One of the best ways to appreciate the panoramic desert of the Greater Palm Springs area is to literally get above it—taking in the expanses of citrus trees and date palms, the sagebrush, the spring wildflowers, and even the 100-plus manicured golf courses from a hot air balloon, with the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains as a backdrop.
A number of operators do hot-air balloon rides in the Coachella Valley, primarily in the high season of November through May, with sunrise and sunset being the most popular times of the day for tours. Operators will typically come pick you up at your hotel for the trip and tours are fairly small—anywhere from two to 10 of you along for the ride.
Fantasy Balloon Flights, Balloons Above, and HavNFun Hot Air Balloons all use FAA-certified pilots and embrace the centuries-old tradition of offering up some sparkling wine after your voyage. (Ballooning as a sport began in France, no doubt including Champagne, in the 18th century). Expect to be in the air anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes. Some of the operators let you get pretty hands-on, too: HavNFun lets passengers help set up and take down the balloon before and after their flights, while Balloons Above is happy to arrange lessons on how to fly the balloon yourself.
On the Fantasy Balloon Flights tour of Palm Springs, the pilot will point out spots like the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea, and even celebrity homes. The company also offers Temecula wine country flights that glide over the vineyards and then touch down for a winery tour.
Fed by underground springs, the desert comes alive here, not only with signature palms, but also with a string of resort communities—Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and others, as well as the namesake town of Palm Springs—sporting a cool, mid-century modern vibe and countless ways to relax. Back in the 1950s, stars like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built sleek estates, played rounds of golf at championship courses, and wined and dined the desert night away. Today, the region still has plenty of retro hipster swagger but also next-gen energy, with hot new restaurants, luxury lodgings, and fabulous shopping. Plus, there’s the beauty of the California desert all around. Step away for a moment and gaze up at a million stars—nothing but you, your thoughts, and the sound of the desert wind.
The saying “Thursday is the new Friday” is not just a cheeky adage in Palm Springs: Every Thursday evening, this desert city takes on new life for Villagefest, a weekly street fair that brings casual party atmosphere to its downtown neighborhood.
Villagefest first started in 1991 as a way to draw more people downtown, and the event (which runs every week except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s) has grown to over 200 vendors, taking up three blocks of Palm Canyon Drive. Today, you’ll find a large amount of locally made jewelry, pottery, paintings, and other artwork. “Eighty percent of our vendors on the street are the actual artists selling their wares to the buyers,” says Jasmine Waits of the Palm Springs Parks and Recreation Department.
You can also create an easy, local-favorites dinner out of the fair, like the homemade pizza at Livreri’s, tri-tip sandwiches from CV BBQ, or the breads and brownies from Aspen Mills Bakery. The convivial atmosphere, which lasts from 6 to 10 p.m., attracts a happy mix of out-of-towners and locals (the latter often bring their pooches for an evening stroll), while guitarists, drummers, and other musicians keep things humming.
The weekly fair has had an effect on the rest of downtown, too. Many stores on Palm Canyon Drive stay open late, such as Canyon Rose Boutique and Lappert’s Ice Cream (look for the “BOLT,” or Businesses Open Late Thursday, sign in the window). And many bars and restaurants offer Thursday night specials, like $4 sliders at Village Pub, or the half-price appetizers and drinks at LG’s Prime Steakhouse. If you want to see more art, the outstanding Palm Springs Art Museum does free admission on Thursday nights, too. “Villagefest is one of the longest running weekly art and craft festivals around,” says Waits, “because it has our small-town feel: local art, yummy local foods, and lots of good times.”
No California city is as closely identified with mid-century modern architecture as Palm Springs. Visionaries like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler designed futuristic buildings here...
Give yourself plenty of time to stroll along this swanky strip in Palm Desert. First, you’ll want to see all the art. This roughly 1-mile/2-km strip and adjacent streets house one of the largest concentrations of art galleries anywhere in Southern California. As inviting as mini-museums, these galleries let you get close to art, chat with knowledgeable gallery owners and staff, and even meet the artists on during special openings and events. Then you’ll want to get something to eat—perhaps a juicy steak accompanied by jazz (Sullivan's Steakhouse), or oysters on the half-shell (Pacifica Seafood Restaurant), or wood-fired pizza at Sammy’s.
And of course—there’s the shopping. There’s a reason El Paseo reminds people of Rodeo Drive, what with the impeccably appointed boutiques of top designers, including Bottega Veneta and St. John, tempting you to brandish your credit card and come in. Find more shops at the Gardens on El Paseo complex: Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Bahamas, and more.
For all of the desert’s natural splendour and outdoor destinations, creativity comes with the territory, too. Throughout the year, the region finds ways to celebrate art, design, music, and film...
