Palm Springs Travel Guide

Overview

California's greater Palm Springs area, which is made up of nine desert cities, is like a giant sandbox where adults play their favorite games—the most popular being golf—while worshipping the sun. Palm Springs itself is the most well known of the adjacent communities in the Coachella Valley, though all offer a similar type of vacation experience with good food, relaxing places to stay, pampering spas and plenty of opportunities to be outside.

The area is a must visit for lovers of midcentury modern architecture, as many of the genre's heavy hitters designed homes or businesses here that are still standing and in great shape. It has also long been known as a safe and friendly space for LGBTQ vacationers. Most visitors stay in trendy boutique hotels or country club-type resorts that have transformed the desert into a hip place to hang out and a lush semitropical paradise (and almost a natural one, in this case, because the entire Coachella Valley sits atop a large underground lake).

Many Palm Springs resorts offer golf courses and tennis courts, as well as lavish spas, sparkling swimming pools and fabulous places to drink and dine. A few even have horseback riding and hiking trails. Several also have casinos attached for those who want to add gambling to their itinerary.

Palm Springs has long been associated with Hollywood celebrities who lived or played there during Hollywood's Golden Age, which is why the streets have such names as Bob Hope Drive and Gene Autry Trail. With the introduction of the town's film festival and a couple of giant music festivals (Coachella and Stagecoach), young stars are now discovering what Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe made such as fuss about.

Despite the glitz and glitter of its famous residents and the wealth that is very much on display, the area can also be affordable as a family destination, especially if you're willing to brave the summer's triple-digit heatwaves. But reasonably priced accommodations can be found year-round, and lodging prices drop considerably in the summer months. Although temperatures in excess of 100 F/38 C may not sound appealing, heavy-duty air-conditioning, numerous pools and the city's oasislike atmosphere make them bearable.

Geography

Palm Springs lies at the western edge of the Coachella Valley, 110 mi/177 km southeast of Los Angeles. The valley extends for approximately 45 mi/72 km along a northwest-southeast axis between the San Jacinto Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains on the west and the Little San Bernardino Mountains on the east. Palm Springs sits at the base of Mount San Jacinto (10,834 ft/3,359 m), towering over the city on its north side.

The mountain (snow-capped in winter) is incised by deep canyons where native fan palms are fed by natural springs. The San Andreas Fault runs along the base of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, which merge north with the San Jacinto Mountains. Access to the valley is via the San Gorgonio Pass. Palm Springs is at 450 ft/140 m elevation, but the valley slopes gradually east to the Salton Sea, 227 ft/70 m below sea level. Interstate 10 runs through the center of the valley, connecting Los Angeles with Phoenix, Arizona.

The term "Palm Springs" is often used to encompass nine desert resort communities—Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Coachella and Indio—that occupy the Coachella Valley. With the exception of Desert Hot Springs, which lies on the east side of the valley, the cities are located between Interstate 10 and Highway 111, the valley's commercial thoroughfare, which snakes along the foot of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. The cities are laid out in a checkerboard grid of north-south and east-west boulevards.

Within Palm Springs, Highway 111 becomes Palm Canyon Drive. This 2-mi-/3-km-long main drag is lined with the principal shops, restaurants, hotels and bars. Immediately west of Palm Canyon, the upscale residential districts (north to south) of Las Palmas, the Tennis Club District and Little Tuscany comprise a warren of little-trafficked streets lined with upscale homes of the rich and famous.

History

The Palm Springs region was first settled about 2,000 years ago by Native American communities who made good use of the natural hot springs at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. When prospectors arrived in the mid-19th century, they found a highly evolved society—the Agua Caliente (Hot Water) Band of Cahuilla Indians.

In 1876, the U.S. government deeded 32,000 acres/12,950 hectares in trust to the Cahuillas, and an equal amount to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which put a track through the land in 1877. Soon enough, visitors began arriving for the curative powers of the thermal springs. In 1884, settler "Judge" John Guthrie McCallum built the first permanent homestead, general store and a sophisticated aqueduct. By 1886, the first hotel was built.

