Desert Hiking In Whitewater Preserve: Pacific Crest Trail To Red Dome


Whitewater Preserve: Pacific Crest Trail to Red Dome

Date Hiked: February 11, 2012
Best Season: Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Whitewater Preserve (760) 325‐7222
Notes: The route is out-and-back if you choose to stick to the actual trail. This trail is NOT part of the BLM's annual summer seasonal fire prevention closure of Whitewater Canyon.
  • Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 413 feet
  • Route Type: Loop, as written below
  • Trail Type: Dirt (single track) and river bottom
  • Difficulty: Moderate

As Southern California hikers, we know that there are good hikes for summer (shaded or near the coast), and hikes that can only be done in the winter–especially some of those out in the desert.  One of our favorite hikes last year was one of those “winter hikes”, Devil’s Punchbowl and Devil’s Chair, out near Palmdale in the High Desert.  We’d hoped to get in some more desert hikes this winter, but the unseasonably warm/hot temperatures have actually forced us to hit the coast three different times since November!  Finally a few weeks ago, temperatures were projected to be low enough to head out to a desert hike we’ve been wanting to get to since before last summer–Whitewater Preserve, between Banning and Palm Springs, off I-10, past the Morongo Casino.

Entrance monument to Whitewater Preserve.

Lions and bears and snakes and flash floods, oh my! Didn’t see any on this particular day…

I’d seen pictures of it posted on Facebook by several of my friends who live out in the Inland Empire, and all had posted about how beautiful it was (though they also warned about the wind…).  And since the two most popular trails in the Preserve were only about 4 miles round trip, which is within our current poor-fitness range, we took advantage of the first cool day to get out to the desert.  Of course, if you want to go farther than four miles, the Pacific Crest Trail cuts through the middle of the Preserve, so you can take a leisurely 725 mile hike to Tuolomne Meadows at Yosemite, or if you really want to stretch your legs, you can go the full 2,445 miles to Canada!

Mileage monument. Pretty cool to hike a trail that you can follow to Canada…

In one of my favorite trailhead encounters, just as we got ready to start our measly 4 mile hike, which does, in fact, overlap the Pacific Crest Trail for a mile or so, a couple pulled up in a brand new Corvette with dealer plates, and the girl in the passenger seat asked, “Are there hiking trails here?”  I nodded in the affirmative, and she asked “How far can you go on them?”  I answered, “Canada!”  Her eyes got really big and she asked, “How long does that take?”  I answered that it took about 4-6 months usually, and she stared at me, said thank you, and they took off back down the road.

The grounds around the trailhead and parking lot are very nice, with shaded picnic tables, a visitor’s center, and some big ponds full of giant trout, a tribute to the property’s past as a fish hatchery and trout farm, where they still hold youth fly fishing days to this day.

Great picnic area near the parking lot.

Covered picnic tables.

Visitor’s Center above one of the old trout ponds.

Picture doesn’t do them justice, but these are some big ol’ trout!

Path across from the visitor’s center to the trailhead and informational signs.

The Preserve itself is almost 3,000 acres, surrounded by the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and featuring the year round Whitewater River running through a valley right through the middle of it.  The eastern wall of the valley is pretty steep and rocky, and is a common place for spotting bighorn sheep, while the western side is a little more rounded.  The road into the preserve features hillsides covered with energy producing windmills–hinting at the near constant winds in this area.

Weather-wise, this is an interesting spot, as we were in dark cloud cover and occasional rain on our drive all the way from Orange County to Whitewater.  Nearly exactly at the offramp for the Whitewater Preserve, we came out from under the cloud cover, and were suddenly in the sunlight.  Over the western wall of the canyon, we could see the dark, rainy clouds, which looked like they were blowing on over us, but somehow they never did.  It was fascinating to watch them appear to be moving towards us, but never getting to us.  It was the kind of meteorological effect that I wish I understood better.  It stayed quite windy the whole time, but it remained sunny in the canyon, even as it was cloudy and wet on the ridge.

A look at the looming clouds over the ridge above the trail.

Head north from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, where you’ll find the mileage monument above as well as an informational display and even a trash can designed for your “dog waste”.  The trail is very clearly marked, and lined with small rocks along the initial stretch.  There are two quick junctions, one where you go straight, and one where you turn left, but both decisions are pretty obvious, by following the signs and the rock lined trail.

Beginning of the trail.

Very well marked trail to begin.

Really hard to get lost here…

The bigger path is straight, but the marked one is to the left.

Shortly thereafter, the rocks lining the trail disappear, but it is easy enough to figure out what the proper path is.  In a wet season, or after a rain, you may have several water crossings on the initial stretch, but on this particular day, most washes were dry, and the ones with water in them were easy to cross on rocks, so we didn’t get wet.  About a half mile from the visitor’s center, we came to the last one on the initial stretch, across the largest stem of the river.  It had a wood bridge laid across it, though older hiking reports indicate that it is frequently washed away.

First minor water crossing.

A look downstream from the first crossing.

In the dry river bottom.

Not as well marked here, but still hard to get lost.

The biggest crossing. A bridge spans the water on this particular day, but it apparently gets washed out regularly.

Crossing the bridge.

Not too long thereafter, we  came to a large limb planted in the ground, with a faint path to the right, and a clearer one towards the left.  The limb may not always be there, but again, it is obvious enough which way to go.  This happened to be where we re-joined the main trail on our return trip down the river, so it is worth noting.

Big stick marking the way towards the PCT.

A quarter mile or so past the bridge, you will come to the signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail.   To the left is the southward stretch of the PCT to Mexico, and the 3.5 mile loop of Canyon View Trail.  To the right, is the northbound trail you can take all the way to Yosemite or Canada–or roughly another mile or so to red dome, which was our choice today.

