Palm Spring’s Desert Delights: Uncover the Top Things to Do

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One of the most surprising things about Palm Springs, California, is that this part of the desert actually has a water source. Unlike other parts of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs has actual springs. Enjoy the desert landscapes AND mineral hot springs here.

Hiking trails abound on Mount San Jacinto, Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyons. And cultural adventures include mid-century modern architecture, art galleries and sculpture gardens. Since Palm Springs developed as a Hollywood retreat, it has lots of wonderful places to eat. Many specialize in fresh Southern California cuisine, good news for those on a plant-based diet.

In Palm Springs, you can experience year-round weather in the same week. Last year, we took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up the San Jacinto Mountain, where down jackets and gloves were necessary after a huge snowstorm.

We hiked in a blustery storm at Joshua Tree National  Park and sweated through a summer day in Indian Canyons.

Then we enjoyed what we came for: perfect sunny spring days. The fact that this all happened in February meant we were better prepared when we returned this winter.

On our recent Palm Springs getaway, friends who were vacationing in San Diego drove to Palm Springs for a couple of days. We packed a lot into their vacation within a vacation road trip.

One of the things to do in Palm Springs CA is adding some pull-ups and bicep curls to your workout, after a not so difficult hike trail.
If the hiking trail isn’t difficult enough, add some pull-ups and bicep curls to your workout. Photo credit: Judy Antell.

First Up: Hiking Trails in Palm Springs

The Museum trail, accessed behind the Palm Springs Art Museum, is one of the most rigorous hiking trails in. greater Palm Springs. The steep, rocky hiking trail rewards you with views of downtown Palm Springs and the nearby mountains.

The out-and-back hiking trail is just 1.5 miles, but you climb nearly 1000 feet. When you get to the top, you can access another hiking trail, the Cactus-to-Clouds hike. It was closed when we were there because the endangered bighorn sheep were mating.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen on this fully exposed hike. And water. Hiking poles are also quite useful.

Curiously, there are free weights and a pull-up bar near the top of the Museum hiking trail. I wouldn’t want to be below if someone dropped a weight. But we encountered only one other hiker the whole time.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Park for free in the Palm Springs Art Museum garage. Also, remember whether you parked in the south or north part of the garage. We recreated the Seinfeld episode in the mall, searching for a long time for the car.

Have some fun at the Shag House in Palm Springs CA.
Fun (though not restful) guest bedroom at The Shag House, part of the Modernism Tour in February 2024. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Modernism Week

Modernism Week is actually a two-week celebration of the mid-century modern architecture found around Palm Springs. It lets you peek into private homes. Tickets sell out quickly, so plan in advance. The event is held every February, and we had timed our trip to coincide. There is also a four-day Modernism Week in October. You can sign up for bus tours, walking tours, self-guided driving tours, or one-off house tours.

Fans of.mid-century modern architecture make annual pilgrimages to Palm Springs, so restaurants are also packed. Make reservations early. Even when it isn’t Modernism week, you can see examples of desert architecture on a self-guided tour.

Add visiting the Great Shakes for their Date shake that comes with a mini donut to your to do list in Palm Springs CA.
The Date shake from Great Shakes came with a mini donut. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Walk Around Downtown Palm Springs

When you walk around Downtown Palm Springs, make sure to look down at the sidewalk. Read the names of The Palm Springs Walk of Stars. The stars, embedded in sidewalks on Palm Canyon Drive, celebrate the Hollywood connection in the city; movie and TV stars are immortalized here.

There is a movie colony section of Palm Springs where Frank Sinatra had a midcentury modern house; on the Araby hike, we passed Bob Hope’s house.

Along with boutiques and cafes, downtown Palm Springs has many places to sample a date shake. This ice cream and date concoction is an ideal refresher after a challenging hike. We went to Great Shakes, which also has Dole Whip, and other flavors of milkshakes. You can even get a malted date shake.

Villagefest

Village Fest takes place in downtown Palm Springs on Palm Canyon Drive year-round on Thursday evenings. The weekly street fair includes arts, crafts, food and entertainment. And it’s not just for tourists. Locals around the Coachella Valley start their weekends here, dining at one of the many downtown Palm Springs restaurants.

