Hiking Palm Spring’s Indian Canyon

Seven Sisters Waterfall, Indian Canyon, Palm Springs California.
Seven Sisters Waterfall: It’s all about the journey, however, this stunning, ethereal location is the destination.

Connecting with the Ancestral Past at Indian Canyon

By Ingrid Hart

The first thing I noticed as my plane descended into the Palm Springs airport was the stark contrast between the rugged, three-dimensional, snow-covered peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains and their counterpoint: the flat desert floor.

At the juncture of this compelling nexus is Indian Canyon, a holy oasis of endless palm trees, meandering streams, and the occasional croaking toad. This sacred haven is the resilient, yet fragile heart of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indian tribe. On this mild afternoon, I will pilgrimage into the arms of the canyon’s spiritual embrace.

The trail map describes Murray Canyon as an easy two-hour hike leading to the Seven Sisters, a twelve-foot waterfall at Indian Canyon. The footpath traverses a stream for one-point-five miles. After a rain-weary southern California winter, I said a hearty hello to a two-foot water crossing. Uh-oh, what to do? Is there perhaps a fallen tree bridge? No.

I didn’t disappoint the three-man crew working on the trail, watching this lone woman wearing North Face khaki shorts, a black lace tank top and a backpack come to a complete stop and grimace. They laughed and cheered me on. “You got it, girl.” I took the iced-tea plunge and completely baptized my shoes and socks. Slosh…slosh…slosh.

Cleanse Herself

Spiritual pilgrimage to Indian Canyon, I thought to myself, will require sacrifice. I was here to cleanse myself of the electro-magnetic virtual realm: cell phone, Internet, and teleconferencing. I wanted to envelop myself in the sensuality of Earth—to rest in the bosom of her scent and marvel at her grace and beauty.

This afternoon, the price of admission on this journey was soaking feet and true grit, both of which are in abundance. On the other side of the stream, in high spirits, I thrust my arms in the air and shrieked the universal cry of victory: Whoo-hoo! The crew laughed.

Which way to the Holy Land? The Ace Hotel provide unusual bathrobes for its guests.
Which way to the Holy Land? The Ace Hotel provide unusual bathrobes for its guests.

Little did I know this was the first of ten similar water crossings I would endure on the two-hour hike.

Earlier in the week, I took part in Desert Modernism Week, a tribute to Palm Springs’ atomic era, the 1950s and 60 when our nation’s prosperity was equal to its possibilities. Think James Bond meets the Jetsons. The city of Palm Springs claims to hold the largest collection of mid-century modern architecture in the country.

Swanky landmarks abound: the Frey House—perched on a hillside, built into the mountain; the Tramway Gas Station—a prime example of modernism architecture with its cantilevered, wedge-shaped canopy; and the Twin Palms Estate, home to Frank Sinatra, the hippest cat to ever dwell in Palm Springs.

Still, I wondered what was the flashpoint bringing these people with their visions to the desert? These iconic attractions and posh homes took some serious coin to build. What was the inspiration? What gives?

Frank Sinatra Home: This pad called "Twin Palms Estate" is where Old Blue Eyes' hosted many a swanky party in the 50's.
Frank Sinatra Home: This pad called “Twin Palms Estate” is where Old Blue Eyes’ hosted many a swanky party in the ’50s.

A Sense of Place

Lydia Kremer, owner of public relations firm “Vortex,” drives me in her Lexus SUV back to the hip and quirky Ace Hotel where I stayed for the week. I’m curious about what she likes best about Palm Springs.

Her response conjures a connection to the land: the people, the community—a sense of place. “The spirituality of the mountains and the desert—how the two come together,” she said. “Most people think of the ocean as cleansing because of the negative ions. The desert is that way for me.”

Eric Nash, a Desert Modernism artist whom I met at the Backstreet Art District, paints, among other things, the orange 76 gas station orb, an enduring icon of the urban California landscape, both a happy and nostalgic symbol of our commitment to cars and oil.

Eric moved here from Illinois ten years ago. His inspiration to dwell in Palm Springs is the openness of the desert, its beauty, and calm.

