The Santa Rosas are primarily a desert range, a unique blend of high and low desert environments.
When visiting the Santa Rosas, early California botanist/travel writer Charles Francis Saunders was so overwhelmed by the contrast between the harshness of the lower desert slopes and relative gentleness of the higher slopes that he called it "a botanic version of the millennial day when lion and lamb shall lie down together." Saunders may have massacred a metaphor, but the hiker who dodges cholla and yucca, then takes a snooze upon a soft bed of pinyon pine needles, will find it easy to tell lion from lamb, botanically speaking.
Set aside in 1984, the Santa Rosa Wilderness is located near the border of San Diego and Riverside counties, about 120 miles from Los Angeles, about 90 from San Diego. The 20,000-acre wilderness lies within the boundaries of the San Bernardino National Forest.
Trails are few in the Santa Rosas; most are the faint traces of Cahuilla Indian pathways. Upon them, the ancients climbed the mountains to hunt deer, gather pinyon pine nuts and escape the desert heat.
The Cactus Spring Trail, an old Indian path overhauled by the Forest Service, gives the hiker a wonderful introduction to the delights of the Santa Rosas.
The trail first takes you to Horsethief Creek, a perennial waterway that traverses this high desert country. A hundred years ago, horse thieves pastured their stolen animals in this region before driving them to San Bernardino to sell. The cottonwood-shaded creek invites a picnic. Continuing on the Cactus Spring Trail, you'll arrive at Cactus Spring. Along the trail is some wild country, as undisturbed as it was in 1774 when early Spanish trailblazer Juan Bautista Anza first saw it.
Two hiking tips: (1) No dependable water source exists along the Cactus Spring Trail, so bring your own. (2) Although the trail traverses a wilderness area, it also crosses private land; please respect private property.
Directions to trailhead: From Highway 111 in Palm Desert, drive 16 miles down Highway 74 to the Pinyon Flat Campground. (From Hemet, it's a 40-mile drive east on Highway 74 to Pinyon Flat Campground.) Opposite the campground is Pinyon Flat Transfer Station Road, also signed "Elks Mountain Retreat." You'll follow this road about 3/4 mile. Just before reaching the Transfer Station, a rough dirt road veers to the left. Follow this road 200 yards to road's end.
The hike: Follow the dirt road east a short distance to Fire Road 7S01, then head south for 1/4 mile. You'll then take the first road on your left. A sign reassures you that you are indeed on the way to Cactus Spring, and you'll soon pass the abandoned dolomite mine, where limestone was once quarried. Approximately 1/4 mile past the mine site, the dirt road peters out and the trail begins. Here you'll find a sign and a trail register.
The trail bears to the east and dips in and out of several (usually) dry gullies. Half a mile past the sign-in register, a sign welcomes you to the Santa Rosa Wilderness. Cactus Spring Trail does not contour over the hills, but zigs and zags, apparently without rhyme or reason. The bewitching but easy-to-follow trail finally drops down to Horsethief Creek. At the creek crossing, Horsethief Camp welcomes the weary with flowing water and shade.
Return the same way, explore up and down the handsome canyon cut by Horsethief Creek, or continue on to Cactus Spring.
Option: To complete the trail to Cactus Spring, you cross the creek and climb east out of the canyon on a rough and steep trail past sentinel yuccas guarding the dry slopes. The trail stays with a wash for a spell (the route through the wash in unmarked except for occasional rock ducts), then gently ascends over pinyon pine-covered slopes. It's rolling, wild country, a good place to hide out. Alas, Cactus Spring, a few yards north of the trail is almost always dry.
Cactus Spring Trail
Pinyon Flat to Horsethief Creek: 5 miles round trip; 900-foot elevation loss.
Pinyon Flat to Cactus Spring: 9 miles round trip; 300-foot elevation gain.