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From Desert to Canyons on the Santa Rosa Trail

January 22, 1989|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

RANCHO MIRAGE — On a rough dirt road in canyonlands in the Santa Rosa Mountains, above Coachella Valley desert communities, Desert Off Road Adventures offers Jeep safaris.

The three-hour safaris were tested beginning last March, hauling guests of the new Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage hotel. Now the safaris are available to anyone.

From the lower desert, the safari route bounces, curves and dips into canyons where the vistas are the same as they were for the Cahuilla Indians in earlier times.

In the early 1970s, desert entrepreneur Michael Dunn of Rancho Mirage bulldozed a dirt road with the hope that it would lead to a mountainside hotel. The hotel never materialized and the dirt road remained Dunn's Road, which he often had to restore after canyon floods.

When the Ritz-Carlton first opened on 24-acres last March, guests were welcomed by two, bronze, bighorn sheep, which roam beside a natural stone fountain.

Guest rooms had valley and mountain views, art and antiques, and marble bathrooms. Dining was under crystal chandeliers. A 10-court tennis club was perched above its own canyon.

Since the hotel doesn't have it own links, guests were transported to nearby desert golf courses. Enter a Seattle transplant named Mary Thomas, who left her marketing job at the Ritz-Carlton and joined Bruce Mercey in a partnership that expanded Mercey's just-born desert safari company to include five customized Jeep Scramblers.

Private Road

We began our safari from the Ritz-Carlton. After a short drive through Cathedral City our driver turned off Cathedral Canyon Road and unlocked the gate to the private Dunn Road.

The gleaming four-wheel-drive Jeep had a rollbar, a fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit and seat belts for the half-a-dozen passengers facing each other on the two padded benches.

Dunn's dirt road is an adventure in itself--rocky, curving sharply, dropping abruptly down a bank steep enough to be a ski run, then scrambling up again.

The driver was an expert. We soon braced automatically as spectacular cliffs and canyons absorbed our attention. The road is entirely within Dunn's property, skirting but not violating the ancient Indian oases, national park lands and the Big Horn Sheep Preserve.

We stopped frequently, studying many varieties of cacti. We saw how rock formations were cracked and shaped by frost wedging, and how the earth settled into an angle that is maintained on steep mountainsides.

Summit rocks exposed to millenniums of sunlight have turned dark. Newly cracked rock formations add lighter colors to the mosaic. Century plants wave high above cactus and manzanita.

Centuries ago the Cahuilla Indians spent their summers in these cool mountain canyons after wintering around the warm natural waters around Palm Springs.

Because of their affinity for the hot waters, the Spaniards named them the Agua Caliente Indians.

Now the Andreas, Murray and Palm canyons are part of Agua Caliente lands. Their hiking and horseback trails and picnic grounds are accessible daily at the end of South Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs for $3 admission, 75 cents for children. The equestrian cost is $3.50.

The Jeep safari covers a trek of nearly 20 miles. From a 4,800-foot lookout point, we could see across the desert to the Salton Sea. We stopped for lunch in a grove of 200-year-old palm trees.

Dunn is carving another road on his property so that a round-trip Jeep tour can cover the views from each side of the canyon loop, with frequent stops for short walks.

Jim Condon, founder of the "Save the Santa Rosas" environmental group, said he believes that the Jeep tours don't adversely affect the environment.

His organization plans to sponsor a local ballot initiative next spring to limit and control development in the Santa Rosas, and to preserve them as a natural background for the lower desert and its communities.

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Three-hour safaris are $55 per person through Dec. 31, $60 through June 15. A minimum of five people is required. Liability insurance of $750,000 per person is included. For more information and reservations, contact Desert Off Road Adventures, P.O. Box 4528, Palm Desert 92261, (619) 773-3187.

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