Santa Rosa Mountains: A Visitor’s Guide

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Photo Credit: barteverett

The Santa Rosa Mountains are a stunning mountain range just steps away from La Quinta in Southern California. While they may be small compared to other California mountain ranges, they’re full of stunning canyons, desert oases, and a wealth of opportunities for hikers, adventurers, and sightseers alike.

From the towering peaks that offer breathtaking views, to the peaceful trails that meander through the landscape, visitors can explore the California desert’s diverse flora and fauna in a variety of ways.

Nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego, these impressive mountains also connect to the San Bernardino Mountains in the north, making it look like one long mountain range instead of actually two.

La Quinta and nearby Palm Desert is actually in a unique location given that to the southwest, the Santa Rosa Range looms overhead, whereas head northeast and you’ll face vast desert in Joshua Tree National Park.

Although you’ll have incredible views of the Santa Rosa Mountains from your vacation rental home in PGA West, get closer to the action by heading into the mountains themselves.

Whether you’re looking for a great outdoor adventure, a short day hike, or a leisurely scenic drive, the Santa Rosa Mountains are sure to provide an unforgettable experience.

Things to Do in the Santa Rosa Mountains

Hiking in the Santa Rosa Mountains

Photo Credit: Ventu Photo

Hiking in the Santa Rosa Mountains is an experience like no other. These majestic mountains offer breathtaking views, challenging trails, and a unique opportunity to explore the area's native plants and animals. Sunset Magazine even named La Quinta as the best getaway destination to adventurous trekkers, thanks to this mountain range.

Within the Santa Rosa Mountains, you'll find hikes for all levels. Some hikes offer views of the valley below and others take you straight through the desert landscape, passing by cacti, desert fan palms, and more. Some will even lead you to waterfalls!

If you plan on hiking in the Santa Rosa Mountains, be sure to bring plenty of water, and try to avoid hiking when the desert sun is at its most powerful.

Here are some of the best hikes in the Santa Rosa Mountains:

Randall Henderson Trail

The Randall Henderson Trail is a 2.7-mile hike that typically takes just over an hour to complete. With very little elevation change, and a well-maintained trail, this hike is fairly easy, although it can quickly become difficult if attempted during the hotter parts of the year.

The trailhead for this hike is just outside of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument Visitor Center, where there is plenty of parking, as well as public restrooms.

If you’re looking for an easy hike with amazing valley views and a good chance at spotting wildlife, the Randall Henderson Trail is an excellent option.

Bear Creek Oasis

The Bear Creek Oasis Trail is a difficult, 8.3-mile out and back hike with a beautiful palm oasis at the midway point. If you’re looking for a challenging hike into the Santa Rosa Mountains without having to travel far, you’re in luck- the Bear Creek Oasis Trailhead is only a 10-minute drive from PGA West!

This hike starts off in the outskirts of La Quinta and then ascends into the Santa Rosa Mountain wilderness area. This trail isn’t for the faint of heart- it has over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and the first mile is in a sandy, washed section. However, the difficulties of the trail are well worth it for the abundant views of the valley and Salton Sea from the top.

The oasis at the end of the trail is the perfect place to recharge, have a picnic, and take in the views before heading back down. Depending on your pace and how long you want to spend at the oasis, you should budget 4-5 hours to complete this hike into the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Carrizo Canyon

The Carrizo Canyon hike is a great way to take in the desert scenery. This out and back hike is 2.7 miles long, with about 400 feet of elevation gain. To reach the trailhead, you can park at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountain National Monument Visitor Center parking lot, although many park at the Art Smith trailhead parking lot to avoid crossing Highway 74 on foot.

The Carrizo Canyon hike kicks off with an easy walk for about 3/4 of a mile before you make it into the canyon. At the very end of the trail, there is a short section that requires some light scrambling to make it over. Many find this climbing section to be a fun challenge but you can always turn around at this point if you prefer not to climb.

As you make your way into the canyon, you'll find yourself in a serene environment with plenty of wildlife, including lizards, birds, sheep, and even the occasional coyote.

Only open October-December, this trail is one of the least crowded in the area, and a great hike to complete if you’re looking to find some solitude in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Mountain Biking in the Santa Rosa Mountains

With miles of trails snaking through the hills, riders of all levels can experience the joy of biking on some of the most breathtaking terrain in the country. The trails range from gentle, rolling hills to challenging, technical terrain.

