Palm Springs and California desert area is nothing if not unique. Palm Springs has had a long association with the rich and famous of Hollywood and continues to prove as a great escape from the hustle and bustle of more metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles. Its neighboring areas are equally as unique and quirky and are definitely worth paying a visit if you’re in the desert area. If you can manage to tear yourself away from sunbathing by the pool for a day or two, you’ll find a world of eccentric art, spectacular hiking trails, and unique architecture in the deserts of Southern California. This round-up of things to do and what to see are centralized in the Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Joshua Tree areas.
There’s so much to see and do in Palm Springs and the surrounding desert area, so it’ll definitely be tough to pack everything into a weekend trip. All of the picks below, broken out by city/region, are great choices for your first few visits to the area. So read up and take notes on how to best experience the Southern California desert life!
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DOWNTOWN PALM SPRINGS
It’s got everything you could ask for of a downtown area– from fine dining and casual eateries to upscale shopping and small boutique shops, it’s all available here! Allocate at least two hours to stroll around and explore the whole downtown area. Aim to start in the heart of the area, Palm Canyon Drive, where you’ll find the majority of clothing shops, art galleries, restaurants, candy stores and much more. If you have more time, check out the Uptown area, also located on Palm Canyon Drive, where you’ll find some additional boutiques and eateries.
PALM SPRINGS VILLAGEFEST
If you’re in town on a Thursday evening, be sure to check out the Palm Springs VillageFest event. This is essentially Palm Springs’ lively weekly street fair, which boasts over 180 vendors and is visited by many locals and tourists alike. VillageFest is a super fun event filled with great food vendors, live entertainment, artisanal shopping booths, and handmade crafts. It is located on Palm Canyon Drive, between Indian Canyon Drive and Belardo Road.
Note: Check their website for the most up-to-date info.
PALM SPRINGS AERIAL TRAMWAY
There is no better way to experience the picturesque desert terrain than with a bird’s eye view of Palm Springs’ natural scenery. This aerial tramway transports visitors up Chino Canyon in the world’s largest rotating tramcar. The 10-minute ride takes you over 2.5 miles along Chino Canyon in Mt. San Jacinto State Park, giving you great views of the mountains, vistas, and the wilderness below. During your journey, the tram cars will rotate slowly, giving you surreal 360 views of the area. Once you reach the Mountain Station at an elevation of 8,516 feet, you can enjoy two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, and over 50 miles of hiking trails. There are ‘ride and dine’ packages that allow you to enjoy a meal at the canyon’s summit.
PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM
Stop by downtown Palm Springs to visit the local art museum. There are great collections of work by western, contemporary, and glass artists as well as rotating exhibitions from internationally acclaimed artists. Besides enjoying the art, they also run art classes and workshops for kids and adults. It also offers a range of theatrical and musical performances in its Annenberg Theater.
Local Tip: The museum is free every Thursday from 4-8PM and every second Sunday. Why not pair it with your Thursday night at Palm Springs Village Fest?
PALM SPRINGS AIR MUSEUM
This top-rated, world-renowned museum gives visitors an up-close look at the legendary fighters and bombers of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. If you’re a history buff, make sure to stop by the Palm Springs Air Museum. It has one of the world’s largest collections of WWII planes, as well as aircrafts from the Korean and Vietnam wars. No joke, these planes look super cool! There are three exhibit hangars, a gift shop, theater, and an education center.
PALM SPRINGS ARCHITECTURE TOUR
Palm Springs’ biggest selling point is its iconic mid-century modern architecture by various famous architects. Take a self-guided drive through the city to see the landmarks or take a guided architecture tour of Palm Springs.
RENT A BIKE AND EXPLORE
As mentioned above, Palm Springs is known for its colorful neighborhoods full of bright architecture, so what better way to see it all than with a bike tour? If driving around is not your thing, I highly recommend renting bikes from a local bike rental company and spending a few hours cruising around the city checking out the historic houses. Don’t know where to go? Check out Trip Savvy’s self-guided tour.
AGUA CALIENTE CASINO
Looking for some Las Vegas-like activities? Look no further than the Palm Springs area! From slot machines and table games to live entertainment and shows, each casino property promises entertainment beyond gambling. If you’re looking for buffets or fine dining (such as steakhouses), casinos can be a good option. Agua Caliente is located in downtown Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City. Other great casino options exist, such as Morongo Casino Resort & Spa and Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.
