As we did last year, and what will continue to be a tradition for our family, we spent Christmas in the Palm Springs area staying with my parents, and flew our boys down from Calgary to join us. We stayed on after Christmas and enjoyed the month of January in sunny California – well perhaps not “sunny,” as we did have several days of torrential rain and below-average temperatures, but still significantly better than any January in Canada! While we did find time for sightseeing, we also earned our keep by attending to a few home improvements around my parents’ abode. Truthfully, that would be the royal “we,” it was all Howard – I spent my time playing cards with my Mom whilst savouring our new favourite adult beverage, peanut butter whiskey. Don’t let that rather strange sounding combination turn you off, it was so smooth with just a hint of sweetness and dee-licious over ice!
Last January we did a bit of hiking through the Joshua Tree National Park and the Coachella Valley Preserve as well as a day trip down to the Salton Sea, which left such an impression on us that we wanted our boys to experience it this time; their overriding impression was that it was just weird.
This year we hiked a few trails in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and the Whitewater Preserve. Unfortunately, both Preserves suffered massive damage from the catastrophic flooding following Tropical Storm Hilary in August, 2023 and many of their trails were inaccessible.
The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is situated on land that was part of the historic Maringa Native American Serrano settlement. The preserve is considered a “transition” zone between the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert which results in a wide variety of natural diversity and is quite a lovely area to walk through.
The Whitewater Preserve encompasses the portion of the Whitewater River as it flows through a desert canyon. The Preserve intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail, a looong 2,653 mi (4,270 km) trail through the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, and is home to 200 species of birds as well as deer, bears, and Desert Bighorn Sheep, a few of which we spotted meandering along the top of one of the ridges.
In contrast to the wild beauty of these two preserves is the manicured landscape of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage. Often billed as the “Camp David of the West,” this 200-acre property was the former estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, philanthropists from Philadelphia. The Annenbergs purchased the land in 1963 and began construction on a 25,000-square-foot home that would become their winter retreat as well as the site for a significant number of high-level political gatherings over the ensuing decades.
Mrs. Annenberg was predeceased by her husband in 2002. Before she died in 2009 she transferred ownership of the property to The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, designating 15 acres of land for a visitors’ center to share the history of the Annenbergs and Sunnylands. There are nine acres of desert gardens surrounding the Sunnyland Centre, featuring 53,000 individual plants. Audio guides explaining the grounds may be downloaded to your phone and provide highly informative commentary as you roam past the plantings. Admission to the gardens is free and they are open to the public from mid-September to early June. The historic Sunnylands home is primarily a private retreat/events venue but does offer limited (paid), guided tours (reservations are required).
Roughly a 4-hour drive from the Palm Springs area, in the northern Mojave Desert, lies Death Valley. On July 10, 1913, the hottest air temperature on earth was recorded at Furnace Creek – 134 °F (56.7 °C). The Lut Desert in Iran and the Sonoran Desert along the Mexican-U.S. border have the Valley beat for surface temperature, with a blistering 177.4°F (80.8°C) – I can’t imagine what that would feel like! Funnily enough, extreme heat is not how the Valley earned its name. In the winter of 1849-50, during the California Gold Rush, a group of prospectors en route to the American River took what they hoped would be a short-cut and lost their way. When they finally climbed out of the valley to safety one of the men supposedly looked back at the harsh landscape and muttered “Goodbye, death valley.” In January we didn’t find the climate at all deadly with daytime temperatures in the low to mid-60s F (16-20 °C) – perfect weather for walking.
Flooding has been a huge problem in this area recently and we were disappointed to come across several road and trail closures. We did enjoy the short hike up to the Natural Bridge, and the drive alone through the Park allowed us to admire the subtle hues sweeping across the mountains as a result of various iron and volcanic ash deposits. The Visitors’ Centre is worth a quick stop too for several interesting historical tidbits.
While some gold and silver deposits were discovered in Death Valley, the more lucrative mineral was borax. One of the notable mining operations was the Harmony Borax Works, made particularly famous by its use of twenty-mule teams. Two wagons containing a combined weight of 9.1 tonnes of borax ore were hitched to a team of two horses and eighteen mules who would pull this behemoth to the nearest railroad spur 165 miles (266 km) away!
And now for something completely different. On our way out to the Death Valley National Park we took a slight detour off Route 66 into San Bernardino to see the site of the original McDonald brothers’ restaurant. Opened in 1940 as a barbecue drive-in, the brothers soon realized the bulk of their sales were hamburgers. They simplified their menu and began selling burgers, fries and soda pop, franchising the concept in 1953. Ray Kroc bought the business in 1961 and the rest is history.
The pylon sign out front is authentic, but the original restaurant was demolished in 1971. The property didn’t enter foreclosure until 1998, when it was purchased by a local businessman who erected a new building as an unofficial (free) museum housing McDonald’s memorabilia, most of which is Happy Meal toys from around the world. A quirky bit of Americana. Off to Cambodia!