Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument provides the picturesque background for the Coachella Valley. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains line the desert, and in the winter months, these peaks are snowcapped for the ultimate photo opportunity. These mountains are more than just something to look at, though. Trails abound along the desert to let you explore the monument firsthand. Some trailheads, like those atop the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, require a fee to access, but most are free to explore. You can try a short trail like the 2.4-mile Randall Henderson Trail at the visitor's center or try a more strenuous hike like the Bear Creek Oasis Trail at the top of the La Quinta cove.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Monument spans the Coachella Valley and includes dozens of free hiking trails.
Local Expert tip: Try the popular Bump and Grind trail in Palm Desert for a cardio workout with expansive views of the east end of the valley.
Joshua Tree National Park is about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, but it feels like a world away. Filled with hiking trails, scenic vistas and larger-than-life rock formations, Joshua Tree is the perfect destination for those looking to get back to nature. The alien-like boulders and twisted joshua trees make for popular photo ops, whether you decide to hike the trails or drive through the park. The preserve is actually the result of two great deserts, the low Colorado and the high Mojave, which come together at Joshua Tree to create a 794,000-acre geological and floral wonderland. A Visitor's Center, art gallery, and cafe-deli welcome you at the park's entrance. Admission is free on select days throughout the year, per the National Park Service.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Joshua Tree National Park is a vast reserve with hiking trails, rock climbing and camping. Admission is free several times throughout the year.
Local Expert tip: Don't miss a stop at Keys View, which offers panoramic views of the Coachella Valley and beyond. On a clear day, it's said you can see all the way into Mexico.
With more than 25 miles of hiking trails, the Coachella Valley Preserve is a hiker's paradise. The area is ripe with natural oases and lush vegetation due to the San Andreas Fault, which produces seismic activity that feeds underground springs. The trails range from short and easy to long and strenuous, offering a hike for all skill levels. Don't be surprised if you end up sharing the trail with a horse--some hiking trails are also open for horseback riding. The visitor's center is located in the middle of an oasis at the McCallum trailhead and showcases various artifacts. The trails are free for the public to access.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Coachella Valley Preserve is a pristine and protected area that offers free hiking trails through the desert and various palm oases.
Local Expert tip: For a deeper understanding of the desert's ecology, opt for a guided hike along McCallum Trail with one of the preserve's naturalists (a small donation is recommended).
Long before Palm Springs became a playground for Old Hollywood's stars, the Coachella Valley was home to the Cahuilla Indians. Today, the history of the Cahuilla people is preserved and showcased at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in downtown Palm Springs. This fascinating museum traces the history of the Agua Caliente Indians from prehistoric times to the present, displaying everything from unearthed artifacts to photographs. The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum also present exhibits throughout the year at the Spa Resort Casino and Palm Springs City Hall. The museum is located in downtown Palm Springs on South Palm Canyon Drive and is open to the public free of charge.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum presents the history of the native Cahuilla people through artifacts, photographs and other exhibits, all free to browse.
Local Expert tip: You can also visit the McCallum Adobe next door (admission is a $1 donation) for an afternoon of affordable history.
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.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: VillageFest is a free weekly street fair that showcases Palm Springs through an evening of arts, crafts, food and entertainment under the desert night sky.
Local Expert tip: Most of the businesses lining South Palm Canyon Drive stay open late during VillageFest, so you can also browse the stores for clothing, souvenirs and the like.
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, the museum is now dedicated to both the region's indigenous culture and contemporary art, having hosted exhibits by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Dale Chihuly. Palm Springs' modern flair is encapsulated in PSAM's building, which is a Modernist structure designed by E. Stewart Williams. On Thursday afternoons and the second Sunday of each month, you can browse the 24,000+ pieces of fine art and fossils that call PSAM home for free. The museum's onsite performance venue, the Annenberg Theater, hosts a free summer film series in the summer. In 2012, the museum opened a second location in Palm Desert with four exhibit galleries and the same free admission schedule.
A stroll through downtown Palm Springs is a must for any trip to the desert. The downtown area is filled with boutique clothing stores, art galleries, public art and all things modern. You can spend a day window shopping at the designer boutiques on Palm Canyon Drive or browsing the antique treasures at the thrift stores and antique shops downtown. As you walk past the shops, you'll find plenty of pieces of public art, including sculptures of Sonny Bono, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and Cahuilla Indians. Downtown Palm Springs is one of the best places to soak up the Palm Springs vibe, and on Thursdays, you can also enjoy the open-air street market that overtakes the main street.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Downtown Palm Springs captures the essence of the desert with unique shops, modern architecture and one of the most energetic vibes in the desert.
Local Expert tip: Look down to catch the stars, the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, that is. Dozens of celebrities with Palm Springs ties have been immortalized with their own star.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, the College of the Desert parking lot transforms into the desert's largest street fair. Hundreds of vendors set up makeshift shops at this sprawling outdoor market, but you don't need to spend any money to enjoy the market. Admission is free, and free entertainment can be found in the food court on most weekends. Many local artists also take advantage of the street fair to showcase their paintings, photographs and sculptures. You can easily spend a few hours wandering the aisles of the COD Street Fair, browsing handcrafted goods, local produce and home decor.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The COD Street Fair is free to visit and offers everything from accessories and clothing to fresh produce and art.
Local Expert tip: A free shuttle is available to whisk you between the parking lots and the street fair entrance.
Charming, retro and uniquely Palm Springs are three ways to describe the Uptown Design District, and if you're a modernism fan in any sense, you won't want to miss the chance to stroll through this retro district. This stretch of Palm Canyon Drive celebrates the modern designs, art and fashion that have come to define Palm Springs. Here, you can celebrate an artistic fusion of mid-century design and modern vision. After taking a look at the antiques and designer dresses waiting for you at Uptown's boutiques, you can get your fill of modern art at the numerous galleries lining this district.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Uptown Palm Springs is known as the design district and is filled with vintage and mid-century modern boutiques that can be browsed for free.
Local Expert tip: Don't miss a chance to browse the latest trends at the Trina Turk Palm Springs Boutique. This desert designer has created lines for the likes of Banana Republic, and her modern designs are synonymous with Palm Springs.
The Backstreet Art District in Palm Springs is a haven for local artists to create sculptures, photography, jewelry, paintings and more. If you enjoy local art, don't miss a chance to drop into the dozens of studios in this art district. You'll be able to browse galleries of contemporary art, watch artists create new sculptures in their studios and meet some of the desert's most notable artists. Exhibits are updated and rotated regularly, which means you'll always be able to appreciate new works at the Backstreet Art District. Free art walks also occur each month, offering tours of these intimate studios and the artists at work.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The BackStreet Art District is filled with galleries by local artists, where you can browse local paintings, sculptures and jewelry for free.
Local Expert tip: Visit on the first Wednesday every month to take part in the monthly art walk. You'll tour the local studios, enjoy the newest collections and see the artists at work.