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Hiking in Palm Springs: Cottonwood Trailhead to Whitewater Preserve via the PCT

The start of the hike at the Cottonwood Trailhead parking lot
The start of the hike at the Cottonwood Trailhead parking lot
Deb Stanley

Did you know the Pacific Crest Trail goes through Whitewater Preserve?

The Pacific Crest Trail near Whitewater Preserve
Deb Stanley

While I wasn't interested in the entire 2,650-mile trek, I wanted to tackle the section
listed on the Whitewater Preserve map -- the eight miles from the Cottonwood
Trailhead to the Preserve.

The question for most people wanting to do this hike is how -- Do you start at
the preserve? Start at the Cottonwood Trailhead? Do you do it one-way?
Roundtrip? In sections? I decided to do a one-way hike, leaving a vehicle at
Whitewater Preserve, driving to the Cottonwood Trailhead and hiking back to the
preserve (directions below).

The Cottonwood Trailhead doesn't have much -- there's a large parking lot and a
very small sign, but no other amenities. After parking, head towards the brown
post just east of the parking lot. You should see the trail here. Start hiking
east.

You'll quickly hike over a road, but don't turn off, keep going east. You may
see a road/trail in the distance, going up the hill with the wind turbines.
Don't worry, you're not hiking up that road. You're going to hike the canyon
just north (left) of that hill.

Soon you'll see signs for the Pacific Crest Trail, National Scenic Trail. You'll
also cross a second road. The trail actually follows this road for the next 1.5
miles or so.

As you hike, you may notice a whine of sorts, maybe a metallic scraping --
that's the wind turbines on the nearby hills. Depending on how strong the winds
are, a few turbines may be turning or hundreds of them. If there's too much
wind, the turbines are turned off so they don't break.

A little more than a half mile from the trailhead, you'll see a gate and a sign
for the Mesa Wind Park. That's why the road is here -- it's for workers of the
Mesa Wind Park. Also at this gate is a fence for hikers to pass through and a
large trail marker for the Pacific Crest Trail.

The sign here calls this section C of the PCT. The sign tells hikers they are 27.0 miles
from Mission Creek Camp, 53.9 miles from Highway 18, 72.5 miles from Little Bear
Spr Camp, 101.4 miles from Highway 173 and 130.4 miles from Interstate 15.

After seeing all those mileages, I was glad to know it was just seven miles from
this spot to my vehicle at the Whitewater Preserve.

The trail continues to follow the road, going up and down slightly several times
and crossing the road occasionally. It may be tempting to hike the road, but
there is traffic here and the road is private property, so it's best to stay on
the trail.

About 1.25 miles from the trailhead, the canyon you've been hiking in opens up.
About 1.6 miles from the trailhead, the trail switchbacks up a hill and goes
around a corner. Here you'll see two electric grids near an old corral. It's an
interesting juxtaposition of the old way of life and the new technology. You'll
also pass the Mesa Wind Park office.

The trail climbs several hills, then turns left/north up a canyon.
Soon the road you've been following ends at a small turnabout with a
pile of wire, pipes and other items. You've gained about 850 feet
of elevation in the last 2.75 miles.

As you hike up this next canyon, you'll notice what looks like a
dam of sorts at the top. You're going up there, another 500
feet up. It's not a dam at the top, but a pass of sorts -- that's the high spot
along the trail. But you've still got to get up there, so keep hiking.

This section of the trail has several trails at times -- there's the hiker
trail, what looks like a cow trail and maybe a bighorn sheep trail, too. Do your
best to stay on the hiker trail, especially at the top, where the official hiker
trail is reinforced.

About 3.4 miles and 1,400 feet from the trailhead, you'll reach the top of the
pass. The view on the other side is beautiful.

This is a great spot to take a break and marvel at what you just climbed. This
is also a good spot to turn around if you don't have a shuttle vehicle.

When you're ready to continue on, the trail on the east side of the next valley
is easy to see. Follow it north, then around the corner, turning east. Soon
you'll begin a series of switchbacks down to the bottom of the canyon. Once
again, you may notice a cow trail that plows through the hikers trail. Do your
best to stay on the hiker trail, especially in the areas that have been
reinforced to protect hikers.

At the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail begins crossing some canyons and
contouring others. Do your best to follow the path. At 4.1 miles, hikers come
to a sign for the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Looking up canyon, you'll likely see
a lush canyon, but I had too many miles to cover to go exploring on this day. So
I continued following the path.

At 5.14 miles, I got my view of the bottom of Whitewater Canyon to the east. That's
when I knew I was getting close to my goal. However, we're not going downhill
yet. There were several more ups and downs on this path.

About six miles from the Cottonwood Trailhead, you may spot a person or two.
That's because you're getting within sight of the Canyon View Loop Trail. At 6.1
miles, you should arrive at the signed trail split for the Canyon View Loop and
the PCT North and South. You can take the Loop trail here, but I think the
shortest trek is to turn left and take the PCT North.

You've now reached the truly downhill portion of the hike. The trail switchbacks
several times, down to the Whitewater valley. You'll drop 450 feet over the next
0.8 miles to a sign that sends PCT hikers north and visitors to Whitewater
Preserve south.

Follow the trail south, then east through the reeds, over the river and back to
the Whitewater Preserve parking lot.

Details: The hike from the Cottonwood Trailhead to the Whitewater Preserve was
7.6 miles with about 1,700 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.

For more hikes at Whitewater Preserve and the Coachella Valley, click here.

Directions to Whitewater Preserve: From Interstate 10, take the Whitewater exit
and turn north. Turn left on Whitewater Creek Road and drive 5 miles to the
Visitor's Center.

Important note: The Whitewater Preserve is only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For
information call 760-325-7222.

Directions to the Cottonwood Trailhead: Take I-10 and exit at Haugen-Lehman.
Take Haugen-Lehman Road north until it ends at Cottonwood Road. Turn right on
Cottonwood Road, follow it until it becomes a dirt road, eventually ending at a
parking lot on the right. The dirt road gets rocky and rough and may not be
suitable for passenger vehicles.