Got 10 minutes? That’s all it takes to go from the hot desert floor to cool, piney highlands, thanks to this engineering marvel. Spinning slowly as it ascends, the tram rises 2.5 miles/4 kilometers in one smooth ascent to 8,516 feet at Mountain Station, on the flanks of towering Mount San Jacinto. On the ride up, you’ll be Instagramming nonstop as you take in incredible views of jagged cliffs and canyons (keep your eyes peeled for waterfalls in spring). Celebrated naturalist John Muir once wrote that “…the view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth,” and he wasn’t exaggerating.
Up top, there’s access to more than 50 miles/80 kilometers of trails into the Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. The tram operates through winter, and don’t be surprised if fellow tram riders are carrying snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the snowy backcountry (rentals are available at Winter Adventure Center, at Mountain Station). Tip for outdoor lovers: it’s a short hike to Round Valley, offering picturesque campsites, even in winter.
But you don’t have to hike or ski to have fun. At the top there are two restaurants (fine dining at Peaks Restaurant; cafeteria fare at Pines Cafe), a bar (aptly named The Lookout Lounge), an observation area, natural history exhibits, and a small theater showing documentary films.
Robert Trent Jones Jr., Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus—the list of top pros who have designed championship courses in the Palm Springs region couldn’t get more name-droppy, at least when it comes to golf. Add mountain and desert vistas that make waiting for your tee time a pleasure, and you can see why this is one of the most celebrated golf destinations in the country.
A staggering 110 courses dot the Coachella Valley. Some of the best-known courses are at La Quinta’s PGA West Golf Club & Resort. Three public courses offer tight fairways, multi-tiered greens, deep sand bunkers, and plenty of water features. At Indian Wells Golf Resort, test your skills on the rolling Celebrity Course, or try the peaceful Players Course—it’s road- and house-free surroundings make for especially beautiful backdrops while you play. If you’re aiming to hone your skills, consider taking a lesson with one of the course’s outstanding pros. You can also have your swing evaluated at Indian Wells’ Callaway Performance Center. Some resorts, like Indian Wells, offer stay and play specials.
Sunnylands, the 200-acre/90-hectare former residence of publishing magnate and UK ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife Lenore, lets you peek into a lifestyle of the über-rich and infamous. The couples’ glass-walled 25,000-square-foot home is a mid-century modern masterpiece that showcases a world-class art collection of Impressionist art. Though many of the Annenberg’s original pieces are now on display in museums, outstanding replicas let you get a sense of how dizzyingly fabulous is—you’ll find works by Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and other masters. The artistic style unfolds in Sunnylands’ extensive gardens too—many are landscaped in sweeping bands of color to evoke Impressionist art.
While you can stroll through the gardens for free, you must sign up well in advance to purchase a ticket for a guided tour of the house. (It’s worth the wait.) In addition to the artworks, look for familiar faces—presidents, celebrities, royalty—in the some of the rooms, a glimpse at the lofty lifestyle that the Annenberg’s lived. In fact, the property, nicknamed the “West Coast Camp David,” still serves as a meeting place for global leaders. A museum, a theater and an indoor/outdoor cafe (with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains) are also housed in soaring glass buildings. Note: Both the house and gardens are closed in August.
Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at the extraordinary Living Desert Zoo & Gardens shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Observe an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.
This isn’t your typical zoo, where little ones have to strain to see the animals tucked deep inside their enclosures. Here, the wildlife can walk right up to the fence! For an extra charge, your courageous kiddos can ride camels or let the giraffes lick food right from their palms.
Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.
For education on desert terrain, head to the model train exhibit. Its 3,300 feet of track winds past miniature versions of desert landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Or let kids loose in the one-acre Gecko Gulch playground, where they’ll slide through a replica of a saguaro cactus, scale a lizard sculpture, pan for gold, or dig in a sand dune.
This is a sprawling 100-acre complex, so unless you plan on lugging your little ones through the Palm Desert heat, purchase tickets for the park’s shuttle service. It’s free for kids ages 3 and younger. If you will be walking with stroller-aged kids, bring a jogging or all-terrain ride because many of the paths are dirt.
Ironically, luxury never rests. Palm Springs is constantly elevating indulgence to new highs, with swanky, imaginative do-overs of existing luxe lodgings—such as the splashy Hard Rock Hotel and the Saguaro Palm Springs —and subtler, though no less opulent remakes, like the boutique Colony Palms Hotel and Sparrows Lodge, a rustic-chic gem in the heart of town. Palm Springs’ pampering is about the details: crafted after a Mediterranean-style pensione, Korakia Pensione eschews phones and Tvs in favor of outdoor film screenings and afternoon Moroccan tea. At the ultra-refined Parker Palm Springs, relax in private villas with intimate hot tubs. With luxury resorts come luxury spas, with treatments that sound as beautiful as the dramatic surroundings. Relax in private outdoor treatment cabanas at Estrella Spa at Viceroy Palm Springs Resort. At Spaterre at the Riviera Palm Springs, dip into a Watsu pool, heated to your body temperature. Or turn the world off with a soak in natural, hot springs mineral spas in Desert Hot Springs. Decadence, defined and refined.
