The Ultimate Guide to Palm Springs

Featured Photo: Ace Hotel & Swim Club

Long before Coachella (Valley Music and Arts Festival) and the influx of Bay Area tech employees fleeing to drier pastures, Palm Springs was already an established escape, a sun-soaked oasis with other-worldly windmills, hidden hot springs, snow-draped peaks, flower-trimmed fairways and 1950s finger-snapping cool.

Here, old Hollywood glam meets Mid-century modernism and the ghosts of the Rat Pack linger in the red boothed piano bars and iconic movie star homes. There’s something for everybody — Pride parties and pool time, music, motorcycle and film festivals, along with incredible art and adventures in the desert. Not to mention, Palm Springs is home to arguably the most pleasant airport on the planet. So grab a hat, a hardback, your favorite swimsuit and clubs, and head to this sunshine sanctuary.

History

Between martinis poolside, verdant green golf courses and lucrative tribal water rights, this arid-high desert hideaway — a.k.a. Palm Springs — has always been a popular destination despite the lack of accessible water. 

Before Hollywood celebs drove 100 miles east to get some R&R and dodge the prying eyes of gossip columnists, this particular plot of the Sonoran Desert at the base of the San Jacinto mountains was a tumbleweed-laden expanse with a reputation for healing. The Cahuilla people called their homeland Se-Khi, meaning boiling water — later the Spanish explorers referred to this stop along their journey (of conquests) ​​La Palma de la Mano de Dios, meaning Palm of God’s Hand.

In 1876 the United States government established the Agua Caliente Reservation, again a reference to the hot springs, which is over 31,128 acres in a checkerboard format of alternating sections of 640 acres. Some land went to the Southern Pacific Railroad and some to Agua Caliente tribe, securing very valuable water rights. 

Then came the hotels. The first couple that opened were Dr. Welwood Murray’s Palm Springs Hotel in 1901, and Nellie Coffman’s The Desert Inn in 1909. In 1926, La Quinta Resort was built, espousing the benefits of the area like its predecessors, and the rest is hospitality history.

Love Dates?

Back in the 1890s, the then-president of Southern Pacific Railroad, C.P. Huntington, brought back a few date shoots from a vacation in Algeria. Botanist Pat Gale planted them in the arid soil and today Palm Springs, nearby Indio, and the surrounding agricultural area produces 95% of the date in the U.S.

Culture and Adventure

Cabazon Dinosaurs

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Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Pishal via Unsplash

After grabbing a date shake at Hadley’s Fruit Market, continue cruising east on the 10 freeway towards Palm Springs. You can’t miss the giant Cabazon Dinosaurs — a kitschy roadside attraction that’s fun for the kids. Mr. Rex, Dinny and 50 more gargantuans provided endless photo opps and Instagram favorites. Young ones can do the dinosaur dig and fossil panning or climb inside the 150-foot Brontosaurus — or  potentially Apatosaurus — for free which naturally leads to the gift shop. cabazondinosaurs.com

Golfing

From the air, the Coachella Valley resembles a jigsaw puzzle consisting of more than 2,000 grassy configurations. Put them all together and that number represents the staggering sum of fairways and greens in this California desert playground where the sun shines all day. Picking a favorite is nearly impossible, but with its 6,706-yard layout set among beautiful rolling hills and spectacular sights of the surrounding desert mountains, and the Pete Dye Resort Course located at Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort and Spa is a must. In fact, it’s been described by some as “potentially diabolical, yet indescribably playable.” westinranchomiragegolf.com

Joshua Tree

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Photo: Courtesy of Thayne Tuason

This Dr. Seussian National Park, known for its bristled twisted trees, giant boulders and desolate landscapes, may have been put on the map by U2’s famed album, but rock climbers, star gazers and adventurers have long known about the park’s wealth of beauty and solace. You can hike, bike or camp, explore cactus gardens, wander through the wildflowers, catch the Perseid Meteor Showers in all their glory, grab your binocs for birding or tackle one of the 8,000 rock climbing routes through this magical 800,000-acre park. nps.gov/jotr/

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

This gorgeous zoo, tucked in a canyon, is a perfect afternoon adventure where you can mingle with butterflies, ride a camel, meet the meerkats, or feed a giraffe during the daily feedings. During the holiday season a dazzling display of lights, music and holiday cheer enlivens the park during WildLights. livingdesert.org

Moorten Botanical Garden

If pioneer relics, crystals and rare plants are of interest to you, then a stop here is essential. Established by Patricia and Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten in 1938, the property is now a living museum that features the world’s first cactarium — a term the couple invented — as well as plants from Baja California and as far south as Guatemala. Stop by the Cactus Castle, the Moorten’s Mediterranean style home, and grab a spiky memento from the nursery on your way out. The Moorten Botanical Garden is set to re-open on September 2, 2022. moortenbotanicalgarden.com

