When all your trails are rained out, snowed out or played out in Winter or wet Spring and Fall, it’s time to head for the desert. We take you on a ride of one of SoCal’s most epic trails.
Palm Springs is the direction and Palm Canyon Trail the goal. This trail is a combination of a different trails that link up for one epic route traversing roughly 28 miles with 2,153’ft of climbing and over 5,000’ ft of teeth chattering, suspension abusing, rugged back-country singletrack-descending.
-Some stats from a trail that is a long ways from anything
This trail is best done as a shuttle so convince one of your non-riding buddies that you guys all want to go for a nice drive up in the mountains above Palm Springs, and hope they don’t notice the bikes and all your riding gear. After you’ve been on Hwy 74 for about 19 miles turn right onto Pine View Dr. This road then dead ends at the trailhead. Tell your buddy “thanks for the lift” and ignore the confused look on his face as he disappears in a cloud of your dust.
The trail begins at 4,300 ft in elevation, so while I say winter is the best time for this ride because you’re in the desert, the start is very much in the mountains. A cold winter storm has the potential to give you some snow at the start, as some fellow JensonUSA employees found out a few months ago around late November.
-The End of the road is only the beginning… no really, it’s the beginning of the trail
-Jenson USA’s own, Mike Barosko
Even with some snow, the trail immediately starts heading downhill so you should get out of it pretty quickly. Plus, what Southern Californian doesn’t love the novelty of a little snow on a ride (I apologize to all you wintery-north riders reading this from inside your snow domes cursing our names).
Lucky for us, we ended up with a perfect weekend. With rain the weekend before, the normally loose desert trail had near zero dust and great traction. The initial part of the trail is primarily a high speed ridgeline singletrack through high desert flora and fauna. It’s probably my favorite section of the trail as it combines great views, fun technical riding, and I’m still fresh enough to hammer down a bit. You eventually drop down some tight switchbacks and end up down in the canyon. The trail changes from hard and rocky to river bottom singletrack that is smooth and fast, especially after a rain. If it’s been dry for a while, this section may have some loose silty corners, so just get your drift on and go with it. Eventually. you drop into an actual wash for a bit, and then follow the signs for the mountain bike route in which at about the 12 mile mark you end up at the dreaded sand wash climb.
-Palm Canyon party ride
This is a great back-country trail, so come prepared as there are no easy bail-outs until close to the 20 mile point. There are constant rocks and every other plant is a cactus hiding on the inside of a corner. That’s one bar drag you don’t want to try. Flat tires are to be expected even with a good tubeless setup as this trail will smash rims, which one of us found out the hard way. Knee protection that you can pedal in comfortable could come in handy. Not because you are planning on falling or getting real rowdy but the extra skin protection from the variety of plants looking for blood will come in handy. Not that we needed it this time, but a small first aid kit is a smart thing to have on any long backwoods ride like this. Even though this is winter, water is still your best friend. As the day went on the temperatures rose, and while low 70’s is usually not much to worry about, there is zero shade on this trail and the constant sun with dry air will really cause you to go through water.
-Stan’s Sealant can only seal up so much, a smashed rim is not one
We arrived at the sand wash climb. If you’ve talked to anyone who has done this trail, it’s unanimously agreed upon that the sand wash climb is a worse idea than the electric mountain bike. Which is ironic because I really wanted an electric mountain bike at this stage. The sand wash is a three mile climb that while only having an 850’ft elevation gain, it is a slog fest of a sand pit. The recent rain made this much more tolerable, but I’ve heard after long dry spells, sections of this climb are nearly unrideable. About ⅔ of the way up there is a parallel singletrack that really takes the sting out of the sand slog. I went into full beard pace (Not sure what beard pace is? Find out more here.) on this climb because it seems that the harder you push it in the sand, your energy output goes up exponentially.
-Palm Canyon Trail, A.K.A Palm to Pine, A.K.A. Snow to Sand, A.K.A. Dry to Dryer
This climb brings you up to the Mike Dunn Desert Riders Oasis, a collection of tables and a large bulldozer that makes for a great extended break spot. A short hike/bike down the Art Smith trail gets you some great views of the Coachella Valley below. Your history lesson for they day: the bulldozer you see at this spot was originally used by Mike Dunn to illegally build the dirt road that passes by there. Judging by the “remnants” throughout the engine bay, it now provides homes to a few critters.
-A couple of Intense Tracer T275c pack mules
After our break we had some more climbing ahead of us as we went up the Hahns Buena Vista trail. This is not much of a climb and the view at the top is well worth it, so snap some sweet Instagram bangers and catch you breath for another rowdy, rocky descent. Do you see the theme?
-View from the Hahns Buena Vista trail summit
Heading down from the Hahns peak we were practicing our loose rocky cornering technique. One blown corner here can have you down the side of the hill real quick. It’s a great technical descent that really keeps you on your toes as the speed picks up. After around 2.5 miles and 1200’ ft drop in elevation we got to the end of the trail and the start of the next trail known as the the Cathedral Canyon trail. This trail was a mellow climb that got us back up to Dunn road in which we followed for a brief minute before turning left onto a newer connector trail that leads you back to the Wild Horse Trail. It feels like it should be all downhill from here, but don’t be fooled. There is one more climb that heads up to the Clara Burgess saddle. This was one of those climbs that on its own or as part of a shorter loop would not be that big of a deal, but after 20+ miles of rugged trail it felt twice as long as it really was. At the top you are greeted by your last real downhill. The views along the spine are pretty awesome as it’s a steep drop off both sides and enough technicality to keep you on your toes. You’ll come to a series of switchbacks with some huge pucker factor. They are a great place to practice your Hans Rey skills, but you better hope you are Hans Rey because one misplaced hop will have you 1000 feet down the side of the mountain.
-Descending the spine on the Wild Horse Trail
Once down the sketch, it’s a pretty straightforward ride out to the right on what is commonly called the goat trails. This makes sense because they seem to go every which way with no real pattern. The bottom line is you can follow the dirt road out or try one of the side trails as they all go to about the same spot. They are a bit more fun than the dirt road they parallel so feel free to check them out. At one point the road drops down and the goat trail stays up on the left. This will lead you down towards some water tanks and a pretty fun section with some significant chunk; you know, just in case your fork hadn’t seized up yet.
-Can’t wait to get back to this trail
As we rolled down the last bit of dirt road towards the parking lot, a few of us still had some wheelies in them, because why wouldn’t you wheelie! This is one of those rides that feels like a big accomplishment to complete and not something you’d want to do every weekend. It’s one of the SoCal epic rides that you need to check off your bucket list at some point, along with the San Juan Trail or the Santa Ana River Trail (not the paved stuff but the great singletrack up in the mountains). If you’ve been waiting to check this one out, now is the time.
Pro Tip: Avoid the Von’s after the ride because you will walk around like an aimless zombie for 10 minutes and come out with granola bars, gatorade, chocolate banana protein drinks, chex mix and large cookies from the bakery.
-A few clips over the course of our Palm Canyon Epic ride out of Palm Springs, CA