Beyond the oasis of air conditioned casinos and palm-lined streets are miles and miles of dirt. But venture out beyond the touristy civilization of Palm Springs, and you'll find geographic anomalies, millions of years of history, and an occasional snake. (Opening photo: Ghostwalker at the slot canyon.)
Desert Adventures Eco Tours & Events has a tour that took me directly into the San Andreas Fault zone to see first-hand the power of plate tectonics. I walked through narrow slot canyons, observed how spires of rock have flipped 180 degrees over hundreds of thousands of years, and even found hidden streams and rivers that emerged and disappeared through cracks in the Earth.
If you're anything like me, you might ask yourself why not go it alone; explore the Earth and see what you can find? Well, you can't. The land near the fault zone is private property, and boasts a rugged dirt road that would probably eat your car's shocks alive if you attempted to drive it. Take a ride through this zone in one of Desert Adventure's custom red 4x4 Jeeps, and you'll cruise right over boulders, sand pits, and hopefully not the occasional snake.
I signed up to take the San Andreas Fault tour, and was picked up right from my hotel. I recognized when my ride had arrived just by the sound. The bright red rumbling CJ-8 is one of only about fifteen left, and was originally used by the military as a sort of Jeep pickup truck. But the back of this bad boy was converted to a sort of safari rider with a bed adorned with an arrangement of open seating for up to six guests. Apparently, the doors and roof of my Jeep – which was named Ghostwalker - were sold in the Penny Saver Magazine (if that's still even around) to make a little extra cash when times were slow. So basically, there are no doors. But what's really incredible, is that this relentless explorer has upwards of 600,000 miles on the engine; a true testament to Jeep power! Take that Honda!
Starting out, we trekked out beyond the town and parked in a dirt lot that is used as a staging area. On busy weeks, there will be 3-5 big red Jeeps parked here as they wait to head out into the wild west. But for my tour, we were the only one; probably one of the few perks for signing up for one of the tours in the peak heat of summer. From the staging area, the guides will either put on or take off a tarp roof (in case it starts raining, or is too hot), and will manually turn a crank to switch this rolling monster into four-wheel-drive mode. Once that’s done, the real tour begins.
Upon leaving the staging area, we zigzagged along a rough dirt road surrounded by nothing but desert weeds, pits and piles of dirt. I thought to myself, maybe I could make this drive if I was careful in my Honda Accord; maybe I don’t even need a 4x4 to take this journey. But alas, this road is private. The only people that may travel here are the owners of the Metate Ranch land, and the Desert Adventure Jeep Tour Company.
30-minutes in and we began to enter the San Andreas Fault zone area. Now you might think as I did, that the San Andreas Fault is a gigantic crevice in the Earth that extends beyond the reach of light and fades into the darkness. Or maybe you imagined it like a mini Grand Canyon, with rugged peaks and valleys along a deep slot canyon as far as the eye can see. But neither is true. Once we entered the gated private property that is the San Andreas Fault zone, it isn’t very exciting to look at. In fact, it was kind of a let down; but only at first.
The San Andreas Fault zone consists mostly of a long hill of sand with an occasional palm tree on top. Essentially what happens - as I was taught on the tour - is that the two tectonic plates slip passed one another, grinding the Earth and dirt toward the surface. During this process, the grinded dirt moves upward and creates a sand hill of sorts, right above the fault line. For further illustration, don’t be surprised if your guide breaks out some sort of prop. Mine brought two old Oreo cookies in a small dirty Tupperware container. She slid the top and bottom back and fourth, which made the frosting ooze from the sides. This shows you how the Earth reacts to the two tectonic plates moving back and forth. It also made me want to eat an Oreo even though her hands were dirty.
The interesting thing about it is that the finely grinded Earth is so dense from the earthquakes, that water doesn’t penetrate it. The end result is that the occasional rain allows for an underground aquifer of water, which is how the palm trees can grow here. In fact, this is generally the reason why Palm Springs even exists. Virtually the entire Palm Desert area is hovering above a gigantic underground aquifer, which is where the city gets their water from. Also interesting is that the golf courses in the area have learned to recycle this water over and over since they can recapture what seeps into the ground. When I learned this, I couldn’t help but feel confused as to whether or not I found this information incredibly boring or fascinating. Maybe both.
So further into the fault zone, we parked at what seemed like a popular turn-around spot according to the many tread marks in the dirt. This place felt special for some reason. It could have been the dense population of wild palm trees here, or the strange jungle-desert type feel of this spot. Or maybe I was just starting to hallucinate because it was like one million degrees outside? In either case, we parked and exited the Jeep and went for a walk.
