Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hike 108: PCT--Cottonwood TH to Whitewater Watershed

Hiked Thursday, December 9. Short hike today because I didn't want to aggravate the blister I picked up on Monday.

The Cottonwood Trailhead is accessed off of I-10. Exit at Haugen-Lehmann Road (four miles east of Cabazon), head north, then turn left on Tamarask. Go two short blocks on Tamarask, then turn right on to Cottonwood Road. Follow Cottonwood Road (it bears left at the fork--If you get lost and hit a "T" intersection, just make a left then a quick right) until the pavement ends. You can park there, or continue on the dirt road about 1/2 mile further. There's a large parking area on the right. The Pacific Crest Trail runs just south of this parking area. It also crosses or parallels the dirt road that you've just driven to get here.

The altitude at the trailhead is approximately 1860 feet. Windmills are visible to the east and northeast. Mt. San Jacinto is to the south.

Great weather. Obviously, this is a place where the wind usually blows relentlessly (hence, the windmill farms). But today, the breeze was moderate. Temperatures were in the mid-60s when I started and the mid-70s when I finished. The clouds were finger-painted in the sky, and really stood out against a very blue sky.

From the parking lot, look for the little shields on the plastic pole markers, and follow them. They will first lead you to the east, across a wash. That gives you a slightly better view both north and south. Eventually, you find yourself mostly paralleling a dirt road that heads almost due east. You'll reach the gate for Mesa Wind Park in about 1/4 mile.

There's a no trespassing sign at the gate, but it only refers to cars on the road. Stay on the trail and you're perfectly legal.

At the gate, there's a small bulletin board, along with mileages to various places much farther along the trail than I had any intention of visiting today.

You continue mostly parallel to the road (crossing a few times from one side to the other). Powerlines also parallel the road, eventually leading to a pair of transmission stations and an office. Near the mobile home that serves as the Mesa Wind Park office, there was a sign inviting you to to drop in, cool off, and get some water. The sign said the office was open M-F, 6am - 2pm. However, I assumed they were mainly inviting thru hikers, not day hikers. So I ignored the invitation and continued on my way.

The hum of the windmills was louder than I expected. Dozens are in view and within a few hundred yards of you as you approach the transmission stations. Here, the trail also begins bending towards the north. In several spots, you even find yourself heading to the west or northwest.

It's not until the last mile or so that you can see the notch in the mountains you're heading for. From a distance, the crest looks incredibly low. And it is, compared to the hills on either side. However, the trail incline increases a bit as you approach the crest that separates you from the Whitewater drainage, and becomes downright steep for the last 1/2 mile or so.

At the crest, you're at about 3230 feet. The hills to your right and left are much higher than you, so your only longer view is back the way you came (at the crest, mainly to the southeast). You've got grass and brush-covered hills (all dried and yellow on this December day) that frame the windmills, with the Coachella Valley in the distance.

Looking forward, the hills really limit your view. I hoped to see the Whitewater River, so I continued over the crest another 1/4 mile, during which I lost about 250 feet of altitude. From there, I could see the Whitewater River was still several miles away, and would take about two miles of walking before I'd be able to see down into that canyon. Actually, when I thought about it, this made sense, since the point where the trail leaving the Whitewater towards Cottonwood Trailhead split was tucked hard against a cliff. You'd have to get to within about 1/2 or 1/4 of mile of the split (and only a mile or so from the Whitewater Preserve Trailhead) to see the Whitewater River and the Preserve visitor center.

Nonetheless, the extra 1/4 mile from the crest did give me a slightly better view to the north. I could see the hills that I'm pretty sure I reached on a previous hike, when I went from the Whitewater Preserve to overlook the Mission Creek drainage.

It would have been nice to go those few miles to get a better view over the Whitewater drainage, but the altitude loss would have made the hike more strenuous than I wanted this day. I was still trying to protect the blister hotspot I picked up on Monday. So I turned around after having walked about 3.8 miles. That makes the roundtrip a little over seven and a half miles, with 1400 feet of net elevation gain.

I returned the way I came.

I'd been wanting to make the hike from Whitewater Preserve to the Cottonwood Trailhead (eight miles one way) ever since my visit to Whitewater Preserve, in June. Of course, this requires a willing driver, and I hadn't been able to coordinate that with my wife, yet. Perhaps sometime soon?


  1. Oh man, I absolutely loved that area when we hiked through. Yes the wind can be brutal. If you get the chance sometime, heading down towards and along the Whitewater River is awesome. That whole area is just beautiful in its own way.

  2. Hey, Mark. Thought you might like the return view. :D

    I hiked along the Whitewater in my Hike 66, hyperlinked near the end of the post above.

    I definitely intend to return because there are a few trips I'd like to do from there, still. If I can coordinate with my wife, I'm going to try hiking from Pioneertown to Whitewater. And I may still do Whitewater to I-10.

  3. That was a great post. It is amazing to see such a big river in the middle of the desert.