Monday, March 28, 2011

Hike 2011.019 -- Whitewater Preserve

Hiked Monday, March 28. It's a sad and pathetic story to explain how I wound up here today. Not that I minded hiking here; it's just the explanation is ridiculous. So I'll skip it.

The park is accessed off of I-10, about eight miles east of Cabazon. Exit at the Whitewater exit. If you're coming from the west, it's shortly after a roadside rest area. After you exit, turn left. The road takes you over the freeway, then heads east. When you see a sign that says straight ahead is not a through street, it's time to turn left. A sign for Whitewater Preserve should also be there, pointing the way. Follow Whitewater Canyon Road about 4 1/2 miles, to the end of the road.

I've hiked Whitewater Preserve on two previous occasions. The first time, I hiked from the ranger station to the Mission Creek Watershed. The second time, I hiked from the Cottonwood trailhead to about 1/2 mile into the Whitewater watershed. Today, I hoped to hike from the park headquarters to the Mt. San Gorgonio Overlook. That should be about 6 1/2 miles each way. The weather was perfect for hiking--low 60s when I started, upper 60s when I finished. Unfortunately, high water foiled my plans at several points.

My first serious water encounter was about 1/2 mile from the park head-quarters, while I was still driving in. At this point, the road has a depression built in, designed to allow high water to safely flow over the road.

I decided to park just south of the water crossing, and attempted to walk upstream, looking for a dry crossing. After about 1/3 mile, I gave up and headed back to the car. I changed into shorts (I was planning to do that at the park hq), took off my boots and socks, and walked carefully across the section of road that was underwater. The water was up to 18 inches deep, but most of the way it was just 6-8 inches. I brought my Sham-wow to dry my feet before booting up, again. As I sat on the other side, several other people also splashed their way across, while one passenger car drove through the water.

Clearly, the water was passable, but I just didn't like the idea of driving through that water. The water was well-below any air-intake parts of the engine, but it sure looked like it would be high enough to seep under the door (which isn't waterproof, after all). Nonetheless, when I got to the preserve parking area further up ahead, a number of cars (mostly SUVs, but some passenger cars) were already there.

At the same time, there were many cars parked on the south side of the water, where I parked. I guess it depends on how lucky you feel or how chicken you are. Cluck, cluck.

Once across the water, I walked the 1/2 mile to the park hq, and signed in. No rangers in the area, but I did talk to a few hikers who were coming back down the trail. They said that if someone wanted to cross the water, they had to expect to get wet well above your thighs.

Well, true or not, I figured I was already here, so I was definitely going to do some hiking on this side of the water. I pretty much figured I wouldn't try the San Gorgonio overlook hike, though. That would have required crossing the river twice.

I followed the trail past the PCT mileage signs and between the twin palms at the start of the trail. Before long, I was at the crossing. The river here was actually about four separate streams. Some were no more than ankle deep and could easily be walked across. Others were deeper and swift and would definitely get me wet.

After crossing two constructed foot bridges, I came to a section of water that seemed too deep to cross without getting wet. I retreated and explored further upstream, eventually walking another 1/2 of a mile upstream, looking for an easier crossing. At one point, a narrow tree limb seemed to provide a crossing. But it was thin, I'm fat, and the water below was deep and swift. A fall would mean a real soaking and a dead camera. I continued past that limb for quite some time, looking for possible walking sticks to help in the crossing. But even when I came back down with a walking stick, the crossing looked unnecessarily precarious. If I REALLY wanted to cross, I should just find a flatter area and take off my shoes, again.

I turned around and headed down-stream. When I got back to near the foot bridges, I saw a couple of older hikers have a seemingly easy way quickly crossing the water. Hmmm, that was weird. So I made my way back across the two bridges and the other easy crossings and came again to the one that was too deep and wide to leap across. A little more exploring and I found another way that still required a little bit of walking around in mush and a little bit of leaping, but still got me on the west side of the Whitewater River with my socks mostly dry.

