Palm Springs was once an exclusive getaway spot for Hollywood celebrities. Marilyn Monroe was discovered poolside at a Palm Springs hotel, and members of the Rat Pack like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were regularly spotted at their Palm Springs hideaways. With palm trees and sunshine as far as the eye can see, it’s no wonder celebrities have turned to the desert for decades when in need of a little rest and relaxation.
While Palm Springs is still a celebrity favorite, the city has transformed into an oasis with a little bit of something for everyone. Art aficionados enjoy the city’s art museums and galleries, while history buffs have ample opportunity to learn about the desert’s roots. There are plenty of hiking trails and outdoor adventures for visitors and locals to enjoy the natural beauty of the desert, too. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the San Jacinto Mountains with access to some of the best views of the Coachella Valley, and Knott’s Soak City is a local favorite for staying cool in the desert. If you’re looking for the best the desert has to offer, here are 10 Palm Springs attractions you won’t want to miss on your next desert getaway.
Discover the outdoors from the open bed of a red jeep on a Desert Adventures tour. The tour company specializes in eco tours of the Coachella Valley, including tours of Joshua Tree National Park, the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, Mecca Hills and the San Andreas Fault Line. Many of the guides have been with the company for years and know the desert's wildlife, environment and history better than most locals. The fault line tours are always a popular choice for visitors, offering a rare glimpse into the heart of the San Andreas Fault. Desert Adventures has exclusive access to parts of the fault line through Metate Ranch, a 840-acre site that includes a recreated Cahuilla village and mining camp. (760-340-2345)
South Palm Canyon Drive transforms into an open-air market every Thursday evening during Village Fest, a weekly street fair in downtown Palm Springs. Vendors set up stalls selling everything from arts and crafts to local produce. If you get hungry, you'll also find plenty of local food vendors offering the likes of juicy tri-tip sandwiches, freshly steamed tamales and stir-fried noodle bowls. While you'll have to pay for the grub, you don't have to pay to stroll through the market, browse local goods or people-watch -- admission is completely free. You'll also find entertainment like musicians, local youth choirs and orchestras, and a popular artist who creates intricate artwork using only spray paint. (760-320-3781)
Cabot's Pueblo Museum
Who needs mass produced homes and traditional building materials? When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he used natural materials and a little ingenuity to build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day. While the structure's architecture is a unique sight to behold, there's more to see at this house museum than Cabot's Hopi-style pueblo. Inside, the museum has rooms filled with Indian artifacts, artwork and memorabilia.
One artifact you shouldn't miss is Waokiye, a 43-foot sculpture of a Native American head. Waokiye is one of 74 heads in the "Trail of the Whispering Giants" collection and the only one left in California. (760-329-7610, 866-941-7610)
Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert
Whether you need a place to set your inner child loose or let your actual children play, the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert has more than 50 hands-on activities to peak your curiosity and keep the entire family entertained for hours. Exhibits are grouped by theme, such as science, physical activities, how things work, exploration and the desert. Through fun activities like an archaeological dig, an interactive station where you can make their own animations and a pretend grocery store ready for roleplaying, children discover themselves, the world around them and the art of self-expression without realizing they're learning. (760-321-0602)
Palm Springs Art Museum
The Palm Springs Art Museum has seen many transformations since its inception in 1938. Originally focused on the desert environment and the native Cahuilla people, PSAM eventually grew to include a wildlife reserve and a botanical garden.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the museum relocated to a Modernist building designed by E. Stewart Williams. As the museum shifted its focus to the arts, the wildlife reserve became a separate entity now known as The Living Desert. More than 24,000 objects and artifacts call PSAM home, including fine art, photography archives and fossils. The museum's onsite performance venue, the Annenberg Theater, hosts various musicals, plays, concerts and other performances throughout the year.
In 2012, the museum opened a second location in neighboring Palm Desert. The building features modern architecture and four exhibit galleries. (760-325-7186)
Knott's Soak City Water Park Palm Springs
With 360 days of sunshine in Palm Springs each year, it's no wonder locals and tourists alike have flocked to Knott's Soak City to beat the heat since 2001. This 16-acre water park is generally open from March through October and offers 20 water attractions, including more than a dozen water slides, a 600-foot lazy river and an 800,000 gallon wave pool, a popular spot for children and adults alike. Plenty of food and drink options are available onsite, including Hodad's, which serves theme park classics like hamburgers and chicken strips, and the All American Dog House, which serves hot dogs, turkey dogs and footlongs. (760-327-0499)
Palm Springs Air Museum
As the deadliest war in history, WWII forever changed the course of American and international history. Today, visitors can view the largest collection of flyable WWII planes in the world at the Palm Springs Air Museum.
Whether or not you're a hardcore military history buff, you won't want to pass up the opportunity to talk with the museum's passionate volunteers. Most of the museum's volunteers served during WWII and are eager to talk about the planes, the war and American history with museum guests. Docents will happily share the stories behind each plane, such as which fighter plane was flown by Ben Affleck's character in "Pearl Harbor."
In addition to its impressive plane collection from planes, the museum also has vintage cars, flight simulators, documentary screenings and an onsite café. (760-778-6262)
Once a community center for the native Cahuilla people, the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons are a recreational oasis for hikers, horseback riders and nature lovers. Protected by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the area's hiking trails include Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon and the popular Palm Canyon. Stop by the Trading Post near the entrance for a trail recommendation, a hiking map and water, if you forgot to bring it.
For a relaxing experience in the canyons, pack a picnic and make a day of exploring Palm Springs in its natural state. Streams, natural palm oases and canyon formations are just a few of the natural wonders awaiting canyon visitors. (760-323-6018, 800-790-3398)
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
There's no better way to view the Coachella Valley than from above. Don't settle for the view from your airplane window, though. For the best views of the desert, take a cable car into the mountains at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. A 12.5 minute ride in the world's largest rotating aerial tramway will offer 360-degree views of the greater Palm Springs area as you climb two-and-a-half miles to Mountain Station in Mount San Jacinto State Park. Once you get to the top of the tram, enjoy a nature walk, a backcountry hike or a meal overlooking the Coachella Valley at Peaks Restaurant. In the winter, swap your hiking gear and pack your scarves and mittens to play in the snow. (760-325-1391, 888-515-8726)
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Ever wonder what a roadrunner and coyote really look like? At The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, you can meet the real life inspiration for these desert-dwelling "Looney Tunes" characters. This Palm Desert zoo focuses on educating visitors about animals from deserts in North America and Africa, including giraffes, warthogs, jaguars and bighorn sheep, to name a few. The Living Desert also has a number of gardens showcasing the various cacti and other plants native to the desert.
Hikers, be sure to bring your gear. The Living Desert has 1,080 acres of undisturbed desert land and a number of nature trails through the preserve are open seasonally to the public. (760-346-5694)
About Marissa Willman
Marissa Willman moved to the Coachella Valley in 2001 and loves discovering the best that the desert has to offer. As a Palm Springs local, Marissa enjoys sharing her knowledge of this desert destination through her travel writing.
In a previous life, she worked as an English teacher in South Korea and spent months traveling throughout Asia. Today, Marissa prefers to explore her backyard in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, while occasionally jetsetting as her wanderlust strikes.
Read more about Marissa Willman here.
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