Here are two of the most popular trails in the area that are easily accessible from La Quinta:

Bump n’ Grind Trail

Rated intermediate, the Bump n’ Grind mountain biking trail is an out and back with a steep climb and some tough switchbacks at the beginning of the trail, and then a fun, rocky single-track decline on the way back down.

The total length of the trail is 3.5 miles.

Randall Henderson Trail

The 2.4-mile Randall Henderson loop trail isn’t just popular with hikers but also with mountain biking! Although it’s a short trail, it has a considerable amount of rocks and sandy sections, so it is rated as an intermediate trail.

Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

Photo Credit: Simone Hogan

One of the best ways to explore the Santa Rosa Mountains is to drive the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway. The full distance of the scenic byway is 67 miles. It stretches from Palm Springs, through the Santa Rosa Mountains, all the way to Banning Pass.

Without stopping, the full Palms to Pines Scenic Byway takes about 2.5 hours each way but you don’t have to drive the full byway to get amazing views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and Coachella Valley.

After departing from La Quinta, it’s only a 40-minute drive to get to the Coachella Valley Vista Point, and you can turn around wherever you feel like. Just be sure to take the road slowly, as it’s very windy and only one lane in each direction.

Coachella Valley Vista Point

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While there are plenty of vistas and turnouts along the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, The Coachella Valley Vista Point is one of the best places to get an amazing view of the Santa Rosa Mountains. From here, you’ll get a glimpse of Toro Peak, the highest peak in the mountains. Another great viewpoint is from the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

This stunning spot offers breathtaking views of the Santa Rosa Mountains, impressive desert landscapes, and maybe even glimpses of wildlife. When you arrive at Coachella Valley Vista Point, you’ll be greeted by a large open area with plenty of benches for you to sit and take in the view. There’s a good sized parking area, and public restrooms as well.

The Coachella Valley Vista Point does tend to get crowded at peak times, but it’s worth it for the amazing views. This is also one of the best places in the Santa Rosa Mountains to watch the sunset.

Wildlife Spotting

Photo Credit: Jeffrey P Miller

As you ascend into the Santa Rosa Mountains and gain higher elevation, the ecosystem transforms from a Sonoran Desert ecosystem, to an Arctic Alpine ecosystem if you venture towards the highest elevations of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. If you stay closer to the Palm Springs area, then the ecosystems you will primarily encounter are desert ecosystems.

The animals you may encounter in the Santa Rosa wilderness include a variety of:

  • Birds
  • Reptiles
  • Amphibians
  • Sheep
  • Deer
  • Golden Eagles
  • Great Horned Owls
  • Prairie Falcons

These birds soar, nest, and forage all over the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Frogs, toads, and the desert slender salamander all thrive in the desert ecosystem, and you’ll especially want to watch out for rattlesnakes. However, the animal you are most likely to spot in the Santa Rosa Mountains is the peninsular bighorn sheep, likely scrambling along the mountainside. The Santa Rosa Mountains is home to the largest herd in the United States.

The best times to go birding and spot wildlife are in the spring, fall, and winter. Animals are most active right around sunrise and sunset, so if you want to see some of the amazing wildlife in the area, come early (or late) and bring a pair of binoculars!

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center

For anyone looking to explore this incredible region, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center is a must-visit. Located in the heart of the Santa Rosa Mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest, the center is the perfect place to start your exploration.

Here, you can learn more about the area's history and ecology from the U.S. Forest Service, from the Cahuilla Natives that have called the Santa Rosa Mountains home for centuries to the unique wildlife in the area. You can even take a guided hike with a park ranger to explore the area's diverse habitats.

The visitor center also contains a variety of exhibits and interactive displays, providing an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Whether you’re looking to do some hiking, biking, drive the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, or any combination of the three, the Visitor Center is in a great central location to start your adventure.

Enjoy the Santa Rosa Mountains

Along with some of the most spectacular scenery in all of California, the Santa Rosa Mountains offer some of the most breathtaking hiking and biking trails you can find.

This remarkable desert landscape has a lot to offer for all types of adventurers, and you’re now prepared to truly jump in and experience this amazing mountain range located only moments away from PGA West.