After just 1/3 of a mile or so on the well-defined trail, I came to the signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. From there, heading straight takes you to Canada. If you don't want to go that far, you can go another 1 1/2 miles to Red Dome, 6 miles to the San Gorgonio Overlook, or 7 1/2 more miles to the Mission Creek Preserve.

Alternatively, turning left here sends you to Mexico. It's also the way you'd go for the Canyon Overview Loop trail, or to head back over the Cottonwood Trailhead, or on down to the Haugen-Lehman offramp of I-10.

I went left. Last time I was in the area, I had taken the Cottonwood Trailhead, over into the Whitewater watershed. But I did not go as far as the Canyon View Loop. This section would be new.

Heading up this way, there are plenty of switchbacks and plenty of wildflowers. You also get nicer and nicer views of the Whitewater watershed, a peek at Mt. San Gorgonio, and plenty of good views of Mt. San Jacinto.

After a brief climb (maybe 6/10ths of a mile), a signed junction for the Canyon View Loop directs you to take a left, off the PCT. The trail then runs mostly level and to the southeast, parallel to the river, though, for most of the way, you are well away and not in view of the water. The last bit (for me) was a switch-backed descent, back to the Canyon Road.

The Wildlands Conser-vancy (which owns and manages the preserve) says this loop is 3 1/2 miles in length. Since I also did a few detours while trying to cross the water twice, I'm figuring I covered 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 miles, total. Pretty short, as far as most of my hikes have gone (except recently!). I suppose if I was feeling a little more ambitious, I could have headed all the way up to the saddle separating the Cottonwood and Whitewater watersheds before heading back down. Definitely, had I made an earlier start and not had such a difficult time actually getting started on this trail, that's what I would have done.

Whitewater wash looks very desolate, just 'cause it's so white. There's some interesting structure in the mud-stone that comprises the cliffs to the east of the Whitewater River. Also, in the north-facing slopes of the cliffs on the west side of the river. Spring flowers also add a little color, but they're patchy. Much of the plant growth is otherwise grey--sagebrush. This means the landscape is somewhat washed out.

In areas where the trail crosses the wash, there are often logs or yucca stalks that are erected and held up by piles of stones. If you feel you're off the trail, you can look around to see if you can see any of these markers. They may help get you on the right track.

Despite the bland coloring of the wash, there are some great vistas on this trail. One of the overlooks is right over the visitor center, so you get a birds eye view of where you were. As noted earlier, you also get to see San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. You can also look down the Whitewater River, towards the Coachella Valley.

Also interest-ingly, I could see the canyon road where the river ran over the road, and I could watch cars crossing the water from about two miles away.

The first video below is of the Whitewater River, as it flows over the Canyon Road. It sort of looks like Horseshoe Falls, to me!

The second video provides a bit of an overview and a sense of scale to the Whitewater watershed.


  1. "A sad and pathetic" story eh? My favorite! Nice post and pics...

  2. The sad and pathetic truth is that I had a coupon for Harry and David's (a small chain that sells expensive fruit and premium snacks and desserts) that expired on Monday, and they closed the store that used to be in Pasadena. Now, their closest store is over 60 miles round trip away, and driving that far to buy expensive snack foods would have been impossible to justify, coupon or no. So, instead, I decided to hike Whitewater, which, hey, look at that, would have me drive right by their store in Cabazon. So now, I can tell myself, I'm *really* driving 180 miles round trip to Whitewater to hike, but if a Harry and David outlet store just happens to be right on the way. . . .

    Yeah, it's even sadder and more pathetic than you expected! Although, yes, I really did want to return to Whitewater to hike during wildflower season, anyway. If I didn't do that hike on Monday, I'd likely have been heading out here within a week or two, anyway.

  3. Lol! Hope they didn't dissapoint!

  4. The shortbread cookies they had on clearance were definitely a great buy. :P