Closest Major City: Palm Springs
Distance: 26.5 miles
Climbing: +/- 2600 ft (Represents the average route. Add-on and bailout options available)
Descending: >6000 ft
Season: late October – April (Do not ride in summer months)
The PCE was my first desert riding experience, 6 years ago. Coming from the PNW/Bay Area and having not yet ridden in AZ, NV, Utah, visually I was immediately hooked. From a flora and fauna standpoint I’ve always geeked out on succulents and the animals that make their homes in the desert simply because they were just so foreign to my coastal evergreen upbringing.
The riding doesn't suck either. The full serving of a little less than 30 miles/3K feet of climbing certainly doesn't seem insurmountable on paper. When you mix in the desert sun though it stacks up. Yes, you are descending 6000 ft, but keep in mind they call it the PCE, not the PCDH. You will pedal, in full sun, through a lot of terrain, including a mid ride sandbox.
Von's Cathedral City Lot
You start at Ribbonwood on HWY 74. When I haven’t self shuttled, I’ve used Crazy Bear Bike shuttle www.crazybearbikes.com to get to the top. They launch from Von’s in Cathedral City which is where you end up if you do the whole epic. The one hour drive up 74 is a pretty neat. The PS natural valley floor vegetation just isn’t inspiring from a natural vegetation standpoint. Most people never see more than tumbleweeds on the hills and manicured country club landscaping (not natural in the slightest). As you start the shuttle upwards Ocotillo plants start emerge first in the crumbling rock formations. As you go higher, Cholla, and Spanish Bayonet, spring up, and finally, my favorite Barrel cactus… As you climb higher and higher, desert scrub will finally start to give way when you hit the plateau around Pinyon Pines. As the name suggests Pines emerge as do Junipers. It’s at this point of desert mixing with forest where you offload in Ribbonwood on Pine View Drive.
Given that you ride here in the “cooler months” the temp up top can be very different than down below. Snow can and does fall in the middle of winter. 9 AM is a good time to get up there as things will have warmed up a bit by then, but it can still be damn cold. From a layering perspective I’ve always opted suck it up. Things warm up quick as you descend. You will ditch whatever extra layers you have very quickly and in my opinion, it’s better to save what the space for water, lunch, and supplies. I’d recommend a minimum of two tubes and absolutely no less than two XL waterbottles, (many may call me out for being too frugal). Ultimately you are WAY out there so make sure you are self-sustaining.
Top of Unno - note all the plants with leaves on them. These won't last long.
You start on a fun and built up section the locals call “Unno”. Because it’s at the top it’s the easiest section to dig on it also has a lot more moisture up this high so berms, doubles and a few pretty decent sized gaps have been cut in, making the first part a pretty good party. Nothing is mandatory, but the good part about sending it here is if you do wreck you are a short push back up, vs. 15 miles later halfway in the ride.
After Unno you get onto an exposed side hill decent, called… wait for it… Side Hill. You are now in full desert flora, Spanish Bayonet is everywhere and Cholla will literally jump onto you. Tweezers are worth bringing along. The good thing about the spiny succulents is you can see them 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.
Between Unno and Side Hill
Side Hill spits you into Pinyon Wash, which you will later learn, as far as washes go, isn’t too bad. It was here that I learned that cactus aren’t the most vicious plants in the desert. You can see them coming and they have limited reach. The various types of Acacia-like bushes on this ride are the real barbwire. To the unassuming rider they look leafy and fine to brush up against when they over crowd a trail (particularly early in the season). On closer inspection you’ll see either hooked or pointed thorns that induce death by a thousand cuts. Contact at some point is unavoidable, irrespective of how safe you play it, no one escapes this ride without some blood-letting and jersey snagging.
9 miles in the wash eventually puts you onto “the Asteroid Belt” and then the “Fast and Furious” sections. The asteroid belt has some cool up and down sections over DG, with great grip, really cool desert scenery. Things pick up speed as you get in to Fast and Furious, which is the most wide open you get. Rocky and fast, but by no means overly steep or technical. A 150mm bike does just fine.