As we all exited, we were introduced to a cooler that was thoughtfully packed into a special crevice of the Jeep. It was packed full of ice cold waters, and also a “granola snack” as they called it. This is probably the most baffling part of the tour to me. It’s a granola bar! Who calls it a granola snack? For some reason, that really bothers me. In either case, it was a nice thought, and I was happy to eat a few.
So we walk along this path to an area roped off. This was closer to what I was expecting. There are areas where water suddenly emerges in the ground as a small stream bubbling to the surface, and then it just disappears back into the Earth. This apparently is part of these underground aquifers that we’ve been learning about. There also were some areas where there was maybe a 5-7 foot drop, apparently caused by the activity in the fault zone. To be honest, it wasn’t really that interesting until we came upon a gigantic rattlesnake!
I was starting to think that other than the weeds and palm trees, we were the only people alive out here. I was actually happy to see this slithering foe, and we all stayed a bit to watch as it writhed its way out of sight and into the weeds. After that, we made our way back to the Jeep, and not a moment too soon. I’m 36, and in pretty good shape; but this paralyzing heat had me wanting to just lie down and take a nap.
Back in the Jeep, we ventured onward into some sort of village. At first I was excited because I naively thought that some of the Cahuilla Indians that this site was modeled after still lived here. They didn’t. We walked through it anyway, and it was really nice to stand in the huts. Even though they’re made from some sort of straw or hay, you’d be amazed at how much cooler it was inside these hand-made structures! At least a 20-degree difference I’d say.
The Cahuilla Indians used the desert’s plants for food, medicine and shelter. They truly mastered the art of survival. It gave me a reality check. In fact, all I could think about was how far away the nearest drive-through Starbuck’s was, and how delicious a frozen Frappuccino would be about now.
Inside the replica town, there were actual artifacts saved as remnants of the Cahuilla Indian culture. Various tools and furniture pieces were put together in a way that made this place feel like a combination museum picnic campsite. There also was a relatively large pond-like lake right at the entrance, which was confusing considering it was so hot there. And what’s even more surprising; fish! How are these fish alive here? Well the answer is that the lake is man-made, and the fish were brought in. But I can imagine it was at least somewhat similar back in the day.
As we exited the Cahuilla Indian site, we headed toward the best part of the tour- the slot canyons. But as we made our way over, we passed through an old mining camp, which still had antique equipment and displays from the gold rush. There were old original wagons, tracks and all sorts of tools scattered about. We stopped for a bit and I wandered over to the exhibit where I could pan for gold, looked at it, and then walked back to the Jeep. I saw it, which was good enough for me. I wanted to get to the slot canyons!
This was what I wanted to see! As we forged forward, the road began to twist and turn as we meandered uphill into a forest of rock spires; a maze of stone and earth that visually melted into one another. I don’t know how, but without navigation my driver quickly drove along this narrow pathway; turning left, then right, then around a bend as we delved deeper and deeper into dense clusters of rising columns of rock. Eventually, these pathways became canyons, which would have been impossible to exit without knowing the lay of the land.
My driver was so experienced, she even pointed out a section of rock that had a small red mark on it. “It wasn’t me” she made sure to tell us all. Someone driving one of the Big Red Jeeps must have bumped up against some of the rock, which left a bit of red paint on it. How the hell she noticed that is beyond me. Eventually we parked. This is where it gets good.
Walking now, we ventured into a narrow slot canyon that really was interesting to be in. It felt like hiking on Mars in a totally alien landscape. The total walk in was about 100 yards worth, and included areas where we had to crawl, duck, climb and scale in order to get to a spot that came highly recommended – for pictures. We each took turns standing on this rock called the bridge. With one foot on one side, and the other foot on the other; it made for some really fun photos!
The slot canyons were quiet and peaceful, and cool. I could have stayed for hours and meditated on life, or read a book, or yelled for help which probably would go unanswered until the next tour came through. The amazing thing about this place was that it was not created for us. The twisty snarled shapely spires of rock and stone have been bending and sliding around for millions of years, and this is the result.
Seeing a place that took hundreds of thousands of years to form forces you into a humble smallness and reminded me how insignificant and short our lives are. It's that exact reason that we should make the most of our time and venture outside the fluorescent beams of light and air conditioned rooms we’re so accustomed to, and explore the raw natural and slow violence that is the San Andreas Fault Line.
—Feature and photos by Josh Edelson, Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Editor.