A surprisingly marshy area on the other side of the river.

Another makeshift crossing.

PCT junction! Turn left here to head to Mexico (or the Canyon View Loop Trail), stay straight to go to Canada (or red dome)!

Hey! We’re on the Pacific Crest Trail!

As cool as it was to be hiking along “the” Pacific Crest Trail, this section was really the most boring part of the hike.  There were no water crossings (on this day, at least) and it was largely desert scrub vegetation.  After about a mile, you’ll see a reddish point on a ridge approaching the trail on the left, and a red rock towards the right in the river bed.  When you hit the red rock point, you will actually find yourself passing between the point on the left, a red volcanic rock on the right, and the river directly in front of you.

Some nice desert color along this side of the trail.

It may look like I’m tipping my hat here, but I’m really just trying to keep it from blowing off my head in the wind!

Dry wash–no telling what this would be like in a wet season.


Clouds still appear to be blowing our way–yet never actually move past the ridge.

Approaching the red volcanic ridge near the dome.

That’s the red dome off to the right of the trail.

This smaller red rock on the side of the trail doesn’t appear to be “the” red dome, but it makes a nice rest area next to the river.

You might think this is red dome, but as far as I can tell from our map, the actual red dome is about 50 yards down river to the right.  On this day, there was a series of logs across the river for crossing on your way to Yosemite, but again, there is no guarantee, because of the great potential for flooding through here.  This crossing by the rock and on the river makes for a really nice place to snack or lunch or just rest and even read before heading back.

This red rock at the crossing isn’t red dome, but it’s a lot like it.

Looking further north up Whitewater River Canyon.

This was the way to cross the river on this particular day if you were continuing along the PCT. We weren’t, but Holly and I never miss an opportunity for a water crossing!

Red Dome, just downstream from where PCT crosses the river.

Red Dome! Again, not terribly exciting, but a good marker.

I prefer loop hikes to out-and-back trips, and prefer riverside hikes to dry hikes, so we decided that rather than just walking back on the same trail from whence we came, we would return along the river instead, picking our way along the sandy, boulder strewn banks.

Heading down river from Red Dome. Very easy to follow.

This was a much more entertaining way to return, and we enjoyed the choose-your-own-adventure nature of our trek.  The river was beautiful, and lived up to its Whitewater name, as it cascaded loudly and frothy over the rocks all the way downstream.  Even when a path we chose seemed to dead-end or become impassable, rarely did it take us more than a few seconds to find a new route, and never more than 50 feet or so from the river.

Much prettier along the river than on the actual trail.

Looking down the canyon.

We’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day.

Holly loved following the river, and took every opportunity to play in the water.

This is about as rough as the non-trail got. And we probably could have picked an easier path here, but chose to hug the river rather than move even 50 feet away.

Mount San Jacinto as seen through my awesome Peaks App.

One of the whitewater-ier stretches of the river.

A really great and scenic hike all the way.

You can see dust being kicked up by the wind in the distance. It was pretty consistently windy all day.

The switchbacks are the PCT as it heads up the west wall of the canyon, this is the path you take for the Canyon View Loop Trail.

The last stretch along the river before re-joining the main trail was a bit weedy, but far from impassable.

Hey, there’s that stick trail marker again!

A little less than 2 miles downstream, we rejoined the main path, at the junction with the big stick.  From there it was a quick half mile back to the visitor’s center and our truck, and an hour and a half back home to Orange County.

Approaching the visitor’s center.

View towards the visitor’s center from the parking lot. Apparently a bighorn sheep was spotted on the rock wall above the center not long before we got there, but we didn’t see it. Can you?

We’ve heard that the Canyon View Loop Trail is great for wildflowers in the spring, but we fear that the lack of rain this year is going to spoil the bloom.  It does have great views of Mount San Jacinto, though, which we have hiked previously, so we may return this year even if there aren’t any flowers to see.

Both of us loved the desert beauty of this hike, and the bubbling river, and highly recommend this hike.  But definitely check the weather first.  It can be deadly hot in the summer and on unseasonably warm spring and fall days, and it is frequently very windy.  On this day, winds were consistently present, and while the average may have only been 10-15 mph (as the weather forecast suggested), the ranger said there were gusts up to 40 mph, so if the weather reports high winds in the area–believe it!!!  Furthermore, if you look at the pictures of the river bed, it can get VERY wide and high during flash floods, so be wary if rain is predicted in the mountains and check in with the rangers before you go whenever possible.

Elevation profile for hike. Click through for larger view. It looks like more of a climb than it felt, btw. We didn’t feel like we were climbing at all, as it was a very gradual incline and decline.

View Whitewater PCT to Red Dome.kml in a larger map


  1. Skyhiker says

    Whitewater’s definitely a cool place, and the rushing water is so unexpected in what feels like the middle of the desert.  I’ve hiked in the area three times, though not this year.  My last time was just about a year ago, when I took the Canyon View loop trail.  Pretty steep climbing, but great views of San Jacinto.  Fair wildflower display that year.

    My first trip there was in June 2010, when I walked past Red Dome to the start of the Mission Creek drainage.  Still some wildflowers then, too.

    My second trip to the area was in December 2010, from the Cottonwood Trailhead (on the I-10 side of the ridge) up and a bit over into the Whitewater Drainage.

  2. Kevin says

    Great hiking area. This year we took the PCT South at the top of canyon Loop, and enjoyed it a lot. We are from Cape Cod MA, can’t be further from home. Kevin 4-1-15.


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