Starting the Asteroid Belt
Fast and Furious comes to an end at a crossroads. It’s here you make a decision. The traditional Palm Canyon route continues straight along old 4x4 trail and then down a wash to the bottom of Dry Wash road. The other option is Indian Poterro 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 Poterro trail. My understanding is the trail passes closely to the reservation, it does not actually go onto it, but the Agua Calienti reservation is not bike friendly and thus sometimes posts no bike signs. The alternate route on the 4x4 trail continues straight, but I can’t speak to the reroute. I’ve always taken the Poterro route and all times there hasn’t been a sign directing me otherwise. You will have to make your own decision… either way they both meet back up.
The Crossroads - note sign saying MTB go right... Chose your own advenure
Poterro immediately drops down a short technical section into a seasonal creek bed, which requires a hike a bike out of. You then ride about 1.5 miles on a relatively flat section, which in the last half mile turns into a super fun technical section ending at an oasis/pool area, a cool place to stop and regroup, have a bit and a drink. You’ll need it for what comes next.
What comes next is “The Wash”. A gain of 500 feet over 3 miles may not sound like much, until you add loose sand and full sun exposure to the mix. You’ll learn here that going offline, or erratic movement or uneven power almost always requires reset. Tip: The wash is at its worst at the start of the season (fall) as the summer has baked every drop of moisture out of it. In the height of winter into spring it can be significantly more tolerable. 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, dessert melon, all kinds of well camouflaged lizards and snakes.
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 Calienti 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 would be trespassing onto their land and may not be well received.
Back to the wash… After three miles, you finally exit the wash onto Dunn 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. A short pedal on Dunn puts you at a picnic area, clearly marked with a large entropic yellow bulldozer. At this point you are 17.5 miles in at it’s time for a proper, lunch sized fuel up. If you are really feeling cooked at this point, you do have the option of riding Dunn fire road for 4 miles all the way back into town.
The Dozer with a little Eminent flare
Top of Hahn Beuna Vista
Assuming your legs are still good you’ve got a quick 500 foot climb up and around Hahn Buena Vista peak. It’s a grunt and the occasionally strong head winds don't help, but traction and views make it rewarding. The top of Hahn has great views. From there it’s a three mile side hill descent. You can carry much better speed than the first side hill section, but you are still exposed so watch the blind corners, loose shale, and cactus, as well as hiking and horses/riders ascending behind blind corners. Hahn dumps you out onto Cathedral Canyon trail which crawls back, in and out of drainages, towards Dunn. You have a few options:
- Take Cathedral 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 and head towards the Goat Trails (the true epic).
- Take Cathedral to Dunn and then bail out on the fireroad. 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, if you are running low on gas it provides a great finale of exposed, rocky switch backs.
The true PCE Epic finishes with the Goat Trails: There are a few different ways to do them, but I’ll stick to what I know. Take Cathedral out of Hahn a short ways. Fern Canyon will cross. Take it left. It will eventually turn into WildHorse (I’ve never really understood where) and you will climb up the saddle between two peaks. The one to the right is Murray Hill. Wildhorse is an amazing panoramic DH onto of a ridge that falls away on both sides. Enjoy the view. Wildhorse will T you into Clara Burgess, which is basically the main fire road up into the Goat Trails. Instead of taking the road down look for trail branching on and off of it. Use them. There are some really good final sections if you cut hard left above the water tanks. If you are lucky you’ll find a section that cuts left off the road and across the hill and behind the tanks. It’s the most technical bit of the whole ride and spits you right out at the gate, right next to Vons in Cathedral City.
Bike Recommended – Onset LT
The LT really shines here, because the terrain changes so many times. It is such an efficient pedaler, thanks to that optimized anti-squat, making it sure footed on the punchy climbs and planted on the downs you really can’t lose. Although you can certainly get away with or more or less, the LT plays perfectly in this multi-role desert theatre.
Post Ride - Las Casuelas Nuevas in Rancho Mirage on HWY 111.