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The Best Desert Hikes in Southern California
Health & Fitness

The Best Desert Hikes in Southern California

Wondering where to do desert hiking in the Golden State? These are the 11 best desert hikes in Southern California.

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5 min read

February 08, 2022

Canyons, wildlife, red rock formations, sand dunes, and barren blooms—this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hiking in Southern California’s desert. Perfectly explorable during the spring, winter, and fall months, these awesome desert hiking trails rank among the best in the state and await you in your sturdy boots. Add these trails to your California national park bucket list and prepare to be amazed; you’re in for an unparalleled experience! 

Where to Go Desert Hiking in Southern California

The Cholla Cactus Garden has one of Joshua Tree National Park's one-of-a-kind features, the cholla cactus, which have fuzzy-looking but sharp spines.

1. Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail

Location: Joshua Tree National Park, Desert Hot Springs
Length: 0.2 mile
Difficulty: Easy
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: No

More of a short walk than a hike, the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail is a popular way to see the cacti in Joshua Tree National Park. If you’re visiting the Palm Springs area with kids, this is a perfect desert hiking experience to add to your itinerary. The little ones love seeing the blooming prickly plants covering the land—just be careful no one touches them!

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

2. Indio Hills Palms Park

Location: Indio Hills Palms, Desert Hot Springs
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: No

A hidden gem among Desert Hot Springs’ hiking trails, the Indio Hills Palms Park offers a great hike to see beautiful desert wildflowers. The biggest perk? You get to enjoy hiking in Desert Hot Springs without the usual crowds obstructing the vistas.

3. Hagen Canyon Nature Trail

Location: Hagen Canyon Nature Preserve, Cantil
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: Yes

Get your pooch to tag along as you enjoy hiking in Southern California’s desert destination. Traveling past red sandstone curtains, rock windows, and desert cliffs, the Hagen Canyon Trail features a generous number of natural attractions. While this desert hiking trail is only over a mile long, you can easily spend hours exploring the cliffs and side canyons just off the main trail. 

Walking: the most ancient exercise and still the best modern exercise. If you think you’ve peaked, find a new hike.

4. Teutonia Peak Trail

Location: Mojave National Preserve, Cima
Length: 3.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Out and back
Dogs allowed: On leash

The Teutonia Peak Trail is one of the very few signed and maintained desert hiking trails in Mojave National Preserve. Passing between two rows of boulders and offering great views all around, this awesome trail is what hiking in the Southern California desert is all about.

5. Hidden Horseshoe and Pushawalla Palms Trail

Location: Coachella Valley Preserve, Desert Hot Springs
Length: 4.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: No

The Pushawalla Palms Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails for good reason. Located within the 20,000-acre Coachella Valley Preserve, this trail exposes you to sand dunes, groves of desert palms, and a rich variety of wildlife—this includes the rare fringe-toed lizard that can’t be found anywhere else in the world!

The Cross Trail will allow you to enjoy local wildlife and greenery during your hike in Santa Rosa.

6. The Cross Trail

Location: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, Palm Desert
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Out and back
Dogs allowed: On leash

Also commonly referred to as the Palm Desert cross hike, this popular trail features a cross structure as its main attraction. The entire trail will take you about an hour or so to complete—there’s even a rest stop along the way, where you can take a breather by the picnic tables.

7. Whitewater Canyon Loop Trail

Location: Whitewater Preserve, Whitewater
Length: 3.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: On leash

How does a well-groomed and marked trail with beautiful views sound? Get yourself to the Whitewater Canyon Loop Trailhead. A perfect spot for desert hiking in Southern California, this heavily trafficked trail owes its popularity to the great vistas at the ridge and the creek that meanders along the bottom. 

The Bump and Grind Trail, one of the most popular in the Palm Springs area, is a short yet challenging loop hike that packs a lot of fun.

8. Bump and Grind Trail

Location: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, Palm Desert
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Loop 
Dogs allowed: No

Another awesome Palm Desert hike makes the list with the Bump and Grind Trail. You get breathtaking views of the city below as you meander along—some people even trek this hiking trail in Palm Desert when it’s completely dark to see the glistening lights of the town below. Just make sure you don’t plan this hike in February because it closes off for a few weeks around this time of year.

9. Windy Ridge

Location: Desert Hot Springs, California
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route: Out and back 
Dogs allowed: On leash

Up for a challenge? Go hiking at Desert Hot Springs’ Windy Ridge Trail. Beautiful, lightly trafficked, and serving spectacular views all around, this moderately rated Desert Hot Springs hiking trail is the stuff of desert trekking dreams. While Windy Ridge is primarily used for hiking, running, and nature trips, mountain bikers are also able to use this trail with ease.

Life is meant for spectacular adventures. Let your feet wander, your eyes marvel, and your soul ignite.

10. The Living Desert Wilderness Loop Trail

Location: Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Palm Desert
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route: Loop
Dogs allowed: No

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is a local zoo and mega-popular attraction in Palm Springs. But did you know that it houses an incredible trail on its premises? That’s right, you can only access the Living Desert Wilderness Loop Trail once you pay admission to the zoo. Hike through beautiful nature, get a good exercise, view Eisenhower Peak, and see beautiful views of the Coachella Valley all on one awesome trail.

11. Art Smith Trail

Location: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, Palm Desert
Length: 16.7 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route: Out and back
Dogs allowed: No

If you’re looking for a proper challenge when hiking in Southern California, the Art Smith Trail is for you. Offering peace, quiet, and incredible views, this desert hiking experience is all you dream of and more. You’ll come across interesting cacti, yuccas, palm grove, and varying rock formations—if you’re lucky, you might even catch a herd of bighorn sheep sharing the trailhead. Don’t let the almost 17-mile length turn you away; trekking a portion of this Palm Desert hike is totally an option.

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