Local Tip: Some casinos have midweek specials and even Sunday specials. One of the casinos I visited offered free play credit just for dining in their steakhouse. Check out the casino websites for promotions before picking the one to visit and see if you can take advantage of some deals!
RUDDY’S GENERAL STORE MUSEUM
Blast from the past alert! Jim Ruddy’s General Store Museum takes you back in time to the good ol’ 1930’s. The museum showcases pristine products from the ’30s in their original boxes and tins. Among the 6,000-plus items to be found here include groceries, tobacco, hardware, clothing, medicines, biscuits, beauty aids and soaps.
Note: It’s only $1 to get in! Also note the museum is open from September to May, which coincides with the cooler months of the year in Palm Springs.
BACKSTREET ART DISTRICT
Stroll through a dozen artist-owned galleries and studios at the Arts District and be sure to check out the art walks, held the first Wednesday of every month from 6-9p.m. They have an amazing assortment of original art for all tastes and budgets – paintings, ceramics, photography, mixed media, jewelry, lithography and more.
ANTIQUE GALLERIES OF PALM SPRINGS
Around Palm Springs’ bustling arts district, you’ll find Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. If you’re into vintage/antique pieces or whimsical art and furniture pieces, this is the place for you. There is a vast collection of art and vintage stuff here, including appliances, film projectors, retro signs and furniture, pinball machines, fine china. The venue is divided into separate spaces, each curated by different artists and antique sellers from the area. This is unquestionably one of the city’s most unique retail venues– you never know what you’ll find.
MOORTEN BOTANICAL GARDEN
Moorten’s is a botanical garden that’s like no other. This is a desert garden, “cactarium”, and nursery all in one, comprising of thousands of beautiful succulents and desert plants. For a small entry fee, you can enjoy a part of your day strolling through this desert botanical garden and its scenic nature trails, which houses roughly 3000 cacti from the USA, Latin America, and Africa. The garden also houses several desert tortoises so come catch a glimpse up close!
COVERED WAGON ADVENTURE AND BBQ
Where else can you take a wagon tour pulled by mules into the desert outback of California? Nowhere but here in the desert! This is such a unique desert tour, mixing both western charm as well as showcasing the natural flora and fauna of the Colorado Sonoran Desert. On this tour, you’ll take a nature walk with your naturalist guide. Upon completion, there will be a live old-time western performance, easy barn dance (optional), corn-hole and horseshoes, and a chuck-wagon style BBQ. Finally, enjoy the sunset, a campfire, and the bright stars in the sky!
CRUISE THE CERTIFIED FARMERS MARKET
Start your morning with a stroll among fruits, vegetables, and baked goods! Discover the freshest and best locally grown produce every Saturday from 8:00am to 12:30pm adjacent to the Camelot Theatres on 401 S. Pavilion Way in the summer and 2300 E. Baristo Road Oct – June.
CELEBRITY HOME GRAND TOUR
Historically, Palm Springs has been known as one of California’s most exclusive destinations. Naturally so, many celebrities have taken residence here, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Leonardo DiCaprio. What better way to learn about this pop culture history than on a grand tour of Palm Springs celebrity homes? Palm Springs homes are very accessible, so the bus can actually drive right up to the front door (unlike celebrity tours in LA). The tour doesn’t follow the exact route each time, so there’s some variety in the homes you may see, and the guide even takes requests. Book the Palm Springs Celebrity 2.5-Hour Grand Tour here.
The kitschy art installation known as Robolights is the work of Kenny Irwin Jr. who created the Christmas-themed light show 30 years ago at his home. Since then, it has grown into a prominent year-round tourist attraction, now located at an outdoor sculpture park in Palm Spring’s Movie Colony East neighborhood. Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind attraction featuring towering robots and millions of lights, all constructed from discarded electronics.
SAN GORGONIO PASS WINDFARM
Ever seen the stretch of land covered in thousands of windmills? Yep, that’s The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, located in one of the windiest parts of California. Why are they here, you might wonder? Well, the turbines produce enough electricity to power all of the Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley and you’ll see them as you drive around the region. With a 2-hour farm tour, visitors can get an up-close look at how these windmills work as well as learn about the history of the renewable energy industry.