Street parking around downtown Palm Springs is generally free, but on this night it can be challenging (nowhere near as challenging as NYC street parking, but still).

SheBuysTravel Tip: if you are in greater Palm Springs in winter, bring a jacket for strolling around Village Fest. The desert is cool at night.

Colorful cacti on display at the Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs CA
Colorful cacti abound at Moorten Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Moorten Botanical Garden

The Moorten Botanical Garden showcases cacti and desert plants from all over. A self-guided tour takes about 25 minutes, more if you want to photograph all the cacti you see.

If you have more time, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, in nearby Palm Desert, is part zoo, part botanical gardens. You can see desert plants like cacti, flowers and succulents. You can also feed giraffes or meet the rhinos.

Turtles and an egret in the wild at the Prescott Preserve in Palm Springs, California.
Turtles and an egret at Prescott Preserve. If only elephants and donkeys could exist in such harmony. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Rewilding A Golf Course

Palm Springs has dozens of golf courses but if you aren’t a golfer, you can enjoy Prescott Preserve. This former golf course is turning into a nature preserve, with wildflowers joining the palm trees. There are walking paths throughout.

Bring binoculars; this is a great place for birding.

Exterior of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, California.
The striking facade of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

The new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum gives you a sense of place before you even enter. The museum’s curved shape represents traditional Cahuilla basketmaking. The museum lets you discover the Cahuilla Nation, which includes the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the eight other bands of Cahuilla people. Artifacts go back 8,000 years.

You have to pay to enter the museum. Kids 6 and under are free. No ticket is required for the gift shop, which features Native American artisans and businesses.

Park guides in Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs with a desert plant.
Learning about desert plants at Tahquitz Canyon Photo credit: Judy Antell

Hiking Ancestral Lands

Hike the desert oasis at Indian Canyons. Indian Canyons was the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians. This is a popular place to hike because you can see a waterfall.

Tahquitz Canyon is a separate part of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, also with hiking trails. Although you have to pay to enter both Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon, a guided hike by one of the park rangers is free. We learned about different types of palm trees and how cacti were used.

Vintage pink car on display at McCormick's, the site of classic car auctions in Palm Springs, California.
Barbie pink: sold at the McCormick’s Palm Springs Collector Car Auction. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Gawk at Cars: McCormick’s Palm Springs Collector Car Auctions

These twice-yearly Classic Car Auctions are held outdoors in the parking lot of The Palm Springs Convention Center. At these classic car auctions, you can get a great deal on a new ride.

But even if you aren’t in the market, it is a fun scene. You can see all the gorgeous cars (and motorcycles and bicycles) plus listen in on an auction. There are food trucks and great people-watching opportunities as well. The three-day auction is free to enter on the first day

Pool area with lounge chairs and umbrellas at the Palm Springs Surf Club, a new water park in California.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to play in yet at the Palm Springs Surf Club. Photo credit: Judy Antell.

Ride the Waves: Palm Springs Surf Club

We wanted to try out the Palm Springs Surf Club, a new waterpark near the Gene Autry hiking trail, but like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, we were misinformed about the water. The whole place was shut down due to mechanical problems.

When it finally opens, you can enjoy this desert oasis: surfing in a wave pool, floating in a lazy river and relaxing in a cabana. There are also water slides and a splash pad.

The water for surfing is not heated, so you’ll need your wetsuit in winter. The water in the lounge pool and lazy river are heated in winter. There are rentals of surfboards.

We ate in the surf club’s restaurant, Amala. While some of the food was pretty tasty, when we were there service was spotty and we were never served a couple of items – but somehow we were given three extra orders of French fries. Come with a sense of humor and a high tolerance for snafus.

Two cocktails on a table in Minerva's, a popular restaurant in Palm Springs, California
Enjoy innovative cocktails and delicious vegan (or not) food at Minerva’s. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Where to Eat in Palm Springs

Since Palm Springs grew as a Hollywood retreat, it has lots of wonderful places to eat. Many specialize in fresh southern California cuisine, so there are always vegetarian and vegan options.