Palm Springs is the best kind of party town, always evolving and never resting on its laurels. Hip hotels with poolside Djs attract the cool crowd; top spots include the Ace Hotel & Swim Club and the Hard Rock Hotel. Night-time also brings a host of bars serving desert-cool cocktails in outdoor settings: the Sidebar at the Riviera lets you relax on bed-size lounges to watch the stars while you sip. Party music keeps thumping late at Shanghai Reds, Village Pub and Zelda’s Nightclub. For entertainment, see who’s performing at area casinos, which draw headliners ranging from classic crooners (Johnny Mathis) to of-the-moment stars (Robin Thicke). Thursday evenings, a more casual party unravels along Palm Canyon Drive, as locals and visitors enjoy live bands, booths set up by local shops and foods at Villagefest.
Fabulous pool parties. Stylish bars and impeccably designed hotels. Pampering spas and energetic nightclubs. Lavish events. There’s no question that the Palm Springs region ranks as one of the world’s top destinations for LGBT travelers. Whether you’re a couple or looking for a singles scene, Palm Springs and its neighbouring cities offer memorable experiences—from tranquil retreats to clothing-optional resorts.
"The scene really heats up when the weather cools down"
The scene really heats up when the weather cools down in late autumn and winter. Some estimates put the local LGBT population at 40 percent, and in November, the Greater Palm Springs Pride event kicks off the season with an eye-popping parade and block party. It’s among the many signature LGBT gatherings that take place during the year. The party-filled Dinah Shore Weekend/Palm Springs Women’s Weekend (or just “The Dinah”) coincides with the ANA Inspiration LPGA Golf Championship, and is considered the world’s largest lesbian happening. A few weeks later, it’s the guys’ turn, and time for the dancing and pool frolics of the Palm Springs White Party, the area’s biggest gay event.
Back in its glory days, Route 66 began in Chicago and ended along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, a 2,451-mile journey through farmlands, plains, and desert. The highway crossed the Colorado River and entered California, then after a long stretch through the Mojave (where an extensive section can still be driven) reached the Inland Empire.
In Victorville, the California Route 66 Museum tells the story of the iconic Mother Road through rare artifacts—from a vintage neon motel sign to remnants from Hulaville, a former folk art site on the road. You’ll also find historic restaurants along surviving sections of Route 66. Not far from the museum, there’s Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe, home to a famous patty melt. While in San Bernardino, the Mitla Cafe opened in 1937 and still serves such classics its home-style menudo, a traditional Mexican soup. And be sure to keep your eyes open for iconic Route 66 landmarks, especially the tepee-shaped rooms at San Bernardino’s Wigwam Motel.
This manicured complex snugged up against the pink-hued Santa Rosa Mountains is best known for world-class golf . Outstanding courses, designed by legendary players such as Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, and Jack Nicklaus, include the legendary PGA West Golf Club & Resort, Silverrock Resort, and The Quarry at La Quinta, as well as the five championship courses within La Quinta Resort. Tennis anyone? La Quinta is also ranked among the country’s top tennis resorts. It’s great for families and pets too: collections of hacienda-style rooms all center around a series of intimate swimming pools, and the peaceful spa offers (we’re not kidding) canine massages.
The La Quinta area also has great hiking; try the pleasant Cove to Lake Trail (5 miles/8 kilometers round-trip), or, for a strenuous tromp into spectacular desert, follow the 7.5-mile Boo Hoff Trail (be sure to carry plenty of water, and avoid the hottest times of the day). Refuel with farm-to-table dishes prepared by James Beard award–winning chef Jimmy Schmidt at Morgan’s in the Desert, or maybe just snack on a Nutella or fresh strawberry cupcake at Tiffany’s Sweet Spot. For gifts, check out La Quinta Olive Oil Company, or find a vintage bauble at As Time Goes By in La Quinta’s Old Town district.
For an intimate look at the region’s amazing desert environment, plan a visit to one of the palm canyons that lie within Agua Caliente Reservation land. All of the palm canyons—Murray, Andreas, Tahquitz (pronounced “Tah-quits”), Chino, and Palm Canyons—are beautiful, but Palm Canyon is the showstopper. Easily accessed from the end of South Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, this 15-mile/24-km-long canyon is home to the world's largest stand of California Fan Palm trees—more than 3,000 palms in all.
Native Cahuilla (“Kaw-we-ah”) Indians lived in these cool, natural retreats, and Palm Canyon was a favorite resting spot. Hike along Palm Canyon Trail, moving through a serene world punctuated by birdsong the castanet-click sounds made by the palm fronds moving in the wind. Fees are charged to enter the canyons, and some offer guided tours that shed light on Native American life.