Called “the most botanically diverse national monument in America,” by David Myers of The Wildlands Conservancy, the Sand to Snow National Monument gets its name from dramatic changes in elevation, which range from the sandy desert floor to Mount San Gorgonio’s 11,502-foot summit, the highest peak in Southern California and often capped with snow well into spring.
To visit the sandy part of Sand to Snow, head to the Whitewater Canyon Preserve area within the monument—the turnoff for Whitewater Canyon is five miles west of Palm Springs on Interstate 10. Take Whitewater Canyon Road five miles north to the trailhead, then follow Whitewater River’s usually dry wash for two miles to reach Red Dome, a rust-colored hill caused by what could be called a volcanic burp that welled up to the earth’s crust. Or, for a heart-pumping ascent, follow the 3.5-mile Canyon View Loop Trail. You’ll climb nearly 1,000 feet for big views of the surrounding peaks. The loop follows a section of the Pacific Crest Trail on its epic journey from Mexico to Canada.
If you prefer your paths lush and leafy, stop in at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a wild oasis for bird lovers. Song sparrows flit and hummingbirds whiz by as you follow the Mesquite Trail’s boardwalks through a marshy maze of willows and cottonwoods. Nearly 250 avian species have been spotted at this jungle-like wetland surrounding Big Morongo Creek.
To visit the snowy parts of Sand to Snow, Myers recommends a local favorite: a trip to the hamlet of Forest Falls and a short hike on the Vivian Creek Trail—via snowshoes in winter or hiking boots in summer. To reach the trailhead, continue west on I-10; take the exit to Yucaipa and follow State Highway 38 north, then east to Forest Falls. The trail also leads to an 8.5-mile ascent up to San Gorgonio’s summit, but be warned: It’s an epic quad burner with more elevation gain than the ascent up Yosemite’s Half Dome. Plan on at least a 12-hour round trip, and take plenty of food and water. When you're done, reward your effort with a new pair of hiking boots from the Ecco outlet at Desert Hills Premium Outlets, home to dozens of high-end outlets. Head 11 miles west on I-10 to reach Cabazon and the outlets.