Opened in 2006 as a connector trail to the Art Smith and Bump and Grind trails, the Hopalong Cassidy trail (named for famed American movie and television cowboy icon of the same name), is one of my favorite 1/2 day hikes of the Lower Santa Rosa complex. It features a lot of variety, beginning with the short meadow trek to the trailhead that we began at 12:31 p.m.. To get there, drive south on Highway 74 from Palm Desert. The parking area (1,039 ft.) is located on the right hand side about 1/4 mile after you pass Bighorn Country Club. After parking, follow the signs to the Art Smith trailhead (yes – you are starting up Art Smith).
After reaching the trailhead, you will soon see what I mean by variety. The trail begins with a pretty standard ascent for these low desert treks. You get an increasingly nice view of Dead Indian Creek (I know) to the south as you meander up. We hit this at the perfect time of the season, just at the tip beginning (or, perhaps, a week or two early actually) of the blooming season. There were a great deal of flowers out, but lots of blooms almost ready to give way. This is the time to hit this trail folks. Anyway, once up this first climb, you will begin to see a lot of reddish and often rounded rocks. Boulders really. Some “stacked” in mounds quite high and just amazing to see geologically. Upon getting to this top (1,327 feet), you will come to the beginning of the Hopalong Cassidy Trail, parting to the right and visibly continuing north; while the Art Smith continues trucking west toward the wonders of the Indian Canyons. The trail has officially begun and you are afforded your first glimpse of the city of Palm Desert to your north-northeast.
The trail now works it’s way north, looking and behaving much like sister trails in the North and South Lykken’s. The view continues to be the golf course, but it is a new surrounding from the red rocks that promised the Art Smith assent-ion earlier. Good elevation flirts up and down and really a nice plateau from the ascent. You will get to a highpoint for this section at 1,435 ft. and set your view of the later rise you will have to switchback out of Cat Creek ahead. A large mass shoots up ahead of you at 1,549 feet, but it’s not that it’s just over 100 feet above you that makes you scratch your head … it’s the GAIN. Looks like you will be chuggin’ some switchbacks in a bit. You work your way down into Cat Canyon, then you get lost.
Seriously, you may just get lost in terms of where to go next. Oh you can turn back, or simply walk out the canyon to nearby civilization … but finding the path ahead was difficult. Even from a distance, it looked quite blurred against the rocks of the hill ahead (see above) and yeah – when you are in the canyon looking up? We spent 10 minutes looking at it from different angels (seriously) until we found it. Even then it was, at times, difficult to follow (as you can see below). No doubt due to recent rain water, but I still feel that some agency other than the B.L.M. (who represent the only signs posted with the exception of the end-most trailheads) should make an effort here. That agency would probably be the city of Palm Desert. Come on.
You’re gonna work for it up this thing. You will be getting above and over 100 feet beyond the height you just witnessed this leg from, but you are doing it over a much shorter distance. So switchbacks and incline here. Upon reaching the top? More views. Eisenhower peak is clearly visible to the east. The trek through this area is a real treat with stunning flora and beautiful blooms (huge barrel cacti), not to mention a good variety of rock as well. Now, getting down from this section? Not so simple. I recorded as much as a 32% down-slope through there, and personally I think that’s fun.
Once down, you will be afforded your first view of another golf course, this time the Mountains at Bighorn. Pretty from a distance, but we get way the hell too close for comfort in my personal opinion. I mean, it was interesting if golf course water run-off and irrigation application is interesting to you. Otherwise? You want to go hiking in NATURE. OK. /rant.
Out you go, from the hills behind you, to a walk between new development (on your right), and this behemoth golf course (on your left). There’s a gate that was unlocked when we went by, affording one access to the course… You continue around this until you reach where you cross a cart entrance along the S.E. border of the course. There, you see a sign welcoming you to the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and indicating that, the monument, is just through that privatly owned, locked, iron gate. I bet the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep digg it.
Now you wind your way up to the cross over Palm Desert. I don’t know who owns it, maintains it, pays it’s electric bills. There were only leaflets about the energy system governing it’s usage. Many have hiked to it via other routes. I wonder if they know of it’s origins. We found a geocache near it’s base and saw new views for the first time to the north. We could now see to the Palm Desert Mall. Heading practically north (for the duration of the hike), we passed a number of unmarked trail junctions, first with Homestead Trail trail, then a poorly marked juncture with the Gabby Hayes Trail and then a trail labeled by the City of Palm Desert as the Connector trail. It’s practically all downhill from the cross to the terminus of the Hopalong Cassidy. There are lovely “desert meadows” in the stretch from the Connector to the junction with the Herb Jeffries and we noted a few joggers in here, now just at dusk. Lovely cool down in both serenity and blue-green color at this hour. I recommend hiking this toward dusk quite highly for the effect (also practically, the sun sets behind the range above you early so you can avoid too much intense sunlight).
You will come to the Herb Jeffries Trail here. Toward the west and up, it works toward the Mirage (a.k.a. “Bump-n-Grind” trail). Toward the east, it empties toward the wash below, just as the trails you encountered since departing the cross. This trail junction represents the mother of confusion due to 1. no signage whatsoever, 2. a couple goat trails confusing the juncture, and 3. did I mention no signs? This area is frequented by out-of-town visitors (a.k.a. “Snow-birds”) so one would think that this would be the perfect spot in the entire northern half of Palm Desert trail complexes … for a sign. But nope. Look to your north, down the cliff. See the trail beneath you, working west? You want that. So as you approach the junction from the south, turn right, ignore the goat trail to your immediate right, and you will see that while good ‘ol Herb keeps east, you can now switchback west and toward home. Down you go on a gradual 10% slope downward (a 151 ft. drop over 0.3 mi.), until you are behind Target® and back where – oh yeah, did I mention? … you had better brought a second car.
Great trail, great day, a must hike despite my meandering over the hindrance (and in some ways, existence) of, the gold courses. Do it in the spring. Be glad you did.
Hopalong Cassidy was portrayed by Palm Desert resident William Boyd. Mr. Boyd was known for giving his “Hoppy” wooden nickels to children, and teaching them his tips on good citizenship (known as “Hoppy’s Creed”). The Trail was dedicated on January 31, 2004 by his widow, Grace Bradley Boyd, who said that “Hoppy and Topper would have loved the trail and encouraged everyone to enjoy it and practice trail safety.” It later opened in 2006.