FAN PALM OASIS
You can’t think of California without also thinking about palm trees. They are literally everywhere in the Palm Springs area. But the best place to see the Desert Fan Palm, the largest native palm in the United States, is at Palm Canyon–the world’s largest Fan Palm oasis. In this 15-mile long section of Indian Canyons, you will find an abundance of Fan Palms. This place is gorgeous and it’s such a sight to see. (I mean, you’re in the desert, so you’d expect to see nothing but dust and dirt, right? Wrong!) Among the sea of green trees surrounding you, you can picnic near the stream, take a hike on the trails, and learn more about the sacredness of this area to the Cahuilla Indians. The canyons are fantastic for exploring on foot or on a horseback. Before or after your visit, head to the Trading Post in Palm Canyon for maps, food, drinks, and Indian crafts.
COACHELLA VALLEY PRESERVE
Located in Thousand Palms east of Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley Preserve is a protected area filled with great hiking trails. Formed by a system of sand dunes, this 20,000-acre sanctuary is home to several species of rare wildlife and a number of palm oases. Even during peak hotness from June to September, the beautiful palm trees offer a canopy of shade. In addition to hiking trails, there are also horseback riding trails. Guided hikes are available from October to March.
EL PASEO SHOPPING DISTRICT
Known for being the Rodeo Drive (Beverly Hills) of the desert, El Paseo Shopping District is the desert’s luxury shopping hotspot. This shopping district is comprised of The Shops on El Paseo and The Gardens on El Paseo. Together, these shopping centers house a vast selection of locally-owned boutiques, high-end shops, and luxury brands. If this is your cup of tea, enjoy the day shopping as well as enjoying various eateries and exploring unique art galleries all on the same street.
THE LIVING DESERT ZOO AND GARDENS
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert is a family-friendly zoo specializing in the deserts of the world. You can feed giraffes, pet goats, and see a variety of animals such as mountain lions, zebras, leopards, hyenas, and cheetahs roaming in their natural habitat (as opposed to caged up). If you don’t have time to visit the actual desert surrounding Palm Springs, then a trip to this zoo and botanical garden is the next best thing in getting your desert experience. During your time here, you can expect to experience live animal encounter shows, peaceful gardens, various hiking trails, and tram rides. They also have private safari tours!
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree is like a playground for people of all ages. Aside from hiking, make sure you carve out some time to rock scramble and walk around the Cholla Cactus Garden. And if you get the chance to camp at Joshua Tree for the weekend, I say do it! One of the best times to be in the park is at sunset when the mountains and desert plants are silhouetted against the most impressive glowing sky. There really is nothing like desert sunsets. Another perk of being at the park late? The incredible stargazing that you can do.
Tip: Palm Springs can also be a great base for exploring Joshua Tree, especially if you’re looking for higher-end accommodations. It’s less than an hour’s drive from either the South or West entrance.
Local Tip: Parking at the park is $30. Instead of paying this one-time fee, pick up the annual National Park pass (American the Beautiful Pass, $80) to save money on all your National Park and National Monument visits for a year.
NOAH PURIFOY’S OUTDOOR DESERT ART MUSEUM
The Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is a powerful collection of outdoor art installations that you can explore in a self-guided manner. Noah Purifoy was an African-American visual artist and sculptor who lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree. He’s best known for creating art pieces out of junk and debris. This sculpture garden holds his largest installations, where you’ll find environmental sculptures made of TVs, toilets, jeans, and bicycle wheels. The fact that they are aged by desert weather makes them even more profound.
PAPPY AND HARRIET’S PIONEERTOWN PALACE
Pappy & Harriet’s sits at the edge of a dusty “town” that was originally constructed to be an Old West movie set. Despite its original purpose, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has been drawing in locals and travelers alike since 1982. If you choose to make a stop here, you’ll be delighted by mesquite BBQ bites, live music, dancing, and super friendly service. (Artists as famous as Paul McCartney have played on its stage, and it’s ranked as one of the best concert venues in the U.S.)