Palm Canyon Drive

The historical heart of Palm Springs, and the home of the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, is lined with none other than palm trees that are continuously illuminated with sparkling lights. On Palm Canyon Drive as well as Indian Canyon Drive beside it, visitors will find a goldmine of art galleries, restaurants, pubs, historical buildings and every kind of shop. palmsprings.com/palm-canyon-drive/

Palm Springs Aerial Tram

Tick some superlatives off your list and head to Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area via the Palm Springs Aerial Tram, the world’s largest rotating tram car. Traveling over two-and-a-half miles along the cliffs of Chino Canyon, the tram cars rotate slowly over the course of ten minutes, providing eye-popping sights with every turn. At the top, it is 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor, meaning you can have a snowball fight in April while the masses bake below. Considered a sky island as it contains plants and animals that couldn’t survive valley temps, visitors can find numerous forests of Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Lodgepole pines, and even a grove of giant sequoia trees. pstramway.com

Palm Springs Art Museum

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Photo: Courtesy of Guillaume Goureau

The Palm Springs Art Museum boasts two museums in downtown Palm Springs and a sculpture garden in Palm Desert. The main campus houses the famed Annenberg Theater, while the E. Stewart Williams-designed Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center – Edwards Harris Pavilion is now devoted to just that. The Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden displays the works of modern masters within four acres of landscaped desert teeming with water features, native plants, and winding walkways. psmuseum.org

Pioneertown

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Established in 1946 as a “living breathing movie set,” Pioneertown filled the screens of 50 western films and serials during the 40s and 50s with legends like Gene Autry, Leo Carillo and Smiley Burnette in the saddle. You can still hitch your horse in this desert town, 30 minutes outside of Palm Springs, and explore the old bowling alley and mercantile shop. You may even catch the occasional gunfight on Mane Street (not a typo). Most importantly don’t miss the barbecue and live music at local eatery Pappy and Harriet’s where rock stars often drop in for surprise sets. Think Paul McCartney, Lucinda Williams or Jakob Dylan to name a few. visitpioneertown.com

Tahquitz Canyon

Located within the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation, the rugged, palm-flanked Tahquitz Canyon ends with a dramatic 60-foot waterfall, and is among the most culturally significant sites in the area. The legend of this canyon’s namesake, Tahquitz, says that he was the first shaman created by Mukat, the creator of all things. Like many with power, Tahquitz used his power for good early on, but grew selfish over time and started to harm the Cahuilla People, who banished him to the canyon that now bears his name. It is said that rumblings within the mountain and green fireballs streaking across the night sky are his spirit living on. Stop at the visitor center at the entrance of the canyon to take in views from the observation deck and to see ancient artifacts. tahquitzcanyon.com

Where to Stay - Hotels

Ace Hotel & Swim Club

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Often dubbed a hipster den, this 179-room hotel was formerly a Westward Ho with a Denny’s attached to it. While it’s centrally located with plenty of restaurants and attractions like Tahquitz Canyon and the aerial tram nearby, the on-site spa, restaurant and bar, two big pools — one with  a DJ inside an old school bus playing lush daytime disco — this is just as easily a place you never really have to leave. Dog-friendly with a glamorous Sahara, bohemian-vibe, the rooms feels like being inside an air-conditioned luxury Sibley tent. But no two are exactly alike. Some have a garden patio or a fireplace, others have record players, all have vintage furniture and original artwork created by local artists. acehotel.com

Azure Sky

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Palm Springs’ newest boutique hotel is a sexy 14-room charmer with its mid-century-modern- design-meets-Zen aesthetic and myriad lounge-y scenes from the firelit living room lobby to the hammock-dotted patios. Palm trees and tres chic black-and-white umbrellas line the kid-free pool at this adults only retreat. Unobstructed views of the San Jacinto Mountains serve as a meditative backdrop when hanging out in “the meadow” by the firepit in the company of olive trees. And when you are ready to leave, the action of Palm Springs is an easy stroll away. azureskyhotel.com

La Quinta Resort and Spa

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The town of La Quinta was named after the resort, which was established in 1926 as a haven for  Hollywood’s rich and famous. A few indications of the good ol’ days remain such as irregular roof tiles on the original casitas which were shaped over the legs of Mexican tile makers — thigh sizes vary! — and Frank Capra’s favorite typewriter, which is still on display. Like a true oasis in the desert, the hacienda-style casitas and suites clustered around 41 pools are situated amongst gardens and pathways. Located at the base of the Santa Rosa mountains, five miles from Empire Polo Club — home to the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals — and ten minutes to several world class golf courses, the resort has no shortage of amenities including eight pickle ball courts, four restaurants and an award-winning spa. laquintaresort.com

