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    Tahquitz Canyon

    Tahquitz Canyon is only 5 minutes drive from downtown Palm Springs, the city just east of the San Bernadino mountains which acts as a gateway to the desert nature reserves of southern California like the Coachella Valley Preserve and Joshua Tree national park.   Tahquitz Canyon itself is owned by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians.   It was closed between 1969 and 2001 because of problems with vagrants living rough in the canyon, damaging old Indian pictographs and filling the area with trash.   However the tribal elders decided to re-open it to the public and built a very nice visitors' center at the entrance to the valley from the proceeds of their Spa Resort Casino in town, and in 2005 they started to allow self-guided hikes.

    Here's the view up the canyon from near the entrance.   The canyon is named after an Indian shaman or medicine man who used his powers selfishly and was banished to the canyon, and it's said that his spirit still lives here.   It's not too long a walk to the far end, but from late spring or early summer it can get very, very hot even early in the morning.

    That hot weather suits local reptiles like this granite spiny lizard just fine, though even they go undercover when it gets too warm.

    The same type of lizard from a different angle.

    The green coloring on the females and juveniles of this species is really attractive, contrasting nicely with the rich brown on the front of their bodies.

    Males are even more spectacular, with brilliant deep metallic blue scales across their entire underside.

    The canyon is fairly close to the northern edge of their range, but they can be found all the way down into Baja California.

    The males are strongly territorial, so it's no surprise that  this one started doing the usual iguanid threat display, consisting of rapid and repeated press-ups, followed by a rapid and cowardly retreat over the large boulders along the canyon bottom to a new spot where he repeated the display.

    Mind you, it's said that this species is inclined to bite people who pick it up, so perhaps the display isn't all bluff after all.

    Even though I stalked him carefully, I wasn't able to get within 30 feet of this little guy, so I had to take these photos with a very long lens.

    This banded rock lizard is another fairly large lizard which makes its home in the canyon.

    This one was using its incredibly long claws to hang onto a vertical wall, but since it was in deep shadow I had to use flash to get the photo.

    It was much easier to get photos of this lizard than the spiny lizards, I was able to inch slowly towards it until I was close enough to reach out and touch it.

    The orange markings around its head indicate that this is a gravid female, which means that it's carrying eggs.   You can see more of the lizards and snakes that live in this area on the Reptiles of the Coachella Valley page.

    It's hard to imagine a stream flowing here throughout the incredibly hot desert summer, but availability of a constant supply of water was the reason the Cahuilla Indians settled in this area, living in the canyons during winter and going up into the mountains when the heat below became too much to bear.

    The stream here is fed by snowmelt from Mt San Jacinto, which at 10,800 feet is the second highest mountain in southern California.

    Other streams and the hot springs for which the Agua Caliente tribe is named come straight out of the desert floor, courtesy of the San Andreas fault, which passes within about 10 miles of Tahquitz Canyon.

    A stream in the desert is amazing, but to find a frog or tadpole is even more remarkable; nevertheless, there were quite a few of these California tree frog tadpoles in some of the quieter pools.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    There were also quite a few pond skaters like this one, which was steadying itself by putting a couple of its legs on a rock.   Pond skaters are predators which belong to a group of insects called "true bugs", all of which have a "rostrum" or spiked tube which normally folds flat under their body.   Plant eating true bugs stick their rostrum into leaves or stems and suck the juices out, but carnivores like this one find another insect, kill them by plunging the rostrum into them and then suck them dry.

    The pond skater wasn't the only predator sitting by the stream; this species of dragonfly was also quite common.

    This damselfly was sitting in the wild grape vines growing a bit further away from the stream.   Damselflies are closely related to dragonflies and they're also predators, but they're usually somewhat smaller, their eyes are smaller and more separated than those of dragonflies, and they usually rest with their wings closed instead of holding their wings open like dragonflies.

    These two butterflies are called large white skippers, they belong to a butterfly family called skippers which are half-way between butterflies and moths.   Although they have clubbed antennae like butterflies, their shape is more like that of a moth, most of them have dull colors (except for some which are iridescent!) and most of them rest with their wings closed like moths.

    This pair might look like a sweet couple, sipping juice together with their proboscises, but they're actually both males "puddling" in order to gather salts.   Mind you, since Palm Springs is one of America's premier gay resort towns, perhaps these two really are a couple!

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    Another male butterfly gathering salts to give to his true love.   This is a marine blue butterfly, you can just make out the blue coloration on the topsides of its wings.   It's a small butterfly but quite attractive with the wavy patterns and the two eyespots on each hind wing encircled by metallic blue scales.   It appears that it also hasn't read the nature books which say that butterflies are supposed to rest with their wings open!

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    This is a tough environment for delicate creatures like butterflies and moths, but there are a few which have adapted to this environment.

    In springtime the desert is usually packed with caterpillars eating the wildflowers which have suddenly bloomed out of the sand.   It's often possible to see dozens at once and the supply is so abundant and so reliable that some species of hawk rely on them as a fuel source while migrating back from Argentina to their breeding grounds in the United States.

    Many of these caterpillars will grow into moths like the white-lined sphinx moth but there are quite a few other species in the desert, like the painted lady butterfly, one of whose chrysalises I found glued to the shady side of a rock part-way up the canyon trail.

    On its journey down the canyon the stream passes over several small rocky outcrops, creating some scenic little waterfalls.   It's very idyllic compared to the harshness of the desert, so it's no wonder that the Indians spent so much of their time in the canyons.

    The desert is home to various birds, the most famous of which might be the roadrunner - yes, folks, it's a real bird and not just a cartoon character!   This is an even more common resident, a Gambel's quail.   This is a male, who was standing prominently on a rock in order to distract me from his mate and their chicks, who were busy making their escape through the brush on the canyon floor.   The Gambel's quail is very similar to the California quail, except that Gambel's quail is slightly larger and the feathers on the breast and back of the neck lack the dark borders of the California quail.   The mountains here mark the western boundary of the range of Gambel's quail, and since their range hardly overlaps with the California quail, that's also another way to make an identification.

    It might seem strange to find a delicate creature like this Anna's hummingbird in the desert, but they're quite common.   In a place like Palm Springs with so many irrigated gardens it's no problem for them to find flowers year-round.   California is warm enough for Anna's hummingbird to stay right through the winter; most other American hummingbirds migrate south of the border each year to escape the chill.

    At the end of the canyon you come to Tahquitz Waterfall, which is about 60 feet high.

    Part of the 1937 Frank Capra movie "Lost Horizon" was filmed here, but you can bet it wasn't the part with snow and ice!

    The waterfall is the end of the line and although it might be tempting, swimming in the large pool at its base isn't permitted, so you'll just have to drive back to your home or your hotel and have a nice cold shower there!

    If you enjoyed Tahquitz Canyon then you might enjoy the Coachella Valley Preserve in California, the Valley of Fire in Nevada or the Lower Huron Metropark in Michigan.