Where: Ten miles east of Palm Springs, at the base of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is a seemingly lifeless 18,000-acre wilderness area that's home to the Thousand Palms Oasis, a lush habitat of palms where you can actually step across the San Andreas Fault via a short footbridge and watch water rise to the surface through various seeps, creeks and ponds. It's the kind of dune-dotted, windswept landscape where you'd expect Lawrence of Arabia to ride past on a camel.
Getting around: This is the place to come if you want to see a completely intact, undeveloped palm oasis, but do it without a strenuous hike. Though there are dozens of miles of trails in the area, the two-mile (round trip) McCallum Palms Trail starts at the visitor center just a short walk from the parking lot. There's also a rustic little three-room "palm house" that was home to Paul Wilhelm, a writer, naturalist and longtime champion of the oasis whose passion for this unique habitat is obvious. There are several hikes to oases, including the five- to six-mile (round trip) Pushawalla Palms Trail, which is moderately strenuous but offers a reward at the end: the Pushawalla Palms Oasis.
What's unique: If you're interested in native flora and fauna, this is the place to come. In addition to the rare pupfish that ply the ponds, the preserve is home to the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, which can't be found anywhere else in the world. There are no user fees -- the preserve relies on donations and they allow hiking and picnics.
THE OASIS OF MARA
Where: The Oasis of Mara and the 29 Palms Inn are at the north entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, a moonscape-like landscape that's about an hour from Palm Springs, making it a perfect day trip.
Getting around: The oasis is the heart of the 29 Palms Inn, a storied, one-of-a-kind getaway with a restaurant and adobe-style bungalow rentals, which is a perfect place for those with mobility issues because there's a short, paved ADA-accessible pathway around the oasis. It's also a perfect place to end a day of hiking in Joshua Tree, where there are miles of hiking trails and scenic drives. And geologically, it doesn't get much more interesting than this part of California. This is where the Mohave and Lower Colorado deserts meet, and in addition to one of the most famous oases you'll see armies of sentinel-like Joshua trees amid otherworldly boulder formations.
What's unique: An oasis overnight. 29 Palms offers a wide range of inexpensive lodging options. During one visit I rented an adobe-style bungalow in a desert setting on the outskirts of the oasis. During that spring visit it was still cool enough to build a fire at night, but hot enough to take a dip in the pool. Several of the cottages have their own private patio, and some have lazy day hammocks. The inn has its own hobby farm and when seasonally appropriate the restaurant uses that produce in its food.
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