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The Disneyesque guided hiking tour of lower Tahquitz Canyon, right on the edge of Palm Springs, is a far cry from the scene here in the 1970s and '80s, when scores -- sometimes hundreds -- of hippies and impromptu squatters occupied the canyon's idyllic glades. Flush with income from casinos and associated businesses, the canyon's owner, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, turned the situation around during the 1990s. After a massive eviction and cleanup effort, the Indians opened a visitor center at the mouth of the canyon and started offering hiking tours up to as far as Tahquitz Falls. These guided hikes are the only way to visit the canyon today, and they are offered only during the cooler months of the year.

Although "tame" by most hikers' standards, the tour is an excellent introduction to the native riparian and desert flora of the low desert. A great deal of effort has gone into eradicating nonnative invasive vegetation, which had degraded the biological quality of the canyon as much as graffiti and trash had earlier ruined the visual quality of the place.

If enough rainfall arrives this winter season, the 60-foot-high waterfall at the midpoint of the tour could thunder impressively. By March the canyon could be awash in blooming desert vegetation and annual wildflowers.

The Tahquitz Canyon visitor center, starting point for the hike, is located at the west end of Mesquite Avenue, off Palm Canyon Drive in the southwestern corner of Palm Springs. The two-hour hiking tours, offered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., depart on the hour (or less often, depending on demand). The cost of admission to the visitor center, which includes a video presentation and the hike, is $12.50 for adults and $6 for children.

The route of the tour may vary slightly, but generally covers a figure-eight route along both banks of the perennially flowing canyon stream. Expect to see, sniff, and learn about the Native-American use of several varieties of native vegetation, including the distinctively aromatic creosote bush, yerba santa, and white sage. There's a prehistoric rock-art site along the way, with subtle painted designs and figures. You'll pass a small diversion gate and ditch where water in the canyon stream once flowed northeast toward the valley of Palm Springs. Tahquitz Falls, at the midpoint of the tour, features a shallow pool at its base. With the permission of your guide you many be able to take your shoes off and wade some distance out toward the base of the falls. A hot tip: Store shoes well away from the stream; otherwise they may end up rafting quickly down the canyon.

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