Artist Eric Nash.
California Icon: Artist Eric Nash paints the 76 gas station orb, an enduring symbol of the urban California landscape.

“The desert is dangerous,” he says, “almost like an ocean. It’s a scary proximity to open tract. There are ocean people, mountain people and desert people. I’m a desert person.”

Who am I? Right now, I was a hiker with soggy feet, feeling the energetic vibration of earth, sky and water. The scent of the fresh aromatic California sage plant lifted my spirits. I stooped over and selected a batch to pick.

Lizards scatter in Indian Canyon

I watched small lizards scaling granite rocky outcroppings. Surrounding me were honey mesquite, jimson weed, and yucca plants. In a sage-induced natural high, a bucolic vision of a lone Cahuilla Indian medicine woman carrying a hand-woven basket approaches me. Her skin was dark and leathery, her hands skilled at gathering healing plants.

I imagine she’s my mentor, teaching me the aboriginal ways of her people. She is both kind and soft, yet firm and strong.

Thursday Night Market: The hot ticket in town is this market that features musicians, juried artists and myriad food vendors.
Thursday Night Market: The hot ticket in town is this market that features musicians, juried artists and myriad food vendors.

I asked for permission to pick the sage. She pondered my request and tells me it is my home too—be gentle.

From her satchel, she extracted a mortar and pestle and began grinding the fragrant leaves and stems of the freshly picked plant. She told me the scent will bring back pleasant memories. It’s old, but it’s good.

Carry it with you for the journey.

Vision Fades

The vision faded when I spotted a man and woman walking toward me with purpose. The woman asked me, “Do you know a place in Palm Springs where I can get my hair cut?” Really? I want to offer her the herbal medicine I’ve just been gifted. Please, take some. It will relax you.

Instead, I re-entered the electro-magnetic realm and pulled out my cell phone, marveling that I had reception and called the public relations lady who drove me home and give my fellow hiker-sister some much-needed four-one-one, her kind of medicine.

Desert Plants: Cactus and succulents such as this healthy plant are the mainstay of this arid landscape.
Desert Plants: Cactus and succulents such as this healthy plant are the mainstays of this arid landscape.

“You know how women can get when their hair isn’t right,” the man said, winking at me as they left. She offered thanks and I continued my gentle, uphill hike to the Seven Sisters.

The sentinels watching over me along the hike were the Washingtona filifera commonly known as the California Fan Palm. These skirted, stately guards grow to 60 feet. Being surrounded at all times by the palm trees of Indian Canyon made me feel safe and protected, like when I was a little kid holding the hands of my grandparents.

Seven Sisters

I continued to hike until I reached my destination; the Seven Sisters waterfall. The abundant flow of water represented my perspective on the day: fluid, graceful and consistent.

I found a flat granite rock and laid on my back, looking up at the sky. A jet plane left a contrail. The sound of roaring water obliterated Zen-time. I was left with the pulsating energy of the life force that must have its way. Earth.

Seven Sisters waterfall, outside Palm Springs California. photos by Ingrid Hart.
Seven Sisters waterfall, outside Palm Springs California. photos by Ingrid Hart.

Sky. Water. Nothing else exists. The moment is all there is. I was released.

“Are you a local?” the tribal ranger asked me—his long, braided ponytail held by a leather tie. I’ve just finished the two-hour hike. I’m sweaty and my uncooperative hair is sticking out of a black visor. I look from side to side. Is he talking to me? “Uh, no, not from around here,” I said, with a lilt in my voice.

“Well you must have a twin,” he says with a smile, his eagle eyes crinkling. He hopped inside his white Ford pickup and drove away. My heart raced. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my Indian mentor, making her way back into the palm tree oasis.

I quickly felt in my backpack for the sage. Still there? Yes. Exhale. I took some out and smelled the pungent herb. The sweet scent conjured dreams and visions of days gone by, the perception of reality, both physical and virtual, and the illusion of my place in it.

Ingrid Hart


Ingrid Hart is a writer who lives in Costa Mesa California.

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