WORLD FAMOUS CROCHET MUSEUM
This tiny little exhibit is loaded with cuteness and is one of my favorite places to stop by every time I’m in the Joshua Tree area. The World Famous Crochet Museum is a small green trailer that opens up occasionally. If you’re lucky enough to get a view from the inside, you’ll find about every object or animal you can think of, represented in crochet form. It’s free and open 24 hours.
BEAUTY BUBBLE SALON AND MUSEUM
Joshua Tree loves its quirky art, so definitely take some time to look around– or get your hair done. This museum holds an assortment of retro beauty tools and is located right next to the crochet museum.
THE INTEGRATON SOUND BATH
Basically, this is a huge dome used for sound baths. This is 60-minute experience is perfect for those who seek deep relaxation, rejuvenation, and introspection. The sound baths consists of 25 minutes of crystal bowls played live and the balance of the hour to integrate the sound and relax in the sound chamber to recorded music. You can choose private or public sound baths, but book early since reservations fill up months in advance.
Fun Fact: The aeronautical engineer who built this dome claimed to have come up with the idea after encountering a UFO from Venus in the desert. “At the aliens’ request, he used no metal—only wood and fiberglass.”
The Cabazon Dinosaurs are iconic roadside attractions in Southern California, perfect for the kids. There are two massive dinosaurs in plain view named Dinny the Dinosaur and Mr. Rex. Once you’re in the parking lot, you’ll find a dinosaur-themed gift shop and a dinosaur exhibit. You can even climb up Mr. Rex all the way to his mouth. There is an admission cost, but snapping a picture or two with Dinny the Dinosaur and Mr. Rex from the outside are free.
DESERT HILLS PREMIUM OUTLETS
What’s would the desert be without premium outlet shopping? This is the perfect place to stop before embarking on your drive home from your Palm Springs vacation. They’ve got all the staples, including Gucci, Burberry, Under Armor, Lululemon, Adidas, Michael Kors & more. You can even grab a pretty satisfying lunch here as they have a wide variety of dining options (way better than I expected for the outlets).
HADLEY FRUIT ORCHARDS
Home of the world-famous date shake! Yes, a date shake might sound odd, but trust me, this was absolutely delightful. Especially on all-too-common hot days in the desert. The dried dates are chopped into tiny pieces and swirled throughout the shake, giving the ice cream beverage a lightly sweet flavor. This large market also sells a wide variety of date products, jams, nuts, candies, and hot sauces– all of which make great gifts/souvenirs to bring home. Hadley’s is right next to Desert Hills Premium Outlets, so you can end your shopping trip with a creamy treat!
Fun Fact: One of the region’s main crops is the date. Dates were brought to this area from Africa and the Middle East in the 1800’s. Given the similar terrains, they grow just as well here as they do there!
OTHER SURROUNDING AREAS
INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM
Wow. What a dream for a banana lover like myself. This is an off-the-beaten-path attraction if I’ve ever seen one. Try all sorts of banana-flavored treats—banana ice cream, smoothies, milkshakes and chocolate covers bananas. Also, you can browse the vast collection of banana plush toys, mugs, clothing, key chains, and other quirky gifts. The Banana Museum is located in the town of Mecca about 40 miles outside Palm Springs.
Note: The Banana Museum has very limited hours – open 1 to 5pm a few days per week– so call ahead and check out their website before visiting for official hours.
WILDFLOWERS AND SUPER BLOOM (SPRING)
Historically, California has seen some amazing super bloom years. Ample rain is needed each winter, especially in January and February, in order for the plants to create a super bloom. Aside from the obvious Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, some of the best flower sightings can be found in Coachella Valley, specifically Cathedral City. Wildflowers typically emerge in the California desert in late January and last until mid-May, so here are the first places in the desert to look for the blooms: the south-facing Edom Hill, near the intersection of Date Palm Drive and Varner Road in Cathedral City, along Interstate 10 throughout the Coachella Valley, and near the south entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
This one’s a bit of a drive to get to, but if you’re in search of folk art and expansive art installations, Salvation Mountain is for you. About a 90-minute drive from Palm Springs, Salvation Mountain is a brightly painted heap of clay mountain decorated with bible inscriptions, created as a monument to love and God. There are other peripheral structures made of telephone poles, tires, and car windows, as well as art cars.