We discover a new great place on every trip. This time, we loved the plant-forward Minerva’s. The restaurant, in the new boutique hotel, Life House Palm Springs, is right across Palm Canyon Drive from Moorten Botanical Garden.

And you really do have to discover it; our GPS got confused because it is hidden within the hotel, with no sign out front. OK, maybe the GPS was correct and we were confused. Either way, it’s a lovely spot for drinks and small plates.

Enjoy grits with chanterelles and garlic toast at Alice B in Palm Springs CA.
Grits with chanterelles and garlic toast at Alice B. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Another wonderful new restaurant, Alice B, gives Southern California cuisine a Mediterranean flair. Alice B is a woman-owned restaurant, part of a luxury resort-style LGBTQ+ community. There is live music many nights.

Crowd of people getting ready for a yoga session at Sunnylands, a midcentury modern estate in Palm Springs, California
Getting ready for yoga at Sunnylands. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Sunnylands: a Midcentury Retreat in Rancho Mirage

The Midcentury modern Sunnylands estate, built by the Annebergs, has welcomed American presidents and world leaders since 1966. Guided tours of the historic estate are offered for those 10 and up. You have to make reservations online. You can discover the extensive gardens for free.

There are free birding tours on Fridays at 8:45 am, then free yoga at 10 am. These are not year-round – it is too hot from May through October. For yoga, bring your own yoga mat, towel, water and sunscreen.

The Coachella Valley

If you are into live music, check out the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, It is held annually in Indio and features major acts. It sells out quickly, so plan ahead.

See public art around Greater Palm Springs from an air-conditioned car: sculptures along El Paseo and the Roadrunner from the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Save the free Melissa Morgan Sculpture Garden in Palm Desert for a cooler day.

Coachella Valley Preserve, a giant nature preserve, is the only place you can see the rare fringe-toed lizard in the wild. There are also many species of birds. The preserve has miles of hiking trails and the huge Thousand Palm Oasis. It offers free admission.

Indian Wells Open

Tennis fans flock to Indian Wells for the annual Indian Wells Open. Held every March, the Indian Wells Open is also a foodie destination, with Michelin-starred restaurants.

Winter view in Mount San Jacinto Park from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a popular thing to do
We rode the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up Mount San Jacinto in February and saw this winter wonderland. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Aerial Tramway and Mount San Jacinto State Park

The unique Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers stunning views of the mountains and a totally different weather experience. If you go in winter, you might see snow (we did). In summer, you can actually hike the trails, since it’s much cooler.

You don’t have to hike (but you should). You can also just enjoy the ride, the world’s largest rotating tram, which takes you up to an elevation of 8,516 feet, see the small museum, hang out at the observation deck and eat at one of the two restaurants.

Read More: Fun Things to Do in Palm Springs and Palm Desert for Families

Namesake tree in Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California, one of the top spots to visit
It’s not all palm trees in Palm Springs: the namesake Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National  Park is about an hour from Palm Springs. The vast park can be seen on a driving tour, or by hiking a small portion. When you take a day trip to explore Joshua Tree National Park, you also pass the windmills that power Palm Springs. Stop here for a guided tour.

There is no food or water at Joshua Tree, so bring plenty of both.

You can camp in Joshua Tree (for a fee; there is also an entry fee for all visitors) but what I plan to do in the future is come for the dark sky. Joshua Tree, a designated International Dark Sky Park, is open every day, all day and night. It’s a great place for non-Hollywood stargazing.

Read More: Family-Friendly California Vacation Inspo!

Exterior of the open-air Palm Springs Airport
On our way to baggage claim ‘inside’ the Palm Springs Airport. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Getting to Palm Springs

We’ve always flown into Los Angeles and driven to Palm Springs. This last time we decided to fly into Palm Springs, and landing here immediately put us in vacation mode. The charming open-air airport feels more like a tropical island than southern California.

We looked forward to the waiting area when we left: open-air seating where we could catch some rays before heading back to mid-winter New York City. We forgot that open-air meant you can smoke, so sitting outside felt more like being inside an ashtray.

The airport shares a plot of land with the Palm Springs Air Museum. You can see vintage aircraft here including World War II military jets.

Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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