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3 Amazing Ways to Explore Greater Palm Springs

A string of desert towns offers surprisingly diverse hiking, culture, and architecture

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Posted 6 days agoby Ann Marie Brown

Drive 100 miles east of Los Angeles and you'll find warm winter weather, sparkling swimming pools, and swaying palm trees. But in the Greater Palm Springs region, those highlights are just a warmup—there's much more to explore under the desert's sun-kissed skies.

On the latest California Now Podcast, three Palm Springs experts discuss the Coachella Valley's vast charms: nature preserves laced with hiking trails, a vibrant cultural scene that includes outdoor art and superb dining, and stunning mid-century modern architecture.

Nature Lover's Paradise

Hiking guide Jason Bruecks from Distance to Be Traveled shares his tips on exploring the region's diverse ecosystem. "The uniqueness of Palm Springs is that it's not only in the low desert, which has its own flora and fauna, but we have this incredible mountain, San Jacinto, that rises 10,000 feet above the desert floor," he says.

One of Bruecks' favorite hiking destinations is Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour east of Palm Springs. "It's an extraordinary park—as large as Rhode Island," he says. "There's something amazing about Joshua trees, how they just reach up to the sky. They belong in a Dr. Seuss book. Maybe because of that, it draws out a little bit of our childhood interest."

For visitors who don't want to stray far from the hotel pool, Bruecks recommends the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, owned by the Agua Caliente tribe.

"For a minimal fee, you can travel into approximately four different canyons," he says. "One has an extraordinarily beautiful waterfall, and the other three are filled with Washingtonia filifera palms, which are these beautiful palm trees. It's a true oasis."

Arts and Culture Hub

Steven Biller, Palm Springs Life magazine's editor-in-chief, says the region's natural beauty pairs well with outdoor art. "The entire Coachella Valley is an art landscape. People say, 'Oh, it's just this blank empty desert.' And it's really not. It's incredibly vibrant," he says.

One of the region's most famous art events is the biennial Desert X, "an invitational exhibition with artists coming from around the world." Biller describes notable works from previous events, including Doug Aitken's Mirage from 2017's Desert X. The installation—a ranch house built of mirrors that reflected its boulder-strewn surroundings—became "one of the most Instagrammed artworks ever," he says.

The next Desert X will take place at outdoor locations throughout the Coachella Valley from February 6 until April 11, 2021.

At any time of year, Biller recommends that art fans visit the murals in downtown Coachella. "It's a historical downtown and there are 14 colorful, large-scale murals, all situated within a few short blocks. They honor the life and struggles of the local population there, largely Mexican immigrant farm workers," he says.

Biller says another reason to visit Coachella is to sample the street tacos from Jalisco Restaurant. Some of his other favorite regional meals include peppers stuffed with shrimp at Indio's El Mexicali Cafe, French crêpes at Palm Springs' Farm, and sushi and whiskey pairings at Sandfish.

And since Greater Palm Springs' weather is so mild, dining al fresco is the norm. "The outdoor experience is very much part of the culture here," Biller says.

Mid-Century Modern Mecca

Also on the podcast, tour guide Kurt Cyr discusses the abundance of mid-century modern architecture in the desert. Cyr's company, Palm Springs Mod Squad, offers driving tours that show off these smartly styled retro buildings.

"We have a very specific type of mid-century architecture here in Palm Springs, called desert modernism," Cyr says. "There are four elements that really comprise the architectural style, and all of these have to do with sun protection and heat protection."

Desert modern architecture was especially popular among Hollywood celebrities of the 1950s and 1960s, who built winter vacation homes in Palm Springs. "People were more willing to experiment with new technologies and architecture in a place they only lived a few months out of the year," Cyr says. "The idea of merging the indoors and the outdoors was a really important aspect of it."

He says that many visitors are surprised to see how small mid-century modern homes are, even those built for 1950s Hollywood celebrities. "There was a whole different concept of space in the mid-century period," Cyr says. "Dinah Shore's first home was 1,500 square feet or so."

Cyr's "Interior Tour" goes inside three residences that were built by well-known mid-century architects. "These are not museums, they are private homes," he says. "You really get a sense of how relevant the architecture is today for modern life. It's not just this vintage mode—it's very easy to live in these homes."

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