Palm Desert Adventure: Exploring the San Andreas Fault

During a day tour of the San Andreas fault, I ventured off the beaten path to explore one of the most unique and beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.

My family loves the Coachella Valley. In fact, we visit the beautiful California desert near Palm Springs every winter to soak up the sun and escape the snow-covered Northeast.

While we’re there, we like to swim, watch the polo matches in Indio and wander around the Living Desert Zoo to see local flora and fauna. But during our last visit, we decided to try something new. We booked a day tour of the San Andreas Fault and explored the Coachella Valley from the ground up — literally.

Jeep, Jeep! — Taking a Guided Tour

To visit the seismic fault line, you must travel with a licensed guide. My husband, tween son and I chose Red Jeep Tours because they provide special access to the private Metate Ranch, the best spot for visitors to see the fault. An open-air, lobster-red jeep rolled up to pick us up at 8 a.m. (before the heat of the day set in). My son let out a whoop of excitement at our cool ride. Other family members looked at our transportation skeptically, questioning why we wanted to see a hole in the ground instead of laying by the pool.

As we drove out of town, we received quizzical looks from passing drivers, all of whom had their windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting. We, on the other hand, were enjoying the wind in our hair, the sun on our faces and the sweet smell of citrus trees as we drove past the outskirts of Indio into the surrounding desert and toward several surprises.

Exploring the Desert Oasis

The first surprise: To reach the fault, you first enter a real desert oasis, filled with fan palms and trickling streams. According to our well-informed guide, Nancy, the oasis water rises through underground aquifers, creating natural streams where fresh water bubbles over the rocks and into crystal clear ponds.

We walked in the shade of the shaggy fan palms and dipped our fingers in the cool stream. These palms — which are actually not trees, but part of the grass family (another surprise!) — have “skirts” of fibrous leaves that make them look as though they have gray beards. We tried to spot the finch, owls and lizards that live in the palms’ skirts and come out to drink from the fresh water, but they skittered away as we approached.

Quick Tip:

The oasis is a real highlight of the day trip; make sure your tour itinerary includes time to explore this area before heading to the fault.

Discovering a Unique Landscape

We had imagined that the San Andreas Fault would look like a fissure in the ground, but that’s not the case! Instead, we saw a labyrinth of steep walls and deep canyons that create an otherworldly landscape. Nancy explained that millions of years ago, the powerful forces of two land plates pushing together created these geological cuts. We also learned that the San Andreas Fault is the only place in the world where two major tectonic plates (the Pacific and North American plates) collide instead of sliding next to each other — and this causes California’s earthquakes.

Over time, water and wind worked together to carve the incredible mazes of sheer sandstone escarpments and narrow ridges that we carefully drove through. When the jeep could go no further into the moonscape, we hiked between the smooth stone walls and narrow crevices. Then we scrambled up a stone path to a rock cave shaped like a heart, which turned out to provide a perfect family photo opportunity. It was proof that we hadn’t spent our day staring at a hole in the ground, but instead had discovered a whole new world in the desert.

Quick Tip:

Wear sneakers or hiking boots so you can explore and climb around the fault area. Be sure to apply sunblock, wear a hat and bring water — once you leave the oasis, the desert sun is hot and there is no shade at the fault.