Ride Report: The Palm Canyon Epic

Ride Report: The Palm Canyon Epic

Rider: Jeff Paulson

Type: Mountain Bike Trail Ride - Point to point, shuttle to the top

Closest Major City: Palm Springs

Distance: 26.5 miles

Climbing: +/- 2500 ft (Represents the average route.  Add-on and bailout options available)

Descending: >6000 ft

Seasonality: late October – April *TOO HOT to ride in summer months*

I first rode the PCE in October of 2015 during a road trip.  At the time I lived in the Bay Area.    It was my first desert riding experience.  While I won’t say it was the driving force that caused me to relocate from SF to SD three years later, it wasn’t a detractor.  

Originating in the PNW and then Bay, that first ride for me was like being on a different planet.  I’ve always geeked out on succulents and the exotic animals that make their homes in the desert.  Probably because they were just so foreign to my coastal evergreen upbringing.  Now I was seeing this environment naturally unfold in front of me for the first time as fast as I could pedal.  

The riding doesn't suck either.  The full serving of the PCE puts it at a little less than 30 miles/3K feet of climbing.  If that doesn’t constitute as a big ride to you, just add the desert sun into the mix.  Whether you want it or not, it’s going to be there.  Be prepared to pedal, fully exposed to UV, through a lot of terrain, including a mid-ride soul sucking sandbox.  Keep in mind also that despite the 6K drop in elevation, it’s called the PCE, not the PCDH.  This ride will throw a lot at you, except shade.


You’ll want to plan your ride according to your dropped car/finish location.  I typically park by the “Ramp” trailhead on Palm Hills Rd, next to the Von’s Cathedral City on Hwy 111.  This is the perfect spot if you are doing the Goat Trail network.  If you are ending on Cathedral Trail it’s best to park up by the Dunn road trailhead.  Another convenient option, if you plan on taking my post ride recommendation at the end of this story, is parking by the brewery which is a short ride from both spots.


Whether you self-shuttle or use Palm Desert Bikes and Brews shuttle service to get up the 74, your drop point is at the end of Pine View Drive, in Ribbonwood.  It takes approx. 45 mins to drive from Cathedral City to the top.  The views on that twisty drive always get me fired up.  Getting truly into the desert is oddly something most PS visitors don’t embrace.   On one hand I can see why.  The valley has its manicured and irrigated charm, but real desert happens higher up.  For the true experience, leave the tourists to their tee off times and pool lounging.

As you start your shuttle upwards Ocotillo plants emerge first in the crumbling rock formations.   As the 74 snakes higher, Cholla, and Spanish Bayonet, spring up, and my favorite Barrel Cactus… Climbing higher in the San Jacinto Mountains and desert scrub will finally start to give way when you hit Pinyon Pines and things plateau.  As the name suggests, small pines emerge as do Junipers thanks to the confluence of moisture/precipitation that gets hung up there when coastal systems hit.  It’s at this converging zone of desert mixing with conifers where you offload on Pine View.  From the top you can see all the way down the canyon and the massive turbine windmills way off in the distance.   They are much, much further than they appear. 

Given that you ride here in the “cooler months” the temp up top can be quite polarizing from what you experienced when you departed the valley.  Snow can and does fall in the middle of winter.  I find 9 AM is a good time to offload as things will have warmed up a bit by then, but in the middle of winter expect anything.  From a layering perspective I’ve found that even on drops at 32 degrees, it’s better to suck it up and ditch the thermal in the car.  It might seem like a good idea now, but things will warm up once you start moving and get off the plateau.  Better to save the space in my hip pack for water, lunch, snacks and supplies.  I’d recommend a minimum of two tubes, minimum two XL water bottles worth of H2O, (many may call me out for being too frugal).  Tweezers and a fine-tooth comb are also helpful.  More on that later. Ultimately remember you are a long walk out so make sure you are self-sustaining.


