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Spotlight: Palm Springs

Find fun and culture in SoCal’s favorite desert getaway

Palm Springs is an eclectic cocktail of California cultures and attitudes. The sunny SoCal town is a desert oasis that’s been home to both native peoples and modern Hollywood legends. It is equal parts desolate beauty and modern aesthetics, and you’ll find plenty to explore both inside and out.

Situated 100 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs seamlessly blends the trendy sophistication of the City of Angels with the vibrant sensibility of Southwestern desert culture.

Palm Springs’ Past

If native history appeals to you, learn about the area’s earliest inhabitants at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.  The Agua Caliente, a band of Cahuilla Indians, made the present-day Palm Springs region their home and built their society around the mineral springs that fed the land. The museum’s exhibits tell the stories of the Agua Caliente culture, way of life and role in the development of the region.

The modern-day history of Palm Springs is shared by the Palm Springs Historical Society, which conducts several tours of the city for visitors eager to see how Hollywood’s elite lived when not working under the lights. Tour guests can also visit the McCallum Adobe, built in 1884 by the area’s first European-American settler, John McCallum. It sits adjacent to the Cornelia White House, built in 1893 of recycled railroad ties. A museum and cultural center display items relating to early life in the city.

Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

A tour of the historic O’Donnell House introduces guests to the story of one-time owner Thomas O’Donnell and his contributions to the valley region. Exhibits also chronicle challenges faced by the city’s founding families.

Ruddy’s General Store Museum is a private collection of retail items from the 1930s and 1940s. Young visitors can learn what a trip into town might have been like, and older guests will enjoy reminiscing about items they once saw in their own homes as children.

The Palm Springs Art Museum combines modern and contemporary works with traditional Native American art in a setting that astounds and delights the senses. Photography from Ansel Adams, sculptures from Alexander Calder and paintings by Pablo Picasso are just a few of the treasures that reside in this world-class collection. The museum’s Architecture and Design Center showcases historic buildings and mid-century modernist homes like those found throughout the city.

Hiking the Desert

In Cahuilla Canyon Country, hikers can gaze in wonder at stately California fan palms rising above rocky landscapes and growing on the banks of streams. Rock formations give way to perennial creeks, and a sighting of the area’s bighorn sheep is a rare treat. The canyon trading post provides maps and guidelines for hiking in a safe and respectful manner. In the Coachella Valley Preserve, Willis Palms Trail leads to a virtual palm oasis. Nearly 200 bird species roost in the area, and observant visitors might catch a glimpse of the Coachella fringe-toed lizard, a protected species.

Challenge yourself on the South Lykken Trail, which rises in elevation from 560 feet to more than 1,400 feet. The hike is roughly three and a half miles and treats visitors to stunning views of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley and Tahquitz Canyon.

Established in 1938, the Moorten Botanical Garden preserves desert flora from the region. Take a guided walk through this “living museum” to see plants along with ancient fossils, pioneer artifacts and geological exhibits.

Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism

Play Time in Palm Springs

Enjoy a cool desert morning at one of Palm Springs’ verdant golf courses, where seasonal rates and public accessibility invite players to tee off amid desert splendor year-round. Choose from 18 or 27 holes on courses designed by masters like John Fought and Gary Player.

Step off the green and see Palm Springs from the sky on a biplane tour. This special treat puts guests in the seat of a vintage aircraft for aerial tours of the desert oasis and surrounding landscapes. Equally enjoyable is a land-based trek through Palm Springs on horseback. Local stables offer trail rides through mountain and canyon passes, as well as ranch rides.

Laidback family fun is the goal at local hangouts like Ruth Hardy Park and Demuth Park. Both parks have public tennis courts as well as a children’s play area, and Demuth features baseball diamonds and batting cages. Palm Springs Swim Center invites sunbaked visitors to cool off in its Olympic-sized swimming pool, which is open year-round. Wet ‘n Wild in Palm Springs is a daredevil’s dream with water slides and a wave pool to keep the kids busy.

Take home a piece of Palm Springs from retailers that do business in the trendy El Paseo Shopping District. This collection of home décor boutiques, art galleries and gift shops offers something for everyone.

Salty Sojourn

Palm Springs has no shortage of day-trip possibilities, and a short drive south will take you to the Salton Sea, an eerily beautiful lake that keeps visitors coming back again and again.

