Best Parks in Palm Springs

Outdoors in Palm Springs: Best Parks and Attractions to Enjoy Outside

If the thought of visiting a hyped up, crowded tourist attraction makes you cringe with anxiety, this list of parks and attractions will help you plan an enjoyable trip to Palm Springs. The desert is filled with museums and landmarks that draw throngs of visitors, but there are also a number of parks and attractions that focus on a slower way of doing things.

To the north of Palm Springs, you'll find Joshua Tree National Park, which boasts two different deserts, larger than life rock formations and, of course, fields of joshua trees. You can spend a day hiking, rock climbing or sightseeing, and for unmatched views of the night sky, you can even camp overnight. If you're looking for a cooler escape, Mount San Jacinto State Park at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers nature walks and hiking trails that stretch as far as Idyllwild.

If you'd rather explore the desert with a guide, Desert Adventures offers several jeep tours to Joshua Tree National Park and the San Andreas fault. And for an afternoon stroll in a garden setting, don't miss the Sunnylands Center and Gardens, which recently opened in Rancho Mirage, or Moorten Botanical Gardens in Palm Springs.


At this gorgeous labor of love just off of Palm Canyon Drive, more than 3000 varieties of desert plants can be viewed and marveled at, including prickly pears, agaves, and cacti. In addition, visitors can check out Indian artifacts and rock, crystal, and wood forms. Moorten Botanical Garden was established in 1938 by Patricia and Chester "Cactus Slim" Moorten, a biologist, and contortionist, respectively, and remains a family-owned and operated botanical garden. The intimate garden also features a nursery that sells plants similar to those featured throughout, so you can pick up a souvenir to remember your Palm Springs vacation.

Recommended for Parks because: Moorten Botanical Garden is an impressive collection of more than 3,000 desert plants, including cacti and agaves.

Marissa's expert tip: Be sure to make a put stop in the open garden area for a beautiful photo opportunity.

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Sparkling springs set amid 20,000 acres of lush greenery provide a haven for a myriad desert creatures, just five miles outside of Palm Springs. In the center is a 1000-acre, idyllic palm oasis that served as the backdrop for Cecil De Mille's epic film, King of Kings. Self-guided nature trails, horse trails, and picnic facilities are available. You can also opt for a guided tour along McCallum Trail, one of the flattest and easiest trails in the preserve. Experienced hikers may want to try their hand at the Herman's Hike Loop, Pushwalla Trail or Hidden Palms Trail, some of the more difficult trails at the Coachella Valley Preserve.

Recommended for Parks because: The Coachella Valley Preserve is 20,000 acres of palm oases and pristine desert wilderness, just outside of the Palm Springs.

Marissa's expert tip: Opt for a guided hike along McCallum Trail with one of the preserve's naturalists for a deeper understanding of the desert's ecology.

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If you're an outdoorsy type, you'll be delighted by this high-altitude park's 54 miles of hiking trails, camping and picnic areas, and guided wilderness mule rides during snow-free months. Nestled between the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the mountain town of Idyllwild, this state park often sees snow in the winter, making it a surprising escape just above the desert. Cross-country ski equipment rentals can be arranged during the winter months, though many just like to build snowmen or have a snowball fight. The state park is only accessible by hiking or by taking the Palm Springs Tramway. Permits are required for overnight camping.

Recommended for Parks because: Mount San Jacinto State Park offers 54 miles of natural recreation, including campgrounds and hiking trails.

Marissa's expert tip: If you're a hiker, you can enjoy a 10-mile trek from Idyllwild to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you'll pass sights like Tahquitz Peak.

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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.

Recommended for Parks because: The Indian Canyons are protected by the Agua Caliente Indians and offer a glimpse into the natural history of the desert.

Marissa's expert tip: Opt for a guided hike. While visitors are welcome to explore the trails on their own, a guided hike with a park ranger offers trailblazers a much richer experience. Not only will your guide be able to teach you about the plants and wildlife found in the canyons, but rangers also share the folk tales and lore of the native Cahuilla people who once inhabited the land.

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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.

Recommended for Parks because: Knott's Soak City Water Park offers 16 acres of aquatic fun for the entire family.

Marissa's expert tip: Bringing the family? Grab a few lounge chairs near the wave pool or rent a private cabana for the day. Looking for a more adult pool party? Head to the Big Island Yacht Club, a special poolside section serving alcoholic drinks for guests 21 and older.

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Sunnylands is a historic, 200-acre estate in Rancho Mirage. Once the winter home of Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg, this A Quincy Jones-designed estate has hosted a number of high-powered retreats for politics, education and the arts. In fact, Sunnylands is nicknamed the "Camp David of the West." In 2012, the estate opened to the public, allowing visitors to tour the historic estate and see where high-level political meetings occur. Tickets to the estate are limited, and tours are only available when retreats are not in session. Even if you can't visit the Sunnylands Estate on your trip, you can always visit the Sunnylands Center and Garden, an educational center open to visitors year-round. Here, you can check out educational kiosks and films, as well as selected pieces from the Sunnylands art collection.

Recommended for Parks because: Sunnylands, also called "Camp David of the West," was recently opened to the public and offers a garden that can be visited all year long.

Marissa's expert tip: The Sunnylands Center and Garden is open year-round, but if you want to see the estate, you'll need tickets. Tickets are released online on the 1st and 15th of each month for tours during the following two weeks.

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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.

Recommended for Parks because: Desert Adventures offers guided jeep tours into the desert's natural wonders, including Joshua Tree and the San Andreas Fault.

Marissa's expert tip: For a little variety, opt for one of Desert Adventure's night tours. As the sun sets, you'll be treated to a tour of a natural palm oasis and the fault's slotted canyons. After dark, your tour guide will lead you through a stargazing session at Metate Ranch's recreated mining town.

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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.

Recommended for Parks because: The Living Desert is exhibits wildlife and plant life from deserts around the world, including mountain lions, bobcats and giraffes.

Marissa's expert tip: Arrive early in the day, if possible. Not only will temperatures be cooler and the wildlife more active, but you can also watch animals undergo annual exams and surgery at the Marilyn and Bill Tennity Wildlife Hospital and Conservation Center.

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Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Recommended for Parks because: Joshua Tree National Park is a 794,000-acre preserve just 45 minutes outside of Palm Springs.

Marissa's expert tip: Bring plenty of food and water. Desert temperatures can lead to dehydration.

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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.

Recommended for Parks because: The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks visitors to Mount San Jacinto State Park on the world's largest rotating tram.

Marissa's expert tip: Plan your trip to the tramway in the afternoon, if possible. You'll escape to cooler temperatures during the hottest time of the day and catch the best evening views of the desert from the top of the tram.

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Meet 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...  More About Marissa