Palm Springs, California, has a bit of a reputation—and one that isn’t entirely undeserved. Once a desert frontier town, it was transformed post-World War II into an oasis for celebrities and rich retirees, as well as snowbirds looking to escape the cold of the north. In the 1960s, it also became a hot spot for West Coast spring breakers; its popularity lasted until the late 1980s and even today, it’s known as a party town. From the 1970s on, more and more people settled permanently in the city and many live there year-round, although there are still many seasonal residents as well.
Contrary to many perceptions, partying isn’t the only thing to do in Palm Springs, despite what movies would make you think. In fact, there’s a vibrant town with a rich cultural history—and one that caters to the budget traveler as well as the celebrity debutante with a plethora of activities that are actually free. With spectacular shopping and enthusiasm for the great outdoors, Palm Springs is a destination that offers up an activity for just about any kind of traveler. Here are 11 great ideas to consider when you plan your trip to this desert oasis!
11. Visit Moorten Botanical Garden
The Moorten Botanical Garden is a relatively small operation, with the garden encompassing about 1 acre of Colorado Desert ecosystem. The garden was founded in 1939 by Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten and his wife Patricia. Moorten was one of the original Keystone Cops in early silent films. The residence was built in a Mediterranean style and the Moortens collected many specimens from Baja California, Mexico and Guatemala. The garden is still owned by the family today. The residence is commonly known as the “Cactus Castle.”
The garden has grown since 1939 and now includes 3,000 examples of desert plants, including cacti, which are grouped by region. The greenhouse cactarium includes specimens from the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, Yuma, Mojave and Colorado deserts, as well as plants from South America, Namibia and South Africa. Outside, collections of agave, bombax, and cardoon and boojum trees thrive. Over a dozen species of African aloes can also be found in this unique and fascinating garden.
10. Hike the Cactus to Clouds Trail
Hiking is incredibly popular in Palm Springs, as are many other outdoor sports and activities. One of the things that makes hiking in this area so pleasurable is the changes in elevations; the city is nestled in a valley, surrounded by mountains, which means that you can hike up some pretty steep inclines in order to find some absolutely breathtaking views.
One popular hiking trail is the Cactus to Clouds trail which, as the name implies, takes hikers from a relatively low elevation among the cacti to a high peak where you might actually think you can touch the clouds. Since Palm Springs gets very little rain, a hike up the Cactus to Clouds trail usually means a view of bright blue sky. Located in San Jacinto Park, the trail is the greatest elevation gain of all hiking trails in the U.S. Also known as the Skyline trail, the hike takes you up 8,000 feet to Long Valley, and then climbs another 2,600 feet to the summit of San Jacinto Peak! The entire trail is about 20 miles (round-trip), and it starts behind the Palm Springs Art Museum. Hikers can access the Aerial Tramway from the trail as well.
9. Explore the Auga Caliente Cultural Museum
The first people to inhabit the Coachella Valley were the Cahuilla people. The Auga Caliente band of the Cahuilla established this museum in 1991 to promote the history and culture of the Native peoples of the valley. The museum is the first Native American-owned museum to be part of the Smithsonian’s Affiliation Program and the museum also participates in the American Alliance of Museums’ Museum Assessment Program and has won several awards. The museum is currently fundraising for a planned 100,000 square-foot expansion.
The museum has 2 core exhibits: one about the Cahuilla people, with a focus on their culture and history, and the other about Florence Patencio, a prominent cultural community leader. Other exhibits include a timeline of the Cahuilla people at Palm Springs City Hall, an exhibit at California State University San Bernardino that explores Native American participation in sports and an exhibit on the Wahaatukicnikic Tetayaw (Blue Frog) that the Cahuilla people believe lives at the Agua Caliente hot spring. The museum also sponsors online exhibits and publishes The Spirit newsletter. The museum plays host to many cultural events as well, including a Native film festival and song and dance festivals celebrating traditional Native music and dance.
8. Take in Some Public Art
Palm Springs’s history as a resort for the rich and famous has, naturally, made it a center for arts and culture. Although the city is small and often undervalued, this desert location is by no means a cultural wasteland. The city has established a 7-member committee to promote the arts in the city. To date, some of the committee’s biggest projects have been sponsorship of public works of art, many of which are still on display in and around the city. The project has helped to foster art, support artists and has served to beautify the city as well. It also offers visitors a chance to discover the best of the city’s art scene for free, just by walking around.
Among the recent works are sculptures by Konstantin Demopoulos (Red Echo), John Clement (Squeeze) and Christopher Georgesco. DeL’Espries’ bronze statue of Gene Autry celebrates “America’s favorite singing cowboy,” while Doug Hyde’s 1994 sculpture depicts 2 Agua Caliente women engaged in traditional work. The piece is aptly titled Agua Caliente Women. Other recent projects have included Delos Van Earl’s Jungle Red and Steve Rieman’s Escena Wind Wave.
7. Participate in VillageFest
For over a decade now, Palm Springs’ downtown core has undergone a transformation every Thursday night as local businesses, tourists and citizens participate in the weekly street fair known as “Villagefest.” Beginning in 2004, the city worked with downtown businesses to develop the weekly event, which now draws in tourists and locals alike. Fair-goers can stroll along Palm Canyon Drive where food trucks and craft vendors gather.
The fair runs for about 4 or 5 hours and features local artisans, artists and purveyors of everything your heart could desire: jewelry, fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, snacks and sweets. Local restaurants also get in on the fun by offering exciting deals for customers, and entertainment abounds during the festival, as both local entertainers and downtown clubs get in on the action. Downtown stores also stay open later to accommodate shoppers. Stop by and pick up some authentic Southwest art, grab a bite to eat and take in some delightful entertainment—Palm Springs style.
