Who would think that parts of the desert are full of water? Especially since the Coachella Valley gets only six to eight inches of rain every year.
But when I took the Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tour outside Palm Springs, I got to see just how plentiful water can be in the desert.
The Coachella Valley is actually a basin where underground water has settled for thousands of years. The springs are considered some of the best water in the world, and 28 oases line the infamous San Andreas Fault.
California has more than 200 earthquakes per week and most rumble right in this basin. While the fault runs over 800 miles long, you can see the fault line here by the lush strip of greenery. Palm trees grow indigenously and their roots go down seven feet deep, showing just how much water exists underground. When the earth moves, water springs up – sometimes in a continual flow, sometimes for only a few hours a day. Coyotes will dig holes in the earth, wait for the water to pool inside, and then drink their fill.
Water sources, however, aren't completely reliable. After an earthquake, for example, the earth may shift and the water will move to a different location.
The Jeep tour passes through a mock-Cahuilla village, similar to what the Native Americans erected along these oases. When the Spanish explorers first came to this region, they saw nothing but barren land.
The Native Americans, on the other hand, found uses for over 200 plants and had almost year-round fresh food due to the mild weather. Because foreigners couldn't see the abundance, they left quickly. Native Americans didn't see pioneers until very late by comparison to the rest of California.
The Cahuilla tribes, in the end, couldn’t stop others from settling in their desert after the Homestead Act of 1862. This government legislation brought single women, ex-slaves and non-citizens who paid $18 for a strip of land. They built humble homes and, if they cultivated the land for five years, they would receive 160 acres for free. The tour passes through a mock-homestead house and a miner’s village.
After the 1890s, the region saw an influx of Scots, Canadians, British, Italians, Germans, Poles, French and Scandinavians. Today, the region continues to be ethnically diverse, but the Cahuilla tribe owns approximately 46% of the land. What’s more, a tribal member must sit on the city councils of each town. The Native Americans are a success story in this region.
The tour ends with a ride through the box canyons. My guide explains that it’s often hard to recognize the canyons after the rains when these canyons flood. Boulders hurl down, the earth collapses and the dirt roads shift or disappear completely. Thankfully, during my tour the weather is dry and I’m taken back to the well-watered golf courses of Palm Springs, where I now understand how it’s possible to have so much water in the desert.