You start on a fun and built-up section the locals call “Unno”.  Until recently, this section saw the most digging and had a few sizable features and well built berms.  Most likely the trail gods favored this zone, because 1) with rain and snow melt it has the most consistent moisture to work with, and 2) the short hike in from the trailhead with tools.   Over the years, a few alternate lines have been shaped, all meeting back up.  Recently the features and alternates have been removed.  My understanding is that it was a peace offering concession for the greater good.  In any case, the absence of a few high consequence gaps doesn’t bum me out.  The natural trail is still a great start and well-built as is.  I may be showing some age here, but I’m not looking to expose myself to a hospital trip in the first few minutes or riding.  

After Unno you get onto an exposed side hill descent, called… wait for it… Side Hill.   You are now firmly into the desert zone with lots of spiky plants. Spanish Bayonet Agave is everywhere and Cholla will literally jump onto you.   This is where tweezers and a fine comb can prove helpful removing spines.  Fortunately, those spiny succulents are easy to see coming.  They just add an extra contortion/balance/traction challenge when they are right where you want to put your body in an exposed, loose turn.  

Side Hill spits you into Pinyon Wash, which you will later learn, as far as washes go, rolls great.  It was here that I learned that cacti aren’t the most vicious plants in the desert.  Like I said, they are easy to spot and have limited reach.  The various types of Acacia-type bushes on this ride are the real barbed wire.   To the uninitiated they look leafy, bushy, and innocuous to brush up against when they crowd a trail.   On closer inspection you’ll see either hooked or pointed thorns that induce death by a thousand cuts.  During the early season contact at some point is unavoidable, irrespective of how safe you play it.  The first ride in Oct of 2015 no one escaped the ride without some bloodletting and jersey snagging.

9 miles in the wash eventually puts you onto “the Asteroid Belt” and then opens up into the “Fast and Furious” sections.  The asteroid belt has some cool punchy climbs followed by pumpable flow sections over DG with great grip, and really cool desert scenery.  This is just the taster, before things pick up speed as you get into Fast and Furious, which is the widest open you get.  Rocky and fast, but by no means overly steep or technical.  A modern trail bike does just fine.

Fast and Furious comes to an end at a crossroads.  It’s here you have to decide...  The Palm Canyon trail continues straight along the old 4x4 trail and then down a wash to the bottom of Dry Wash Road.  The other option is Indian Potrero Trail which branches to the left and down into a creek bed.

There is a little ambiguity here concerning a BLM land swap with the local Indian tribe.  As a result, I’ve heard of riders encountering signs directing bikes not to take the Indian Potrero trail.  My understanding is the trail passes close to the reservation, it does not actually go onto it.  I have been told the local reservation is not bike friendly and thus sometimes posts no bike signs.  The alternate route on the 4x4 trail continues straight.  My understanding is that it climbs and then the two reconverge at the wash.  Suffice it to say I can’t speak to the 4x4 reroute.  You will have to make your own decision, and both will meet back up.  Whichever you decide, it goes without saying be respectful of other trail users and pass at safe distances and speed.

Potrero immediately drops down a short technical section into a seasonal creek bed, which you cross and then hike-a-bike out of.  You then ride about 1.5 miles on a relatively flat section, which, depending on trail maintenance, can be very overgrown with the aforementioned thorned acacia-style bushes.  These have 1” spikes that will easily puncture a tire to the rim tape.  The last half mile of the trail is worth it though as it turns into a super fun technical section with a couple of what I call “shelf shoots” where you are forced to ride a rock wall slab that is opposed to the natural fall line of the trail.  Think rock slab and wall ride at the same time.  This all ends back at the same creek oasis, which you now need to re-cross.  It's a neat spot to stop and regroup, have a bit and a drink.  You’ll need it for what comes next.


What comes next is “the Dry Wash”. A gain of 500 feet over 3 miles may not sound like much, until you add soft, loose sand and full sun exposure to the mix.  I’ve had mixed results.  The last two winters we’ve seen a lot of precip in SoCal and it has rolled great.  In a drought year or hitting either in early fall (after it’s cooked all summer) or late in the season it can suck the life out of you.  Going offline, erratic movement or power transfer requires constant resets.  One cool thing about the wash is you really can’t push it and as such you get time to take in your surroundings.  Make the most of it.  Look for tarantulas, desert squash, all kinds of well camouflaged lizards, snakes, and even the odd road runner.   

