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WEEKEND ESCAPE: PALM SPRINGS

Canyon Capers

A waterfall hike in palm-shaded Murray Canyon offers a cool, verdant respite from the desert

April 11, 1999|ANDREW BAKALAR | Andrew Bakalar is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

When going to Palm Springs in high season (December through May), try not to do what I did: wait until Friday afternoon to book a room. Fortunately, I found a $129-plus-tax king suite with full kitchen at the Agua Caliente Hotel and Spa in Desert Hot Springs, only 20 minutes from Palm Springs. The hotel had mineral pools, a hot tub and spa services. More than I required (I was going for hot springs and hiking), but I took it.

I arrived after midnight, and the Agua Caliente didn't particularly charm me; it's really just a bland, pink stucco ode to budget tourism. The utilitarian charm of the place began to appear the next morning with a dip in the mineral pool, its water piped right up from the ground and cooled from its natural temperature of 140 degrees. Purged of any latent stress, I headed out to see the Cabot Old Indian Pueblo, a quirky adobe museum I'd visited years before.

Unfortunately, I found the museum closed, but I ran into a museum employee, Jason Bruecks, who was about my age (30) and an avid outdoorsman. I asked him about hiking, and he suggested Murray Canyon near Palm Springs, describing in glowing terms its rusty cliffs, verdant palms and series of natural pools connected by waterfalls called the Seven Sisters. He'd spoken to his wife about taking a solo hike. He hadn't been to Murray in a while. Would I welcome company? I said yes.

We needed sandwiches for the hike, and a well-informed French staffer, Gigi, at the Palm Springs Visitor Information Office suggested Aspen Mills Breads at the corner of Ramon Road and Sunrise. Well, as they say, the French know food. Then it was on to Murray Canyon in the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, 10 minutes from downtown Palm Springs. With a coupon from the tourist office, we got in for $5 instead of the usual $6. We parked at a picnic area near Andreas Canyon, site of the trail marker for Murray, and set off.

The first half mile was rather flat, drab and dusty, but Jason, a self-taught naturalist, kept things lively by pointing out local vegetation, like the desert lavender. Soon we reached the clump of palms signaling the beginning of Murray and crossed a stream we repeatedly crisscrossed on the two-mile trail. There's a healthy flow of water year-round. Colorful cliffs came into view: copper-toned, eerie, alien, thrust up from the earth at odd angles like petrified rockets ready for launch. We kept an eye out for snakes, but saw only the harmless garden variety.

Finally we reached the Seven Sisters. Cut into a narrow gorge dotted with palms, they appeared like a hidden niche of paradise. From the trail, I could make out only three falls interspersed between pools. (The other four, reached by hiking higher up the gorge, aren't as spectacular, Jason said.) We hiked down to the pool under the first sister, greeting half a dozen hikers already there--a rarity, I was told; usually the place is deserted.

We enjoyed our gourmet sandwiches on a flat rock in the stream and watched the other hikers, teenagers, sliding and diving from pool to pool.

Jason and I looked at each other, then put our things away and climbed the perilous rocks--not an exercise for the timid--and, like the others, slid down to the fourth pool. Jason sat on the bridge overlooking sister three and sallied forth. I followed, plunging 6 feet down (the pool was deep; my feet never touched bottom, and I'm 6 feet). Was that water c-c-cold! It'll be warmer come April and May, an ideal time to visit.

I swam across the 10-foot-long pool to the bridge overlooking sister two, an easy 4-foot drop. Jason shouted from below that the water in this pool was shallower, about 5 feet. I jumped, keeping my legs loose. Plunge! Feet touching sand, I resurfaced. Spurred on by the cold, I hurriedly waded 15 feet to sister one, a 20-foot drop. I slid down the rock, dropped into the air--two seconds of wind, plunge! The landing spot, beside the sister one falls, was as deep as the upper pool; I never touched bottom. I resurfaced, exhilarated.

Jason described other desert wonders as we headed back. The standout seemed to be something called Painted Canyon in Mecca Hills. He hadn't been there in years and might like to go the next day. I said sure; call me at the hotel.

From two years ago, I remembered a southwestern restaurant that made an excellent corn chowder with cilantro and jalapen~os. The concierge at the Agua Caliente knew the Blue Coyote Grill. They still had the chowder, which was as delicious as my duck enchiladas in raspberry fig sauce. Then I strolled down Palm Canyon Drive to a new blues joint, the Blue Guitar.

Back at the Agua Caliente, a message from Jason said he was free for Sunday's hike.

The next morning we drove east on Interstate 10 to the village of Mecca, where we walked up an ancient riverbed shadowed by cliffs 200 feet high. Signs pointed the way to Painted Canyon and another site, Ladder Canyon. At its entrance, a series of small ladders transported us to a snaking, 4-foot-wide crevice in the earth.

Painted Canyon, though less mesmerizing, was prettier--a glistening display of sugar-white quartz boulders and canyon walls streaked with evergreen and rose.

Our final treat was a stop at Oasis Date Gardens (south of Thermal on California Highway 111), where we perused all things date--shakes, cookbooks and candies, sweet reminders of all the treasures we'd uncovered in this arid land.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for One

Gas: $20.00

Agua Caliente Hotel and Spa, 2 nights: 283.80

Muffin, lunch, Aspen Mills Breads: 15.90

Fruit & water, Ralphs: 3.22

Park entrance: 5.00

Dinner, Blue Coyote Grill: 30.50

Blue Guitar, cover: 10.00

Breakfast, hotel: 5.33

Sandwiches, Vons: 8.28

FINAL TAB: $382.03

Agua Caliente Hotel and Spa, 14500 Palm Drive, Desert Hot Springs, CA 90040; tel. (800) 423-8109. Indian Canyons Information: tel. (800) 790-3398.

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