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Taking a Hike for Lizard's Sake at Desert Oasis

April 21, 1991|JOHN McKINNEY

If it looks like a movie set, don't be surprised.

Thousand Palms Oasis was the setting for Cecil B. DeMille's 1924 silent film epic "King of Kings," and the 1969 movie "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," starring Robert Redford, Robert Blake and Katharine Ross.

The oasis is something special and deserving of protection, but that's not why the Coachella Valley Preserve was established. The reserve's raison d'etre is habitat for the threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard.

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For the most part, Uma inornata goes about the business of being a lizard beneath the surface of sand dunes, but scientists have been able to discover some of the peculiar habits of this creature, which manages to survive in places where the surface temperature on a summer's day may reach 160 degrees.

The eight-inch reptile is also known as the "sand swimmer" for its ability to dive through sand dunes. Its entrenching, tool-shaped skull rams through the sand, while round scales on its skin reduce friction as it "swims." Fringes (large scales) on its toes give the lizard traction, as well as its name.

May is courtship time at the reserve. Male fringe-toed lizards begin a long series of push-ups to entice females.

Alas, all is not fun in the sun for the fringe-toed lizard. The creature must avoid becoming dinner for such predators as roadrunners, snakes and loggerhead shrikes.

But the biggest threat to the lizards was/is real estate development and the consequent loss of habitat.

Fortunately for the fringe-toed lizard, real estate developers, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Congress, the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy were able to find a common ground and establish a 13,000-acre preserve in 1986. Some conservationists believe that the $25-million price tag may be the most expensive single-species preservation effort of all time.

Still, the reserve would be something special even without its namesake lizard. It protects flora and fauna once common in the Coachella Valley before it grew grapefruit, golf courses and subdivisions.

Thousand Palms Oasis is California's second-largest collection of native California fan palms. Thousand Palms, along with Indian Palms, Horseshoe Palms and a couple of other oases in the reserve, came into existence as the result of earthquake faults that brought water to the surface.

Before the reserve was set aside, the Thousand Palms area was purchased by turn-of-the-century rancher Louis Wilhelm and his family. The Wilhelms built Palm House (now the reserve's visitors center), and by the 1930s were using it as a commissary for campers, scientists, scout troops and anyone else who wanted to enjoy a weekend in one of their palm-shaded cottages.

Hikers can explore the Coachella Valley Preserve on a half-dozen trails. Three of these trails depart from Thousand Palms Oasis. Shortest (a 15-minute walk) is Smoke Tree Ranch Trail, which encircles the oasis. There is good bird watching in the mesquite thickets and among the smoke trees. Watch for the smoke tree's bright blue/purple flowers in May or June.

Don't miss McCallum Trail, a 1 1/2-mile round-trip nature trail. It meanders by a jungle of willows, palms, cottonwoods and mesquite. At the trail head, pick up an interpretive pamphlet that's keyed to numbered posts along the path.

Indian Palms Trail leads a half-mile to the small Indian Palm Oasis.

More ambitious hikers will head for Wash Trail, which, true to its name, winds through washes in the northern portion of the reserve. You can also visit Bee Rock Mesa, where Malpais Indians camped 5,000 years ago, and visit more oases--Horseshoe Palms and Pushawalla Palms.

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 10, about 10 miles east of where Highway 111 leads off to Palm Springs, exit on Washington Street/Ramon Road. Head north on Washington Street, which bends west and continues as Ramon Road. Soon after the bend, turn right (north again) onto Thousand Palms Canyon Road. Continue to the entrance of the Coachella Valley Preserve and park in the dirt lot.

Hiking / Coachella Valley McCallum, Wash, Indian Palms Trails Where: Coachella Valley Preserve Distance: 1-5 miles round trip Terrain: Palm-lined canyons, desert washes Highlights: Thousand Palms Oasis, state's largest Degree of Diffculty: Easy to moderate Precautions: Bring water. Dress appropriately for desert heat For more information: Contact the Coachella Valley Preserve, P.O. Box 188, Thousan Palms, Calif., 92276. (619) 343-1234

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