Hermann Bungalows L’Horizon + Colony

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When Los Angeles architectural designer Steve Hermann, the go-to guy for the Hollywood A-listers, revamped the 1952 William Cody bungalow property, L’Horizon, it became the must-stay getaway in Palm Springs. Now he’s opened the Hermann Bungalows, 25 ultra-luxury modern bungalows (a hotel within a hotel), so guests can choose between the nostalgia of the 1950s or the sleek elegance of his forward-thinking bungalow design. Guests enjoy private patios, outdoor showers, custom designed furniture, fluted walnut walls, Frette and more. The natural palettes and organic architecture take inspiration from the surrounding landscape, A zero edge pool with built-in chaise lounges anchors the scene. Guests can also tuck into white canvas cabanas for facials and massages and savor modern contemporary cuisine at SO.PA, L’Horizon’s signature restaurant. stevehermann.com

Korakia Pensione

Set at the edge of downtown, this Mediterranean-inspired haven has retained its cool vibe and magnetism over the years with its dreamy design and thoughtful touches. Think stone fountains, bougainvillea-laced patios, Moroccan daybeds, colorful textiles, Balinese furnishings, and a vintage book library. After a dip, yoga class or game of bocce, you can shop Korakia’s onsite bazaar or pedal into Palm Springs on their beach cruisers. Traditional Moroccan tea service graces every afternoon, and at night, hundreds of candles and lanterns illuminate the courtyards. As darkness sets in, watch a vintage film on the outdoor screen or float under the stars as the pools are open 24/7. Magic happens here. korakia.com

Where to Stay - Homes to Rent

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Photo: Courtesy of On The Rocks

In the historic Mesa neighborhood, the stunning Hugh Kaptur-designed On the Rocks house sits high on the hill overlooking Palm Springs. Beloved by A-list celebrities and return guests alike, the home is a perfect example of organic architecture, featuring an open concept layout and endless views soaked in through floor-to-ceiling windows, or from the custom saline infinity pool. ps-ontherocks.com

You can rent Old Blue Eyes’ former home Twin Palms, a four-bedroom that’s filled with Sinatra memorabilia and vintage decor. Splash in the piano-shaped pool where Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis used to party with Sinatra tunes filling the air, or make your own music on the original piano in the living room. sinatrahouse.com

Times to Visit

VillageFest

Every Thursday night, historic Palm Canyon Drive turns into a giant “block party,” with live music, gourmet eats, artisan booths and open-late shopping. Find fresh produce and flowers at the farmers market, along with handcrafted treasures, jewelry, clothing and unique gifts. villagefest.org

Palms Spring Pride

Nov 4-6, 2022

Palm Springs celebrates diversity and community year round, but the town goes off the first weekend in November with a poppin’ LGBTQ street fair, live music, and pool parties at various resorts.  The weekend wraps up with a colorful float -filled parade down historic Palm Canyon Drive. Rainbows abound. pspride.org

Palm Spring Film Festival

January 5-16, 2023

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Photo: Courtesy of Palm Spring Film Festival

Every January, Palm Springs rolls out the red carpet for a star-studded cinema fest that includes world premieres, international gems and notable shorts. Thirty-four years strong, this Hollywood satellite culminates with a glam, black tie awards gala for 2500 with plenty of people watching and star sightings galore. psfilmfest.org

Tour de Palm Springs

February 10-11, 2023

Pedal for a cause and join the peloton of cyclists (some 10,000) on the 25th annual Tour de Palm Springs, honoring first responders and veterans. This exciting ride, with routes ranging from 10 to 100 miles, supports local charities. Since 1998, $4 million dollars has been raised and donated to over 150 local nonprofit organizations. Marching bands and jazz musicians entertain the riders and cheering enthusiasts. tourdepalmsprings.com

Modernism Week

February 16-26, 2023

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Photo: Courtesy of Tom Dolle

Explore Frank Sintra’s avant garde house in the Movie Colony neighborhood; stroll through modernist architect Albert Frey’s famed residence; bike through old Las Palmas while being regaled with tales of Golden Era Hollywood stars who lived and martini’d there. Take a trip to the Annenberg Estate Sunnylands, sign up for a mid-century cocktail clinic and then join the nightly parties under the stars. Classic car shows, curated vintage shopping, and modernism yard sales too. A mini version of the festival happens mid October as well. modernismweek.com

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