Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hike 2015.007 -- Rainbow Rock Canyon, Whitewater Preserve, CA

Hiked Sunday, January 25. 7.1 miles roundtrip, approxi-mately 1,000 feet of altitude gain, per this article and others.

Whitewater Preserve is managed by the Wildlands Conservancy, the same folks who manage the Oak Glen Preserve, which I visited several times last year, and previously. I've also been to Whitewater numerous times, going as far back as 2010, my first full year with this blog.

I have also approached Whitewater Preserve from the Haugen-Lehman (Cottonwood Trailhead), and the Canyon View Loop Trail.

I still want to walk between Mission Creek Preserve and the Whitewater watershed, and from the Whitewater ranger station to the Mt. San Gorgonio Overlook (The latter trail used to appear on the flyer/map they handed out at Whitewater, but not any more--not sure why).

Yet, despite my familiarity with the area, I learned of a new trail in the area last week: Rainbow Rock Canyon. This one is not on the handout, either. It's sort of a "secret menu" hike.

But I came across a descrip-tion online, and I had been hoping to get back to Whitewat-er for quite some time, so this one worked fine.

The trail starts as nearly all Whitewater trails begin--by passing between the two palm trees to the north of the preserve. From there, continue towards the Pacific Crest Trail. That's a mere half-mile away.

There's a couple of sign posts there; they tell you that a left turn will take you towards Mexico (or to the Canyon View trail, previous noted, above), while going straight takes you towards Canada (or the Mission Creek Preserve, which is much closer than Canada!).
To get to Rainbow Rocks Canyon, you go straight. About a 1/2 mile further along the way, there's an unsigned junction. The main trail crosses a small, dry creek bed, and runs closer towards the Whitewater River. The trail to the left, however, is the one you want.
There was a small rock pile (cairn) at the junction.

This alternate trail, while unmarked on the Whitewater Preserve map, is very well defined on the ground. It heads towards a prominent rocky peak, where the canyon begins to narrow.
I only passed a few of these "rainbow rocks," but they were quite pretty (prettier than the photos do justice). Don't know the science of why they appear as they do, though.

The canyon continues to narrow as you head up, and you keep gaining altitude. In places, you need to duck under branches or over fallen logs. But the trail remains easy to follow.

After about a mile on this spur trail, the ravine bottom begins to get moist. Then occasional pools are found, and sometimes little "waterfalls" are passed.

This area must be sheltered from the elements, as the cottonwood tree I passed still had some leaves, as did a few of the willow trees.

As the trail became very narrow, I passed under a thin, tall (but truncated) coniferous tree, possibly the only one I saw today. Short needles. Didn't notice any cones. I'm guessing it's some sort of fir or spruce.

Eventually, I came to what is probably the end of the trail for most hikers: This was now basically a slot canyon, not much wider at places than a person, and very deep. Rocky cliffs and boulders formed the base for numerous small waterfalls (2-10 feet in height).

I could easily bypass the first few, but then reached the taller fall. This one, I was pretty confident I could climb *up*, but had less confidence in my ability to descend this same little rocky barrier.

While a fall would have been no more than 5-6 feet, it would have been to an uneven, stony floor with numerous boulders in the area. So I determined the risk of injury were I to continue was too large to risk the ascent (which very well might only have gotten me another ten yards, before reaching another barrier).

I do this a lot now that I'm a little older, but, especially, because I'm usually hiking alone. I like to think that one advantage of hiking alone is that you don't get into a "group think" situation where you convince each other that you can do something that maybe you shouldn't be trying to do.
So I climbed various other points nearby and shot pictures up the canyon, relaxed for a bit, then headed back.

I don't know for sure if this water is perennial or not. I sort of assume it mostly is, since there hasn't been that much rain, recently. Water must percolate between cracks in the cliffs around me, then seep out into the ravine.

Because of the sheltered nature of this ravine, the water supports a riparian habitat that is quite different from the main stem of the Whitewater River.
I assume that's why this little stem of a trail is not publicized by the Wildlands Conservancy--it provides vital habitat for the resident mammals and birds, and the habitat is a lot more fragile than the boulder-strewn wash of the larger river into which these waters would eventually flow (underground).

This means, if you come this way, you should trend softly. Even more so than in other areas of the Preserve, pack out what you pack in. And don't camp in the area on loiter around twilight. Especially in the summer time, I expect this is a place that is often visited by indigenous wildlife in search of water.

The return hike seemed much quicker than the hike out. It almost always seems to be the case, especially if the return is down-hill.
Once back at the ranger station / visitor center area, I wandered back down to the trout ponds. I had actually gone there earlier, which is when I discovered I had no SD card in my camera. I had to make a rather long side-trip into Palm Springs to buy one.

Heading up the other way, towards Banning and Beaumont, might have been quicker. Also, if the stupid truck stop /gas station I stopped at on the way to Palm Springs was properly stocked, it would have been faster (but probably more costly). So, instead, I had a ridiculously long detour to get an SD card. This happens way often than I'd like to admit. I really need to get better at double checking my camera before I leave home.
The trout pond hosts introduc-tory fly fishing for youth, as catch and release (though I saw a dead fish floating in the pond, so the "release" part may not always successful). This whole area was once a trout hatchery and commercial fishing pond. I'm not sure if the place still breeds trout; I suspect not.
There's also a large picnic area near the ponds, and a nice view of Mount San Jacinto.

To get to Whitewater, take the Whitewater exit from I-10 (just west of the junction with CA-62, and just east of a rest area), head very briefly east, towards the stone seller, then turn north, and drive to the end of the road. There is no entrance fee, although parking is somewhat limited considering the popularity of the place. There are good wildflower blooms in season, and the cold running water (runoff from Mount San Gorgonio) attracts all sorts of folks seeking relief from the desert sun. I'd suggest either coming early or possibly being willing to walk a fair distance to get here. (Also, I think sometimes they don't allow parking on the approach road, so the latter may not really matter).


  1. Enjoyed your report. I was part of the local GOPS group that attempted to reach Rainbow Falls yesterday. Unfortunately the path eventually became the stream bed and stopped us from reaching our destination. Still a great hike, beautiful weather and even a Big Horn sheep spotting.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Sometimes, they only time I get to revisit a post is if a comment gets posted. Of course, then I usually discover typos in my original post, which is always disappointing. :( I had largely forgotten all about this hike, which was only two years ago. I should probably go back, now that we're having a wetter year. Still haven't made it on a hike from Mission Creek, nor to the Mount San Gorgonio viewpoint. Happy for your big horn sighting. They're always a treat to see!