Created by an engineering accident when the Colorado River breached a canal in 1905, the Salton Sea is an anomaly. It is so massive that in some places you can’t see the other shore because of the curvature of the Earth. Only Death Valley is farther below sea level, and the shimmering heat waves rising off the desert floor add to the mirage effect. The approach alone is worth the trip. Luckily, the sea lies on the Pacific flyway and attracts an astounding 400 varieties of migrating birds each winter. The communities that have formed on the water’s edge are some of the more resilient and interesting anywhere in the country.

Desert Wine

Wine lovers will enjoy satisfying sips at famed Spencer’s Restaurant, where watching the sunset from the mountainside patio truly enhances the experience. Get a musical blast from the past with your appetizers at Purple Room Restaurant and Stage, where dinner comes with a live show and a plateful of history.

Palm Springs is a veritable wellspring of creativity, and the array of independent shops featuring one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture, accessories and more will provide an interesting browsing experience for lovers of great design. A safe bet is the Palm Springs Art Museum, home to a stellar collection of oustanding original art.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cool Coachella

Take a short trip down to Coachella Valley to enjoy a true oasis in the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. This spot of respite features a visitor center and offers guided hikes along 25 miles of trails that wind through hundreds of acres of desert wilderness.

If you’ve got a day to spare, the Mojave National Preserve, a three-hour drive north, is just as refreshing an escape from urban life.

Before gold fever struck California, the Mojave Desert was home to Chemehuevi and Mojave tribes who lived on the flora and fauna of the valley. Petroglyphs remain, along with tools, artifacts and pictographs throughout the preserve, telling the story of the clans who lived there.

For an epic experience, take a scenic drive down Essex Road, Canyon Road and Black Canyon Road; they lead to stopping points like Rock Spring and adjacent wayside exhibits that detail the history of the Mojave tribe and the U.S. Army presence during the early days of U.S. settlement. At the north end of Black Canyon, get your hiking boots on and explore Hole-in-the-Wall, a cluster of rhyolite cliffs riddled with holes and hollow spaces.

If you just want to relax, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The average winter temperature is 77 degrees and the warm days cool off to starry nights. The Coachella Valley is like no other, and there’s a lot more to the area than the glitz and glamour of Palm Springs.

Coachella Valley History

Make sure you save time to visit the Coachella Valley History Museum, a repository of the area’s colorful past that’s much more than a collection of artifacts. It’s home to a historic 1909 local schoolhouse and the world’s only Date Museum. Browse the displays and learn more about the area’s earliest settlers, the Cahuilla and Chemehuevi tribes, as well as the history of the local railroad industry and agriculture. A trip to the museum wouldn’t be complete without a walk through the variety of gardens, including the Japanese Garden, Geissler Rose Garden and the Jardin del Deierto.

Desert Homes to the Stars

One of the allures for visitors to Palm Springs is the abundance of mid-century modern residential architecture that dots the landscape around town. From simple dwellings to sprawling  single-story mansions, Palm Springs has long served as a blank canvas for architects eager to experiment with new designs. Among the hallmarks of this design style are ample glass, clean lines, and the use of both natural and manufactured resources. Much of the architecture was influenced by the rugged desert landscape, and for residents, comfort and style were paramount.

One of the most famous of these structures is the home of Frank Sinatra, who came to town in 1947 after having signed a lucrative contract with MGM. Working with architect Roger Williams, the crooner requested a Georgian-style mansion. The architect pursuaded Ol’ Blue Eyes to go with a structure that harmonized with the stark desert surroundings. When the house was completed, architectural history was made.

Sinatra’s 4,500-square-foot Twin Palms house features four bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a piano-shaped swimming pool. Ample patio space and shady overhangs make the home an ideal place to entertain guests during warm desert days and nights. The house was often the site of furious spats between Sinatra and his wife, fellow movie star Ava Gardner; one of the sinks has a crack from a campagne bottle that Sinatra hurled at her.

Today, the house can be rented out for corporate events and parties. Take a drive by the house and get a sense of Hollywood star power for yourself. While in the neighborhood, discover the houses of the Hollywood glitterati who followed Sinatra’s lead and discovered glamor in the desert.

For More Information

Palm Springs Visitors Center
California Travel and Tourism Commission