From its source on Ten Thousand Foot Ridge in the San Bernardino Mountains, the Whitewater River flows east and south into the Coachella Valley and the Sonoran Desert. The river’s upper watershed in the San Gorgonio Wilderness is one of the most remote places in southern California. Much of the striking mountain and desert scenery along this magnificent river is accessible only to those willing to explore the vast trail-less expanses of the upper watershed. However, the lower segment of the Whitewater River is accessible via the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and The Wildlands Conservancy’s Whitewater River Preserve. The PCT and Preserve are easily accessible from Interstate 10 near Palm Springs.
An area of high ecological significance, the Whitewater River watershed is a critical biological link between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Coachella Valley. The upper river segments provide important habitat for the rare Nelson’s bighorn sheep and California spotted owl, while the lower segments are home to the endangered arroyo toad. Although segments of the river flow seasonally, the stream’s rich riparian habitat is home to numerous neo-tropical songbirds, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and least Bell’s vireo. The river is also an important native materials collecting and gathering area for the Cahuilla Indians and includes ceremonial and other sensitive cultural sites.
In recognition of the river’s outstanding scenic, recreation, fish, wildlife, and ecological values, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act of 2011 (S. 138) proposes to protect nearly 28 miles of the stream on public lands as a National Wild & Scenic River.
The fall, winter, and spring are ideal times to visit the Whitewater River. To access the lower river, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Whitewater River Preserve, drive 7.5 miles east on Interstate 10 east from Cabazon to the Whitewater exit. Turn left and drive under the freeway to Whitewater Canyon Road. Follow Whitewater Canyon Road nearly 5 miles to the Whitewater Preserve. A short .5 mile trail leads from the Preserve to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). From there, hikers may proceed 2 miles upstream to where the PCT crosses the Whitewater River at Red Dome. Further exploration of the river upstream requires cross-country walking. The Preserve is open daily from 8am to 5pm, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Flood conditions in the Whitewater River may occasionally make the road to the Preserve impassable. For road and access conditions, contact the Preserve at 760-325-7222.