Pre-wash Emergency Bailout Option: If you have encountered a mechanical medical situation that requires you to abandon your ride you can skip out on the Wash and head down the other road to the left at the wash fork which will take you right into the Agua Caliente reservation and ultimately onto S. Palm Canyon Drive.  I don’t have experience on this trail and would only recommend this if you have a serious situation as you will be trespassing.  Keep in mind also there is an alternate bailout at the end of the wash that doesn’t trespass.  Read on to learn more. 

Back to the wash… After three miles, you finally exit the wash onto Dunn fire road, which you have actually been paralleling since you dropped off the 74.  After all that sand, it’s a big relief to be on a packed, fast rolling surface.  I always like to pretend I’m on a makeshift runway in a Narcos episode as I roll this section.  A short pedal on Dunn puts you at the highly photographed Dozer hiking picnic area where the Art Smith Trail (another way to access this zone) comes up from the valley and meets the road.  You can’t miss the large entropic yellow bulldozer, surrounded by picnic tables.  At this point you are 17.5 miles in at its time for a proper fuel up.  This is where I smash that sandwich or wrap in my hip pack.   

Dunn Bailout: If you are having any issues, continuing Dunn is another bail out option; 4 miles downhill to town. 

Assuming your legs are still good, take the trail across the road from the tractor and take a quick 500 foot climb up and around Hahn Buena Vista trail peak.  It’s a grunt and the strong headwinds up top don't help, but good traction and view are worth it.  To the golden west Palm Canyon fans out below and PS below on your right.  Hahn is a three mile side hill descent.  You can carry much better speed than you did on the first “Side Hill”,  The first section in particular is open and hooked up.  As you get further in, exposure increases and traction and line of sight around corners decreases.  The trail also gets rougher and can start to fatigue.  Watch for other trail users (I’ve encountered horses as well) and rattlesnakes.  The very last bit of Hahn is your reward for all of this.  It smooths out and rolls and twists like a concrete skate park that always has me finding a second wind and wishing for more.  

Hahn dumps into a small wash which you immediately climb out of via Cathedral Canyon trail connector which crawls back, in and out of drainages, towards Dunn.  Hint: you may see tracks continuing down the wash vs climbing out.  They go nowhere and you’ll have to turn back.   Back to the climb out of the wash on the trail, you have a few options:

    • Take Cathedral connector across Dunn (bit of work) and then drop Cathedral or as the locals call it “Cindy’s” down into Cathedral City. This cuts your ride down but is still a great ending.
    • Take Cathedral only a short way then branch off left on Fern Canyon/Wildhorse and head towards the Goat Trails (the true epic).
  • Bail Out: take Cathedral to Dunn and then bail out on the fire road. Only do this in an emergency as it’s a pretty boring end to the ride.
  • Before going into the Goat option, I will say that Cathedral is still an amazing ending to the ride, and though shorter is no cake walk with its steep, exposed, ledge-y and rocky switchbacks.  Your ride will be shorter, but you are in for one heck of a finale. 


    The true Epic finishes with the Goat Trails. There are a few different ways to do them, but I’ll stick to what I know best.  Climb up and out of the wash on Cathedral Canyon/Wildhorse a short way.  Then stay left on Fern Canyon/Wildhorse and take it left a short way and then exit right when it splits onto Wild Horse and you will climb 400 ft over 1.4 miles up the saddle between two peaks.  The one to the right is Murray Hill, accessed via Clara Burgess trail.  I have heard the descent off the top of Murray is billy goat level steep tech with huge exposure and no flow.  Looking at the trail it appears to be just as tough of a climb, mainly hike a bike.  Instead, stay left on Wildhorse for an amazing panoramic ridge run that falls away on both sides, followed by steep switchbacks.  Enjoy the view.  

