Difficulty PG Distance 5.1 to 10 miles Dogs allowed Hikes with free parking Rating: 7-8 San Jacinto/Santa Rosa Mountains & Joshua Tree Season: Fall/Early Winter

Horsethief Creek via Cactus Springs Trail

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Cottowoods at Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains
Cottonwoods above Horsethief Creek
View on the Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains
Desert vegetation and clouds, Cactus Springs Trail

Horsethief Creek via Cactus Springs Trail

  • Location: Santa Rosa Mountains on Highway 74, 15.5 miles southwest of Highway 111, 8.8 miles east of Highway 371 and 21.2 miles southeast of Highway 243. Look for the Cactus Springs Trailhead sign and head south (turn right if you’re coming from the west or left if you’re coming from Palm Springs) onto Pinyon Flats Transfer Station Road. Follow it a short distance to the Cactus Springs Trail Head parking lot, on the left.
  • Agency: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
  • Distance: 4.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 900 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season:  November – April
  • USGS topo map: “Toro Peak”
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock; hiking poles
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
  • More information: here; plant guide here; trip descriptions here and here (includes additional distance past Horsethief Creek)
  • Rating: 8
Cactus Springs Trail Head en route to Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains
0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Set in the transitional zone between the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Coachella Valley, this hike provides a huge variety of scenery, including geology, canyons, creeks and desert flora. Adding to the appeal is the area’s historical interest; Horsethief Creek takes its name from the legend of gangsters that supposedly used the canyon as a hideout.

Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains
0:05 – Information board; Cactus Springs Trail leaves Sawmill Road (times are approximate)

The hike follows the upper portion of the 22-mile Cactus Springs Trail, also signed as 5E01, which continues through the Santa Rosa Wilderness and descends into the Coachella Valley. From the parking area, follow the rightmost of the two trails, reaching a junction with the dirt Sawmill Road, which begins its long ascent toward Santa Rosa Mountain. Bear left onto the Cactus Springs Trail, passing by an information board and trail register.

Cactus Springs Trail crosses Deep Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains
0:14 – Crossing the Deep Creek stream bed

Continue eastward through a landscape of pinyon pines, agave and cacti, with Asbestos Mountain towering to the north. At half a mile, trail drops toward the headwaters of Deep Creek, climbs up the other side and passes an abandoned dolomite mine. The trail makes a few ups and downs, reaching a sign indicating the entrance to the Santa Rosa Wilderness at about 1.2 miles, the approximate halfway point.

Sign at the entrance to the Santa Rosa Wilderness, Cactus Springs Trail
0:31 – Entering the Santa Rosa Wilderness

Past the sign, you descend through an attractive valley dotted with cacti and other flora to another tributary of Deep Creek and then climb to a saddle (1.8 miles) with a panoramic view of Horsethief Canyon. Soon after you’ll notice the cottonwoods lining the bottom of the canyon and the trail makes a steep descent, negotiating switchbacks to arrive at the creek.

Descending to Horsethief Creek on the Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains
0:54 – Beginning the descent to Horsethief Creek, about 1.8 miles from the start

On the opposite side of the stream, which may be dry late in the year, a short spur leads to a flat area beneath a grove of cottonwoods, the turnaround point. Here you can sit and relax before making the steep climb out of the canyon.

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Cottonwoods in Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains
1:10 – Cottonwoods at Horsethief Creek

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