Rocky and mostly barren, the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains southwest of Palm Springs offer terrain hospitable only to king snakes, lizards and tortoises. Shade is almost nonexistent, and jagged rocks and barrel cactuses welcome visitors with stinging jabs to the feet and shins.
Still, this is ideal habitat for bighorn sheep and mountain bikers. In the scrubland outside Palm Springs, the sheep are endangered but the bikers are flourishing.
For mountain bikers, the more rugged and treacherous the terrain, the better. The hilly desert landscape around Palm Springs is crisscrossed with enough single-track trails and perilous, rocky descents to keep a hard-core rider entertained for days.
Golf and tennis dominate outdoor activities in this desert town, but bicycling, particularly mountain biking, is gaining appeal, especially among young adrenaline junkies in Southern California.
"More and more people are doing it compared to last year," said Anthony Hysell, a sales manager at Funseekers, a bike rental shop in nearby Palm Desert.
But you don't want to try the parched Palm Springs trails in the summer, when desert temperatures rise from merely hot to habanero hot. And even in the cooler months, Hysell advises bikers who ride the desert trails to pack plenty of water, food and a fully charged cellphone.
"You can get lost out there," he said. "You can start on the 'goat trails' and end up in Idyllwild."
The "goat trails'' are a network of popular hiking and biking paths, started, I assume, by the endangered sheep, in the hills south of Palm Springs. As an on-again, off-again mountain biker, I learned about the goat trails from several online forums as well as bike shop owners in Palm Springs.
On a recent weekend, I filled a backpack with water and snacks and headed for the entrance to the goat trails that begin as an unmarked dirt road, conveniently next to the Rimrock Shopping Center parking lot on East Palm Canyon Drive.
The trails were what I expected: rough, unforgiving and gloriously fun.
On my full-suspension bike, I tried to follow a 5- to 7-mile loop outlined on a map I found on the Internet. But the goat trails are largely unmarked and shoot off in myriad directions around clumps of desert sage and rutted rocks.
Several bikers and hikers I met on the trails told me I needed to summit a peak called Murray Hill, elevation 2,200 feet, to complete the loop. But with my lungs burning and my legs cramping, I made it only halfway up the hill before I quit.
That was OK because I had gained enough altitude to take in a great view of Palm Springs and the surrounding desert. I was also up high enough to zoom down the hill, jumping over rocks and skipping over dips, with spear-shaped lizards scurrying to get out of my way. It was like a sweet dessert after a hearty meal.
The next day, I was too sore and depleted for another hill-climbing ride. Instead, I signed up for the San Andreas Earthquake Bike Tour, a 20-mile ride that featured another seemingly desolate stretch of desert.
The ride is offered by PS Bike Tours, a one-man company run by Clotaire Castanier, a French expatriate who offered Palm Springs tourists hot-air balloon rides for more than 20 years before grounding his balloon to launch bike tours.
In the morning, Castanier arrived at my hotel in a van to take me and another rider — a psychologist from Canada — to the start of what he said was a gentle downhill cruise along the San Andreas Fault.
The friendly Frenchman drove us east on Interstate 10 to the exit for Box Canyon Road, about 30 minutes out of town. There he pulled our bikes off the van and followed as we rode easily along a mostly vacant paved road that ended in the tiny town of Mecca.
Every few miles, Castanier pulled over to offer us drinks and snacks while explaining the tectonic forces that had pushed up banded cliffs of rock and dirt along the road. The craggy rock walls were streaked with bands of olive- and rust-colored minerals, a striking contrast to the pale blue desert sky.
In this thick French accent, he raved about the desert landscape — how it conveys a stark beauty, whether you view it from a hot air balloon or a bicycle.
I had to agree with him, although I prefer to see it on two wheels.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun