Exploring the Mecca-Copia Wilderness with Big Wheel Tours

Swooping down into a desert canyon on a bicycle is one of my favorite memories from my recent trip to Palm Desert. Signing up with Big Wheel Tours makes this experience super easy.

Big Wheel Tours
This trailer is full of bikes.

Our tour started with Evan Trubee and guide Ron Chang picking us up after lunch in the Big Wheel van, which tows a trailer full of bikes. They drove us 40 minutes into the Mecca-Copia National Wilderness, for the tour they call the Earthquake Canyon Express.

Evan founded Big Wheel back in 1998. Since then, the Palm Desert-based company has expanded to include guided hikes, jeep tours and bike rentals.

Both men are excited to show visitors the desert. “So many people who come out to the desert think it’s all golf courses, tennis and hanging out at the pool,” Ron said. He’s a transplant from Hawaii, where he ran a concrete pumping business. While he could pump concrete uphill, underwater or for a 40-story building, it didn’t satisfy him like leading bike tours. “This is making people happy,” he said. Ron also leads a full moon hike, which sounds really fun.

I hadn’t been on a bike since last summer and wasn’t sure I was up for riding 20 miles. But Evan and Ron reassured me that they’d brought customers from age 6 to 87 on this tour, and so far everybody had been fine. Plus, it’s all downhill.

When we arrived at our starting point, Ron and Evan outfitted our half dozen riders with appropriate-sized bikes and helmets. The bikes have fat tires, upright handlebars and big padded seats. I quickly got accustomed to my blue steed.

Then we started down the long, gradually sloping paved road. The ride was truly easy. As promised, it was all downhill. Ron rode with us while Evan followed in the van. Instead of riding together, we went at our own pace, spreading out to find a bit of solitude and serenity even with a group. The desert is like that. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm but not at all hot. We rode through about seven miles of open desert, then dropped into the canyon where we could see the crazy rock formations pushed this way and that by the San Andreas Fault. We started at about 1600 feet, and wound up below sea level with a view of the Salton Sea. Very little peddling required. By the time we took a break and Evan offered around his homemade chocolate chip cookies, I suspected I’d only burned about two calories.

Welcome to Mecca
Welcome to Mecca
The mascot of Oasis Date Gardens
The mascot of Oasis Date Gardens

Once we’d loaded our bikes back up, we started home to our Palm Desert hotel. Evan and Ron stopped off at Oasis Date Gardens in Mecca so we could try off the specialty of the region, the date shake. It also gave us the chance to try a wide variety of date samples, most of which I’d never heard of.

This is a great tour for anybody who wants some gentle sightseeing by bike. If you want a more challenging outing, you can rent a bike from Big Wheel and explore nearby Joshua Tree.

Hiking the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

I love quiet hikes, where you’re walking at your own speed, getting some exercise and thinking your own thoughts. But sometimes it’s nice to have a guide. Especially one as pleasant and experienced as Ada Nuckels, lead volunteer at Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. After a career in medical offices, Ada decided it was time to go outside. She retired and has been volunteering at the monument in Palm Desert for six years.

Even though the bloom is purple, Cahuilla Indians made yellow-orange dye from the indigo plant.
Even though the bloom is purple, Cahuilla Indians made yellow-orange dye from the indigo plant.

The monument has three easy hikes – a one-mile, two-mile and three-mile loop. Across the street from the monument, hikers can choose a more rugged hike on the 12.2-mile Art Smith Trail.

San Jacinto Mountains Monument
Ada Nuckels, lead volunteer and hiking guide extraordinaire

We meandered the two-mile loop, with frequent stops so Ada could tell us about desert plants. It was early February, a month before the annual Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival, and Ada hoped the flowers would show by March fifth. A few years of drought have left the plants short on rock daisies, indigo, chuparosa, lavender, creosote and other desert blossoms.

But that didn’t stop Ada from showing us what the flowers looked like. She brought her very well-worn wildflower book, and would hold it open beside cacti, a sort of before and after picture.

Occasionally people see desert tortoises in the area, and peninsula bighorn sheep. We glimpsed a couple of small lizards.

teddy bear cholla
Looks soft, but teddy bear cholla is awfully sharp

My favorite desert plant was the teddy bear cholla. Its fluffy arms look almost huggable. But don’t do it – you’ll come away with a chest full of barbed thorns. People often call it jumping cholla. Ada explained that if you get near it at a certain resonance – such as a bunch of runners thumping the ground – an arm can break off and before you know it, it’s got you.

We also encountered the odd cheese plant. For 10 months out of year, it looks like a pile of twigs. But during the two months it’s green, it smells like limburger cheese. We were there for that two-month window. Indeed, it was a cheesy smelling plant.

As long as you can handle some uneven ground, this is a good hike for almost anybody. Not too demanding and lots to see. From October through April, Ada and other volunteers lead three hikes per week. And you can even bring your teenagers – Ada pointed out a strange rock that’s really a cell phone tower, ensuring coverage on your hike.

Just in case you were wondering, this handy chart is in the restroom.
Just in case you were wondering, this handy chart is in the restroom.

 

5 Things I Like about the JW Marriott Desert Springs in Palm Desert, California

Unless there are cute little windmills to hit your ball through, I’m not much for golf. So what did I find to like about a golf resort in upscale Palm Desert, California? Plenty.

JW Marriott Desert SpringsThere are boats in the lobby. Sure, it’s a short walk to the bar. But wouldn’t you rather go on a mini-cruise?

gym at JW Marriott Desert Springs
No reason not to work out during your Palm Desert visit.

Full-sized Gym.

We’re not talking about a few cardio machines that look, sound and feel like they were ordered from a late-night infomercial. Really, I’ve met perfectly respectable hotels that are hiding seriously sordid gyms. But not the JW Marriott Desert Springs. Tons of cardio machines, free weights, weight machines and small equipment like med balls. They even had a few machines I hadn’t seen. And they offer one class every day, including power walking and yoga. This is a real home away from home for the dedicated gym-goer.

Spa Bistro at JW Marriott Desert Springs
Grilled naan with three dips
Spa Bistro JW Marriott Desert Springs
Fresh greens in the desert! Probably local, as the area grows winter lettuce.
granola at JW Marriott Desert Springs
Excellent house-made granola

 

 

 

Spa Bistro

The JW Marriott Desert Springs isn’t out to starve vegans. I ate at both the Rockwood Grill and the Spa Bistro. Delicious items I consumed include a large salad with spectacular greens, grilled naan with three different dips (white bean, red pepper hummus and grilled eggplant), house-made granola, and a date shake made with almond milk instead of dairy.

Spa

Hmm, do I want to go in the steam room infused with lavender and eucalyptus, or is it a eucalyptus-only day? The Marriott’s spa gives you a choice. There’s also a Jacuzzi, sauna, private spa pool, lounging areas and lots of spa services. Ask for Cindy for a very pleasant Swedish massage. She’s worked at the Marriott 28 years, loves her job, and loves the desert. I asked her if she’s here for life. “Where else would I go?” she said.

JW Desert Springs flamingoes
Immigrants from Chile

Flamingos

Is that a pink mirage? No, it’s a flock of flamingos. I know, it’s not really natural, flamingos living in the desert. But they seem happy, as far as I can tell. Word is, they’re breeding, which flamingos don’t always do in captivity. The Marriott employs a bird whisperer, Linda Whittington, who cares for the flamingos, the rescued macaws who live in the lobby, and even the odd hawk injured on the golf course.

Award-Winning Vegetarian Food at Boise’s Shangri-La Tea Room

Shangri-La tearoom
Ganesh and some yantras add color to the tea room.

What’s beige on the outside and all kinds of colorful inside?

It would be easy to drive right by the bland façade of Boise’s Shangri-La Tea Room, but vegetarians should do themselves a favor and make a U-turn into the lot. You’ll find a huge selection of teas prepared by an herbalist, vegan and raw options, and a gift shop area where you can buy black cumin oil and other possibly hard-to-find items in Idaho.

Don't be fooled by the beige facade.
Don’t be fooled by the beige facade.

Last year, the Shangri-La won the “best local vegetarian food” title from the Boise Weekly. It also bagged the title every year from 2009 to 2012. So we decided it was worth setting the GPS for a little detour on our way north to Stanley.

Curry wrap
Curry wrap

Shangri_la Boise Med pizzaI almost got a DLT – dulse, lettuce and tomato – sandwich. Dulse is a new superfood seaweed that supposedly tastes like bacon. But since we were headed for the wilds of the Sawtooth Mountains, I decided to play it safe and get a curry wrap. Quite delicious, with big chunks of tofu and well-cooked potatoes. My partner tried the Mediterranean pizza – which he said was good, but wasn’t very big – and we shared the Asian salad, which is made of raw cabbage, sesame seeds, carrots, peppers, green onions, sesame oil and other good stuff.

Asian salad
Asian salad

Snow hiking in Stanley, Idaho

The population of Stanley, Idaho hovers around 68, and I don’t think they’re all there in the wintertime. My partner, dog and I had the place practically to ourselves during a winter vacation. We were the only ones staying at Jerry’s Cabins in Lower Stanley. We were the only ones walking on the freshly groomed trails at Park Creek, and the only ones lounging in Sunbeam Hot Springs. If you like quiet, don’t like crowds, and don’t mind temperatures that dip on the south side of zero, you’ll be mighty happy in Stanley during winter.

Jerry's cabins Stanley Idaho
It was warmer inside our cabin.

Unlike nearby Sun Valley, Stanley lacks downhill skiing. Which sucks if you’re a skier, but is perfect if you’re a snowshoer, snow hiker or cross-country skier. I planned to try out my new snowshoes, but found the empty trails perfectly groomed. Boots were sufficient.

Park Creek
A snow-loving dog on the Park Creek trails

Also, if you have a fluffy dog who pants through Portland’s winters, do him or her a favor and take them on an ice vacay. Rudy had a fabulous time.

Stanley Idaho elk
Way more elk than people in winter

Stanley is blessed with all kinds of beauty: sunsets over the Sawtooth Mountains, elk wintering beside hot springs, the Salmon River, the stars at night in a dark, dark sky. I hear it’s much more popular in summer. I’m glad I bundled up and braved the winter.

Sunbeam Hot Springs in Stanley Idaho
Sunbeam Hot Springs — Better strip fast and get in before you freeze!

Off-Season Veg Dining in Joseph, Oregon: Red Horse Coffee Traders

We hardly found a table for lunch at the Red Horse Coffee Traders, even in the icy grip of January when we were the only tourists in town. This place is popular with local ranchers and townspeople for breakfast and lunch. They pride themselves on using as many organic, local and non-GMO ingredients as possible.

Red Horse Joseph
Veggie corn cake from Red Horse

Inside the cute golden-brown cottage on Main Street, the staff serves up fine coffee and makes pastries from scratch. Since I am mostly vegan, I skipped the muffins, although they looked really good. (My commitment to veganism fumbled at Arrowhead Chocolates down the street, however. Don’t miss it!!) Instead, I had the quinoa bowl – which is black beans, mixed greens, tomatoes, beets, carrots, hummus quinoa and salsa – hold the sour cream, cheese and pesto. My partner had the veggie corn cake, which has cheese, carrots, green onions and black beans cooked right in. It’s awesome to be in a smaller town and see delicious, interesting veg choices on the menu. They also offer a veggie burrito and house-made granola.

Red Horse Coffee Traders Joseph
Quinoa bowl, minus the dairy

Red Horse roasts their coffee beans onsite. We brought a half pound of their Italian roast home with us, and that’s been a hit, too.

Off-Season Veg Dining in Joseph, Oregon: Silver Lake Bistro

Where does a vegetarian eat dinner in Joseph, Oregon in late January? Winter is way off-season for this cute town near Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. We brought plenty of food to cook in our cabin during our snowy two-night stay. But we found ourselves too lazy to cook and craving a restaurant meal. Some of the most promising places on Happy Cow and Urban Spoon were locked down for the season.

Veg calzone at Silver Lake Bistro in Joseph, Oregon
Veg calzone at Silver Lake Bistro in Joseph, Oregon
And quite a good salad, too.
And quite a good salad, too.

Fortunately, the Silver Lake Bistro stays open all year. On the main drag of Main Street, it’s easy to find. They specialize in wood-fired pizzas and calzones, and have great salads, too. Ours featured avocado, grated beets and cilantro vinaigrette. The server was super helpful in devising a veg calzone for me, hold the cheese and the bacon mayonnaise. Yes, fellow vegetarians, watch out for that bacon mayonnaise.

Two transplants from Bend opened the cafe in late 2014. In keeping with local history, the Silver Lake Bistro features a nice portrait of Chief Joseph on the wall, to help diners remember whose land this was way before settlers built the cute modern town.

Cafe Bliss: Raw and Vegan in Victoria

Cafe Bliss VictoriaWhen I visited Café Bliss, owner Heather Cunliffe and her cute four month-old baby took a few minutes to sit down and tell me about her business. The mostly raw and vegan café will celebrate its eighth anniversary this summer. Cunliffe also co-owns a higher-end veg restaurant called Be Love with her brother.