    The last part of Wildhorse will drop you into the intersection of Wild Horse, Thielman, and Garstin trails.  Stay right on Wildhorse and follow it until you hit another intersection with Araby trail branching off to your left, stay right and a narrow single track.  You are now officially on a Goat trail.  It becomes a bit of a choose your own adventure now.   You’ll notice the main road that meanders down, but single-track weaves on and off instead of taking the road down.  Use the single track and enjoy.  There are lots of options and splits.  If you’ve done it right you will eventually see water tanks below you and the conclusion of your ride at the Von’s in Cathedral City.   It’s here that things get their spiciest.  There are two chunky finale trails, one goes to the right side of the tanks, the other goes to the left side.  

    The trail around the left side is the most technical line of the day.  If you are seriously ready to call it a day, it’ll test your resolve this late in the ride.  If you’ve got fuel to burn, keep your eyes open as there are a few natural bonus lines where rock slab has been massaged into natural bridges.    The trail drops you right by the “Ramp” trailhead road next to the Vons.  

    The trail heading off to the right of the tanks is called Dr. Groatis on Strava.  Opt for this one if you are feeling the “epic-ness” at this point, knowing that there’s some moderate tech that will require you to think and trust your line.   Groatis will spit you out on the same “Ramp” road as Monkey bumps but slightly further up.  The bonus here is that it lines you up for a quick extra credit line on the other side of the main trail road, called Superman.  Also, if you did the left line mentioned in the prior paragraph, it’s worth the quick climb up the Ramp as well.  Superman uses a small foothill for its final descent which it takes you around the back side of before dropping you down to a sandlot, adjacent to Von’s parking lot on the side of Hwy 111.  

    That’s it. PCE: done.


    I first rode the PCE in 2015 on a Stumpy with 140 F and R travel.  Since then I’ve hit on 170/160 enduros and have also climbed the lower half via Dunn to the tractor and ridden Hahn/Wildhorse/Goats on mid travel/modern hardtail.   The PCE is a good mix of terrain, tech, and climbing and will play to different bikes (and their rider’s) strengths and weaknesses.   My enduro bikes were a ton of fun, but trail and downcountry bikes are getting so good now… Most recently I hit it on my new Transition Spur 120/120 mini ripper and loved it.  

    My Spur is running MXX24s with a 2.4 Dissector up front and 2.4 Rekon out back and so far am loving this combo for dry/loose over hard conditions.  The MXX24s keep things nice and light.  Some might feel the need to run a wider rim, but I really don’t see a need when running a 2.4 or less tire.   Prior to my Spur I had a Stumpy with MXX30s and Rekons: 2.6 up front, 2.4 rear.   Both wheels share everything but the rim and ride very similarly.   With the nimble set up I have with the Spur and the fact that I haven’t really had any traction issues running a 2.4 up front I am really liking the MXX24, because they keep the bike a bit lighter.  

    I can’t speak personally to E-bikes as I have never used one on the PCE, but they are becoming popular, especially on the lower half and I can see why.  The act of pedaling up from PS either via the goat trails or up Dunn road is no small task.   Dunn itself is sustained 16-22% grade for the first part, but it does get you up there pretty quick.  As a result E-bikes are a great tool for the job.  MXXe are the obvious choice for those adding a motor in the mix.  



    As mentioned, I did this on my HT.  No time or car to get the full shuttle in, trying pedaling up to the tractor on Dunn road and hit Hahn and Goats.  Be ready for some serious grade on the first section of Dunn.  


    Got all the time in the world, no car, and a lot of calories to burn?  Pedal the entire Epic, by climbing Dunn road all the way to Pinyon Pines/Hwy 74 and then drop in on it from the top.  This equates to 70 miles and 9000 ft of climbing.  I would not attempt without a confirmed water fill up resource at the top.  I would also get to know all parts of the route on an individual basis before trying to combine them.


    Luchador Brewing in Cathedral City for craft beers and Mexican food.



    SHOP MXX24 , MXX30, MXXe