6. Ride the Aerial Tramway
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is something you can’t find just anywhere: it’s the largest rotating aerial tramway not just in the U.S., but in the world. Before the tramway’s construction in 1963, people had to hike from Idyllwild to the San Jacinto Peak—a rather lengthy and intense climb. The tram was constructed as an alternate way of getting from the floor of the Coachella Valley to the peak. The ride takes 12 and a half minutes.
Constructed in the rugged Chino Valley, the tram passes North America’s sheerest mountain face. It also passes through 5 biomes on its route between the Valley Station and the Mountain Station. The cars rotate slowly, providing passengers with a panoramic view of the area. On a clear day, passengers can see more than 200 miles to the north, all the way to Mount Charleston, which is north of Las Vegas. To the east and west, the view is about 75 miles, and the Salton Sea is visible in the southwest. Once at the top, visitors can hike through alpine forest, or, with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, do some back-country hiking. Two restaurants are also located at the summit.
5. Discover Joshua Tree National Park
Many of us have heard of Joshua trees and Joshua Tree National Park might be one of the few places near Palm Springs that we know of to find them. The park was formed in 1936 as a national monument and then elevated to the status of national park in 1994. The park encompasses some 790,000 acres, stretching through both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. The higher, cooler climate of the Mojave Desert is the habitat of the Joshua tree. Other vegetation include 3 kinds of oak, California juniper and pinon pine, all of which grow densely enough to create forests. In the eastern portion of the park, the Colorado Desert is home to various scrubland plants.
The desert climate of the park means that the days can be hot and the nights freezing. Snow can occur at higher altitudes, especially during the cooler winter months. Days in the summer can be blazing hot, so spring and fall are the best times to visit the park as the weather is more comfortable. Prominent rocky outcrops known as inselbergs are popular among rock climbers and scramblers. The park has several hiking trails and camping, birding and astronomy are all popular activities here.
4. Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
If you want to get above it all, but the tramway and mountain climbing are out of the question for you, perhaps you’d like to consider a hot air balloon ride. Palm Springs is a great place for taking an idyllic ride through the great blue yonder, owing that to the number of sunshine days the city experiences and the variety of landscapes you’ll drift over on this peaceful tour. You’ll have a bird’s eye view of polo and golf courses, exotic orchards and, of course, the Coachella Valley and the desert itself.
Flights are seasonal, from November through May, and are offered at sunrise and in the late afternoon on days the weather permits. Balloons Above, one of the tour operators, allows the breeze to dictate the course of each flight. With so much to see in any given direction, however, it doesn’t matter much which way you go! Tours are pricey—starting at $225 per person—but there are many discounts and great group rates available for this unbelievable experience!
3. Book a Desert Eco-Tour
Since 1987, the Desert Adventures Company has been offering tours of the desert surrounding Palm Springs. In their famous big red jeeps, the company has become synonymous with eco-tourism and desert sightseeing. Tours start at $125 per person and visit areas such as the San Andreas fault, the nearby Indian and Painted Canyons and Joshua Tree National Park. For a little extra, you can take the San Andreas Fault tour at dusk and enjoy a gorgeous desert sunset and some stargazing. Other tours package shuttle passes, Palm Springs tram passes, admission to nearby attractions and a meal (dinner or lunch, depending on the time). If you want to see the desert but don’t feel comfortable heading out into the wilds on your own, a tour is a great option.
If the untamed wilderness isn’t your thing, there are also in-town tours which offer up great perspective on Palm Springs and the people who have shaped the community into what it is today. One of the tour packages visits various locations around the city, including celebrity homes, while also exploring the mid-century modernist architecture the city is famed for. Another tour focuses on the LGBT community and its influence on Palm Springs.
2. Do Some Stargazing
Are you an amateur astronomer or interested in teaching your kids about the universe that we exist in? Be sure to pack your telescope when you venture to Palm Springs then. Although it’s known as a springbreak destination and a party town, filled with celebrities and pop culture, the city’s location in the desert makes it an ideal area for doing some stargazing.
The clear desert sky and number of sunshine days often combine to showcase some fantastical sunrises and sunsets and at night, the vast expanse becomes a window to the heavens, with many constellations plainly visible, even to the naked eye. Palm Springs has long had an eye for preserving the natural beauty in and around the cityscape. Minimal lighting reduces the light pollution that clouds the nightscapes of many other urban areas in the U.S., which means that most places both in and near the city offer good views. For an exceptional experience, camp out in Joshua Tree National Park or at a high elevation to get even closer to the stars. Check your calendar to see if there are any astronomical events, such as meteor showers, happening during your stay.
1. Get Outside
Perhaps the best thing about Palm Springs is the climate. The city is situated in the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by mountains. The city rests in the Coachella Valley, with the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the east, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the San Bernardino Mountains to the north. The city is warm year-round, with the average temperature in the winter months hovering around 21 degrees Celsius and over 300 sunshine days per year.
What that all boils down to is a destination that’s custom-made for outdoor adventure. With nearby canyons and mountains, hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing are all popular pastimes. Horseback riding through the desert is also popular, as are golf and tennis. With plenty of flat land around, there is certainly space for tennis courts and golf courses. And if you need to cool off, swimming is another popular recreation activity in Palm Springs—or perhaps you can soak up some sun lounging poolside with your shades on.