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Bouncing Across the San Andreas Fault in a Shiny Red Jeep
By Tom Adkinson

desert adventures
A red jeep from Desert Adventures easily negotiates the terrain of the Indio Hills and the San Andreas Fault. Image by Tom Adkinson

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Give Jim Newell just three hours, and he will give you a comprehensive refresher from the geology course you dozed through back in your college days – and certainly will be a bit livelier than that snooze-inducing grad assistant at the lectern.

Newell isn’t a geologist, nor is he a biologist, botanist or anthropologist, but he has learned a lot about the California desert’s rocks, animals, plants and early residents as a guide for Desert Adventures, the company often identified as the “red Jeep folks.”

Newell, who spent almost four decades with the U.S. Postal Service, became a desert guide for the red Jeep folks as a retirement job. He’s one of 25 guides who take curious tourists on enlightening tours into the Indio Hills and through a two-mile-wide portion of the San Andreas Fault.

Contrary to the artificial drama and visual gimmicks from nearby Hollywood movie lots, the San Andreas Fault isn’t a crack in the earth the unwary can fall into, and it won’t become one. Instead, it’s a zone where two tectonic plates touch. It’s when those plates move that things get dicey.

san andreas standoff
Desert explorers have a bit of a photographic standoff, each taking the other’s photo, while on a hike away from their Jeep. Image by Tom Adkinson

The fault zone can range from less than a mile wide to several miles across. Faults are numerous around the globe, but this one is famous because of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake it caused and because so many people now live along its 700-mile length.

(Check for a trove of layman-level information about the fault, earthquakes and other scientific topics. There are sobering pages anticipating the BO, code for the Big One, an earthquake even bigger than the famous San Francisco trembler.)

san andreas canyon hike
Jim Newell leads a group of visitors into a narrow slot canyon to explain aspects of the region’s geology. Image by Tom Adkinson
  san andreas ride
A ride into the California backcountry with Desert Adventures means the top comes off the red Jeeps. Image by Tom Adkinson

Instead of trying to rattle you about earthquakes and calamity, Newell spends his time showcasing the desert environment and creating a level of appreciation for the plants, wildlife and Native Americans who adapted to this harsh environment.

Newell’s classroom is the Metate Ranch, 840 acres of private land not far off I-10 and within sight of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, the first casino on Native American land. The ranch climbs into the foothills of rugged mountains on the north side of the Coachella Valley.

The route is not particularly rough or bouncy, but you’re quickly in the backcountry. There’s a stop at a crevice in the rocks, just wide enough for you to squeeze in between the towering walls. The nervous will try to dismiss thoughts of the BO’s happening while they are in such a confined space.

san andreas fan palms
Giant California fan palms indicate that the San Andreas Fault has interrupted a aquifer under the Coachella Valley, pushing water near the surface. Image by Tom Adkinson

Another stop is a substantial oasis. Newell explains that the California fan palms grow where the fault has disrupted the underlying aquifer, pushing water near the surface. In fact, he leads his guests to a tiny spring, where crystal-clear water oozes to the surface and produces a tiny stream for a few yards.

san andreas fault map
The San Andreas Fault stretches more than 700 miles from the California desert to the Pacific Ocean. Image by Tom Adkinson

Along the way, Newell explains that the aquifer is so substantial that the Coachella Valley’s second-largest industry behind tourism is agriculture. When you are back to “civilization,” fields of melons, carrots, broccoli, beets and table grapes become more noticeable. Newell says 95 percent of the dates grown in America are from this area.

A final stop is a reconstructed Cahuilla Indian settlement containing various structures and explanations of how the Native Americans took advantage of the region’s meager resources.

One day of every three days in the Coachella Valley sees temperatures above 100, but the Desert Adventures red jeeps hit the sand 365 days a year “unless it looks like a flash flood day” Newell says in all seriousness. That’s why the bulk of Desert Adventures’ tours are over the winter and into spring. Sunset and stargazing tours (telescope provided) offer alternatives to heat-of-the-day trips.

Trip-planning resources: Desert Adventures and Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Published March 16, 2018

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