Great Runs: Trail Running in Palm Desert, CA


  • The Coachella Valley in California is full of amazing desert runs, with plenty of trails winding around the scenic canyons
  • When you go stay at the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage which, besides being a lovely resort, has a number of really interesting and semi-technical trails close to the hotel
  • Bring water – and a camera.  The views are incredible.

This past week Bridget and I traded Texas sun for California sun. We flew out to the golden state to visit my recently transplanted NJ sister, and to share a family dinner in a superstar LA restaurant for her birthday (Providence – yum!). Figuring that a west coast weekend was also a good excuse to squeeze in a little vacay after a very hectic winter, we booked a few days at the wonderful Ritz Carlton near Palm Springs.

I was hoping to sneak in a few runs out on the desert trails while there, especially since my mileage is ramping up and I didn’t want to lose too many training days. Luckily the Ritz is perched high up in the canyons overlooking the Coachella Valley and there are a few trailheads conveniently located just a few hundred yards from the front entrance. With early morning weather in March expected to be bright, blue skies and temperatures in the crisp 50s – primo running weather – I couldn’t wait.

The Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage is located just north of Palm Desert, which looks about the same way it sounds – harsh, dry and rugged terrain, dotted with palm trees. The area’s running and hiking trails deliver just what you would expect from a desert-climate experience: gravelly single-track winding up through dusty, rocky terrain, sharp climbs and hairpin turns overlooking deep canyons between the peaks, and a boulder-covered landscape where only the most drought-tolerant plants and shrubs can survive the arid conditions.


There’s a spartan, hardscrabble beauty to the desert, however, and it was impossible for me not to stop occasionally and to marvel at the incredible sights. There’s a lot to look at, from the big (colossal rock formations jutting up out of the hills and cutting huge, imposing silhouettes against the cloudless, blue sky) to the small (beautiful, green succulents and cacti dotted with gorgeous, multi-colored flowers) causing your brain to assume you’re in either a paradise or an alien moonscape.

The hotel grounds and trails are up in the San Jacinto mountains. Which means that the payoff to all of that calf-busting mountain climbing is the amazing view when you get to the top – breathtaking scenery in nearly all directions. From high above the canyons you can see the entire Coachella Valley: the neighboring snow-covered peak of Mount San Jacinto (slightly weird sight when you have a layer of hot dust sticking to your sweaty forehead) as well as the long, craggy range that runs down the southwest side of Joshua Tree National Park. The entire panorama is incredible.


Although the trails at the Ritz are not especially long – I was only able to cobble together a 4-miler out of connected loops – they’re a trail-running playground. And there’s enough technicality that you’ll need to stay alert and to watch your footing to keep from disappearing off a cliff and down into one of the canyons.

Bring some water, even in the cooler months. Although you’re never far from the hotel with its friendly staff and plentiful, Ritz-branded bottles of water, you never know what might happen out in the desert. And for heaven’s sake, don’t reach into any dark crevices – unless you’re trying to come home with a personal snake bite story.

And since the cities of Palm Springs/Palm Desert/Rancho Mirage appear to be just an elderly-friendly, interconnected grid of golf courses, housing developments, and Rite Aid shopping plazas, it’s nice to have an opportunity for a little interaction with the beautiful nature and topography of the area.

Highly recommended.

Side note: Remember the fanatic heyday of “Born to Run”? Did you get swept up in the Caballo Blanco spirit and buy some minimalist shoes – maybe even a pair of VFFs? Are they still sitting in your closet like mine, new and unloved?

Recently I started to think that maybe I didn’t give the minimalist movement a proper chance. And that maybe it was finally high time to try it again.

What changed? First, I started running on more trails. Let’s face it: minimalist shoes on paved surfaces are bad. However, minimalist shoes on trail = pretty great. Second, now that I’m a consistent forefoot striker, I’m finding find that minimal shoes provide that extra bit of feedback that I’ve been missing during trail running. It feels – dare I say – more “natural” to gingerly step down a rocky trail on my toes, feeling every little bump, stone, and stick on the trail.

So I recently pulled out a pair of (like new with tags) New Balance Minimus for one of my shorter trail runs. It was awesome! It felt as though I had finally removed a pair of earplugs, inadvertently stuck in my ears while at a concert.

“Oh!” he says, startled by the sudden increase in fidelity, “is that what the music is supposed to sound like?”

I’ll definitely be sticking to maximal cushioning for long runs, but I’m going to start weaving in some “minimalist” runs to my training plan.  It’s been a really enjoyable addition – and likely helping build my foot strength as well – just like Chris McDougal promised 🙂



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