Palm Springs is hot in July. Very hot. Wearing my mask, I grab a double-double and a vanilla shake from California’s most iconic burger chain, In N Out, and start up a winding road into the mountains. This road, California Highway 74 and turning into California Highway 243, is known as the Palms to Pines National Scenic Byway, or colloquially just as Palms to Pines. Over the next 72 miles, I will gain – and then lose – more than 6,000 feet of elevation, witness several complete changes of flora and fauna, and complete one of the most wonderful and beautiful day trips from Los Angeles.
Mt. San Jacinto as seen from Palm Desert.
Palm Springs sits at 220 feet above sea level in the northwestern corner of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from here through Arizona and into northern Mexico. Scrub brush and low cacti define the landscape, along with the namesake palms, though the huge groves of date palms that were here when I was a child are now mostly a relic of the past, replaced by golf courses and strip malls in the name of progress. Highway 74 begins just south of Highway 111 on Monterey Road, first passing the Living Desert Zoo before starting up Mt. Santa Rosa’s northern face.
As soon as the highway exits the suburban sprawl, a sign welcomes visitors to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a mouthful to say the least. This is not a national monument run by the National Parks Service; rather, the Bureau of Land Management oversees the site, along with dozens of others throughout the country. The road runs through a series of switchbacks before reaching the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It’s a perfect spot for lunch overlooking the entire Palm Springs area, and a sign that I’ve already gained a good deal of elevation.
The Coachella Valley Vista Point
The next logical stop is at the Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point. Here, large boulders and scrub brush, and some small trees, have replaced the largely barren landscape of the earlier vistas. There is a short nature trail here, fully paved, that talks about some of the local wildlife and plants, as well as the tribes who called – and still call – the area home. This is the farthest edge of the National Monument, as from here, the road enters the Santa Rosa Reservation, before moving back into federal protected forest and then Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
The plant life has changed here at Cahuilla Tewanet.
Leveling off here at around 5,000 feet (although we will reach 6,500 on the south slope of Mt. San Jacinto), the vegetation changes again. Hardwood trees become the predominant feature, and grasses cover much of the ground. While most don’t associate the Sonoran Desert with snowfall – and rightly so – the mountains here receive snow every winter, with the peak of Mt. San Jacinto getting up to 6-8 feet annually. Sitting at nearly 11,000 feet, it towers over the desert, and offers a stunning winter backdrop.
California Highway 74 continues to Hemet, west of the mountains, but Palms to Pines turns back to the north, here following California Highway 243 around the peak of Mt. San Jacinto and ultimately back down close to sea level, meeting Interstate 10 in Banning. The road passes through the mountain resort town of Idyllwild. Yes, it’s a holiday weekend, but it’s also a global pandemic and I am surprised to see that the town is packed. As I’m doing this drive in an effort to be socially distant, I don’t stop.
My next – and final – stop is the Indian Vista Scenic Overlook. It features huge views of the mountains, the last and maybe best you’ll get from this side, as the road will start its steep descent soon. I smell the clean, fresh air, not wanting to return to the urban jungle, then return to the car for the long drive back.
As the road winds down to Banning and Los Angeles’ eastward sprawl, I take a last glance at the mountains. Right now, escapes like this are the closest thing I have to travel, and while that thought frustrates me, I am grateful for the ability to leave the city even for a few hours, connecting with nature and my ever-present desire to see something new and different. The Palms to Pines Highway gave me that.
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