Hiking In Magnesia Falls Canyon to a Cahuilla Indian Village Site

DESERT WORD WALK – by Ruth NolanRuth Nolan

The desert is traversed by many mountain ranges, some of them long, some short, some low, and some rising upward ten thousand feet. They are always circling you with a ragged horizon, dark-hued, bare-faced, barren—just as truly desert as the sands which were washed down from them.—John C. Van Dyke, from the Desert (1901)

Today, on a perfect, 70-degree day in March, I’ve joined an archaeologist in the Rancho Mirage Cove, near Palm Springs, to explore and hike a mile back into the narrow, steep slot of Magnesia Falls Canyon to an well-used Cahuilla Indian Village site, pah-wah-te. When we reach the village site, we’ll be looking for evidence of longtime habitation: petroglyphs, potsherds, hand-held manos—fist-sized, round rocks that were used to grind seeds and nuts—and milling slicks, which are large, flat stones whose surfaces have been polished by seed and nut grinding to such a smooth pitch that they appear to have been varnished.

Originally a well-used Indian trail traversing the north-south length of the Coachella Valley desert area all the way from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, along which a number of village sites were located, it became a route of exploration for California geologist William Phipps Blake, who led the 1862 Southern Pacific Railroad survey team here; then, it formed a vital leg of the famous Bradshaw Trail, which crossed the desert over 100 miles to and from the gold mines along the Colorado River near Blythe; and finally, into the well-traveled, six-lane, multi-desert city road that it is today.

The Rancho Mirage cove is at the mouth of one of the many highly-valued, wind-protected canyons along the western/southern edges of California desert’s Coachella Valley that line the base of the rugged, dry, Santa Rosa Mountains, which jut steeply skyward as high as 10,800 feet from a near-sea level valley floor. It’s not uncommon to spot an endangered Bighorn Peninsular Sheep here: we’re at the border of a federal sheep protection area monitored by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, and these cliffs are where the sheep are most at home.

A walk in the desert, however ambient the day may appear, is never without some startling circumstance that, with distilled irony, manages to seem natural and perfectly in place, and today’s hike is no exception. We walk along a 100-foot wide sheep and hiker-designated access corridor, past the lavish, 200-acre estate of one of California’s most prolific Bay Area dot.com tycoons—which sports a private, 18-hole golf course and 20,000 square foot mansion and fills most of the Rancho Mirage Cove.

On one side of this corridor, trucks of landscapers and maintenance men wave to us as they enter and leave the estate’s gates. On the other side, our archaeologist points out rows of ancient rock mounds, up to two and three feet high, likely placed centuries ago as sun and star alignment markers by those who inhabited the region long ago.

The cove narrows and seems to reach an impassable dead-end. There’s a small oasis of several Washingtonian Fan Palm trees that offer shade and a bathtub-sized pool of water used as a drinking source by the Bighorn Sheep that visit here at dawn and dusk, and especially during the searing hot summer months. Several piles of sheep droppings, which are the shape and size of rabbit dung, reveal that the oasis has been recently visited by a small herd of the magnificent creatures.

And here, the canyon narrows abruptly, both vertically and horizontally, into a steep, dry waterfall 75 feet high. Although dry today, in the arid March weather, the rock face smooth and very slippery, evidence that water, indeed, has passed through here, with what appears to be voluminous quantities. This is the only route in and out of the canyon from here, and is the first in a series of other dry waterfalls that will also have to be climbed.

Several hikers decide to turn back, not wanting to risk a fall, but I brave the first waterfall climb, and after that, climbing the others isn’t so bad. After negotiating an hour’s worth of narrow twists and turns in the sandy wash of the canyon, we arrive at the relief of shade offered against the noon sun and warming temperatures by a huge group of palm trees here: we’ve reached pah-wah-te.

As I run the palm of my hand along the smooth rock face of one of the village site’s milling slicks, and learn that seeds from these palm trees, ground on the slick, was a vital food source for the people who once lived here, I can almost imagine that I hear voices from long ago, the voices and words of others who once passed through here, and perhaps even the voices of those who are yet to come. Only the ever-staring rock faces of the canyon walls, and above them, the magnificent granite cliffs of this mountain range, and the largest peak of all, described as I a kitch by noted Cahuilla elder and religious leader Francisco Patencio—born in this region in 1840—know for sure.