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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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