Cunliffe grew up on Salt Spring Island, but moved to Victoria as a teen. One winter she went to work at Tree of Life, a holistic wellness and spiritual retreat center in Arizona. The center was founded by doctor and rabbi Gabriel Cousens, who uses raw, organic, vegan food as one tool to restore people’s health. Cunliffe worked in Tree of Life’s kitchen and garden.

“I came home all juiced up about raw food and inspiring other people to recognize they had control over their health,” said Cunliffe. She credits good nutrition, along with yoga and meditation, for her own glowing good health.

chocolates at Cafe Bliss VictoriaCafé Bliss’ specialties include raw pizzas and burgers, chocolates, treats, and salads. The smoothie menu boasts drinks like earth blood tonic and the warrior smoothie. I had the Bliss Salad, composed of delicious fresh vegetables, plus a few olives and avocado chunks to give it some heft.

The local yoga community has embraced the vegan café, Cunliffe said. However, she’s not hardline. She incorporates lots of raw and vegan food into her diet, but follows neither path exclusively. In such a cool, damp client, some hot food does a body good.

Rawthentic: Fresh and Casual Raw Food in a Suburban Strip Mall

Rawthentic Vancouver IslandIn a suburban strip mall 20 minutes outside Victoria, tucked between a Tim Horton’s and a Pizza Hut, you can get delicious raw, vegan food. This is definitely not a tourist place. Only a very lost tourist winds up way out on West Saanich Road.

Rawthentic insideEverything at Rawthentic is vegan, and most of it is raw – the exceptions are a few dishes incorporating rice. I was torn between the spinach manicotti and the chipotle burrito wrap, but eventually chose the Italian dish. Instead of pasta, wide strips of zucchini encased my spinach, raw falafel, nut cheese, marinara and Brazil nut parmesan. Fresh and delicious! Can’t say it tasted exactly like manicotti, but the inspiration was clear.

If I had more stomachs, I would have ordered the black forest shake, too. It’s made with sour cherry, raw vanilla, raw cacao, almond milk, banana and dates. But I did manage an excellent piece of raw vegan chocolate cheesecake.

Rawthentic vancouver cheesecakeManager Gabrielle Eschner told me that this location opened going on two years ago. Rawthentic also has a location in Courtenay, farther out on the wilds of Vancouver Island. Some of their customers are fully raw and/or fully vegan. But many are looking for gluten-free, diabetic, soy-free or dairy-free dining options. “Everyone who works here, we’re already into some kind of healthy eating,” she said.

Be Love: Upscale Veg Dining in Victoria, BC

If I hadn’t known Be Love was a vegan restaurant when I walked in, I never would have guessed. It looks as chic and modern as any upscale, urban restaurant. And that was kind of the point, co-owner Joe Cunliffe told me. When he and his sister Heather opened the restaurant two years ago, they were going for a mainstream clientele who wanted good cooking with high-quality ingredients.

The siblings grew up in Canada’s Gulf Islands, where an alternative lifestyle is de rigeur. They had a big garden. “Mom made everything from scratch,” Joe told me.

He went away and worked as vice president for College Pro Painters, running the company’s New England territory. But eventually he returned to Victoria to work side by side with his sister, spreading a message of health through good eating.

Be Love Victoria BCDuring my visit on a weekday night in November, the place was packed. Unlike most of Victoria, which empties out after October, Be Love is more a local spot than a touristy one. It was so crowded, I took a seat at the bar with my large backpack crammed down by my feet. But it was the perfect spot from which to quiz Joe about the restaurant. Joe had to learn bartending on the job. Now he creates Be Love’s special drinks, which incorporate healthy ingredients. If you want a kombucha whiskey sour or drinks made with organic blackberry juice, this is your place.

The menu features Heather’s creative recipes, such as crispy pumpkin ravioli. Joe’s girlfriend, who took a seat beside me at the bar, said she always orders the green bowl. Though they change the menu seasonally, the green bowl – a mix of dark greens, broccolini, baby bok choy, mushrooms and veggies in Thai green coconut curry topped with avocado, cashews, cilantro and scallions – always stays. “There’d be a riot if we changed the green bowl,” Joe said.

But I was intrigued by a vegan sag paneer. Since I usually avoid dairy, I don’t generally eat paneer, the soft Indian cheese. However, this dish was made with cashew paneer. Here’s the official description: South Indian curried greens with cashew paneer, apple chutney and coconut yogurt raita, served with sweet potato naan and turmeric-scented brown rice. It was fabulous! And quite photogenic.

Joe said he’s been surprised by how overwhelmingly female the clientele is. His theory? “I think women are more sensitive to how they’re feeling.” Be Love’s food will make you feel good.