdoors and all had posted on social media about how beautiful it was (though they also warned about the wind…). And since the two most popular trails in the Preserve were only about 4 miles round trip, which is within our current poor-fitness range, we took advantage of the first cool day to get out to the desert. Of course, if you want to go farther than four miles, the Pacific Crest Trail cuts through the middle of the Preserve, so you can take a leisurely 725 mile hike to Tuolomne Meadows at Yosemite, or if you really want to stretch your legs, you can go the full 2,445 miles to Canada!
In one of my favorite trailhead encounters, just as we got ready to start our measly 4 mile hike, which does, in fact, overlap the Pacific Crest Trail for a mile or so, a couple pulled up in a brand new Corvette with dealer plates, and the girl in the passenger seat asked, “Are there hiking trails here?” I nodded in the affirmative, and she asked “How far can you go on them?” I answered, “Canada!” Her eyes got really big and she asked, “How long does that take?” I answered that it took about 4-6 months usually, and she stared at me, said thank you, and they took off back down the road.
The grounds around the trailhead and parking lot are very nice, with shaded picnic tables, a visitor’s center, and some big ponds full of giant trout, a tribute to the property’s past as a fish hatchery and trout farm, where they still hold youth fly fishing days to this day.
The Preserve itself is almost 3,000 acres, surrounded by the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and featuring the year round Whitewater River running through a valley right through the middle of it. The eastern wall of the valley is pretty steep and rocky, and is a common place for spotting bighorn sheep, while the western side is a little more rounded. The road into the preserve features hillsides covered with energy producing windmills–hinting at the near constant winds in this area.
Weather-wise, this is an interesting spot, as we were in dark cloud cover and occasional rain on our drive all the way from Orange County to Whitewater. Nearly exactly at the offramp for the Whitewater Preserve, we came out from under the cloud cover, and were suddenly in the sunlight. Over the western wall of the canyon, we could see the dark, rainy clouds, which looked like they were blowing on over us, but somehow they never did. It was fascinating to watch them appear to be moving towards us, but never getting to us. It was the kind of meteorological effect that I wish I understood better. It stayed quite windy the whole time, but it remained sunny in the canyon, even as it was cloudy and wet on the ridge.
Head north from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, where you’ll find the mileage monument above as well as an informational display and even a trash can designed for your “dog waste”. The trail is very clearly marked, and lined with small rocks along the initial stretch. There are two quick junctions, one where you go straight, and one where you turn left, but both decisions are pretty obvious, by following the signs and the rock lined trail.
Shortly thereafter, the rocks lining the trail disappear meaning that you need a GPS unit to figure out what the proper path is. In a wet season, or after a rain, you may have several water crossings on the initial stretch, but on this particular day, most washes were dry, and the ones with water in them were easy to cross on rocks, so we didn’t get wet. About a half mile from the visitor’s center, we came to the last one on the initial stretch, across the largest stem of the river. It had a wood bridge laid across it, though older hiking reports indicate that it is frequently washed away.
Not too long thereafter, we came to a large limb planted in the ground, with a faint path to the right, and a clearer one towards the left. The limb may not always be there, but again, it is obvious enough which way to go. This happened to be where we re-joined the main trail on our return trip down the river, so it is worth noting. A quarter mile or so past the bridge, you will come to the signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. To the left is the southward stretch of the PCT to Mexico, and the 3.5 mile loop of Canyon View Trail. To the right, is the northbound trail you can take all the way to Yosemite or Canada–or roughly another mile or so to red dome, which was our choice today.
As cool as it was to be hiking along “the” Pacific Crest Trail, this section was really the most boring part of the hike. There were no water crossings (on this day, at least) and it was largely desert scrub vegetation. After about a mile, you’ll see a reddish point on a ridge approaching the trail on the left, and a red rock towards the right in the river bed. When you hit the red rock point, you will actually find yourself passing between the point on the left, a red volcanic rock on the right, and the river directly in front of you.
This smaller red rock on the side of the trail doesn’t appear to be “the” red dome, but it makes a nice rest area next to the river. You might think this is red dome, but as far as I can tell from our map, the actual red dome is about 50 yards down river to the right. On this day, there was a series of logs across the river for crossing on your way to Yosemite, but again, there is no guarantee, because of the great potential for flooding through here. This crossing by the rock and on the river makes for a really nice place to snack or lunch or just rest and even read before heading back.
I prefer loop hikes to out-and-back trips, and prefer riverside hikes to dry hikes, so we decided that rather than just walking back on the same trail from whence we came, we would return along the river instead, picking our way along the sandy, boulder strewn banks.
This was a much more entertaining way to return, and we enjoyed the choose-your-own-adventure nature of our trek. The river was beautiful, and lived up to its Whitewater name, as it cascaded loudly and frothy over the rocks all the way downstream. Even when a path we chose seemed to dead-end or become impassable, rarely did it take us more than a few seconds to find a new route, and never more than 50 feet or so from the river. This is about as rough as the non-trail got. And we probably could have picked an easier path here, but chose to hug the river rather than move even 50 feet away. View towards the visitor’s center from the parking lot. Apparently a bighorn sheep was spotted on the rock wall above the center not long before we got there, but we didn’t see it. Can you?
We’ve heard that the Canyon View Loop Trail is great for wildflowers in the spring, but we fear that the lack of rain this year is going to spoil the bloom. It does have great views of Mount San Jacinto, though, which we have hiked previously, so we may return this year even if there aren’t any flowers to see.
Both of us loved the desert beauty of this hike, and the bubbling river, and highly recommend this hike. But definitely check the weather first. It can be deadly hot in the summer and on unseasonably warm spring and fall days, and it is frequently very windy. On this day, winds were consistently present, and while the average may have only been 10-15 mph (as the weather forecast suggested), the ranger said there were gusts up to 40 mph, so if the weather reports high winds in the area–believe it!!! Furthermore, if you look at the pictures of the river bed, it can get VERY wide and high during flash floods, so be wary if rain is predicted in the mountains and check in with the rangers before you go whenever possible.