In the 1920s, the arrival of stars and starlets launched Palm Springs from a sleepy desert outpost into a hedonistic retreat. The town boomed because of a studio rule that dictated movie stars under contract had to stay within a two hour drive of their respective lots. Movie directors used the area as a backdrop for their films, such as The Sheik (1921) and The Foreign Legion (1928). Ranch hotels opened, drawing regular habitues. Walt Disney, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable were among the first famous fixtures alongside Hollywood moguls. Ensuing decades saw the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and Elvis.

During World War II, the desert became a training ground for General George S. Patton's troops before they were sent to North Africa. The El Mirador Hotel treated wounded U.S. soldiers as the Torney General Hospital. The airfield eventually became Palm Springs Regional Airport. It was the first major land purchase from the Native Americans following the 1959 Equalization Law.

By the 1950s and '60s, Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack had made Palm Springs the definition of cool. Almost every Hollywood star of the era put down roots in Palm Springs. They were accompanied by world-famous architects—among them Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra and E. Stewart Williams—who blessed the city with thousands of buildings in an informal and trendy vernacular desert-modernist style. Meanwhile, the post war arrival of air-conditioning gave the desert city a magnificent boost in year-round tourism and full-time residency. Hotels were soon being built by the dozens.

The heyday lasted into the 1970s, by which time the money had moved down-valley to newer cities graced by ritzy, golf-oriented country clubs. Palm Springs began a two-decade-long decline and fell into a state of decay. The city developed a seedy image, worsened by its sudden popularity as the West Coast spring-break party town. In 1988, songwriter Sonny Bono was elected mayor and managed to tone down spring-break fever. He also established the Palm Springs Film Festival. Meanwhile, the Agua Caliente tribe opened its first casino.

Fortunately, the city's stock of modernist homes helped turn things around. By the mid-1990s, gay fashionistas began arriving to renovate run-down homes, many of which metamorphosed into stylish boutique-hotels furnished with retro Eames, Noguchi and Saarinen kitsch. Palm Springs has since staged an impressive comeback, hosting popular art and music festivals. New hotels continue to open. Palm Springs is now acclaimed for fine dining, midcentury modern architecture and an impressive number of retro furniture boutiques. And Hollywood stars again flock to sip martinis poolside at fashionable resorts that evoke the 1960s.

Sightseeing

Begin with exploring downtown Palm Springs, including the Palm Springs Art Museum. Then take in the nearby residential districts and the homes of famous people, from Elvis to Liberace. Although many of the celebrity residences lie within easy walking and/or bicycling distance of downtown, you should sign up for a guided tour for a broader overview. Aviation and military-history buffs should be sure to take in the Palm Springs Air Museum.

No visit is complete without a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Wise visitors plan on at least several hours atop Mount San Jacinto, exploring the state park's miles/kilometers of hiking trails, and even enjoying dinner at the gourmet restaurant, Peaks, set on the mountain-face. Be sure to take a jacket to combat the chill at the top of the mountain. In fact, the region as a whole has hundreds of miles/kilometers of trails, especially in the cooler months. Some of the easiest and most rewarding trails are into Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon, just minutes from downtown Palm Springs. Nearby Joshua Tree National Park is a must for those with a little extra time and a love for the outdoors. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge is farther afield but worth it for birders, especially those who love owls.

In winter, a balloon ride is a great way to get an overview of the region. Once you understand the layout of the valley, it's easier to get your bearings for sightseeing. For a superb introduction to the local ecology, The Living Desert is a rich reward. Nearby, Palm Desert's Civic Center Park's sculptures are a worthwhile stop, especially on a night when a concert is also happening. Thrill seekers should take an exciting Jeep adventure tour into more remote palm canyons. It is also possible to tour the iconic windmills that blanket the valley.

Horse-drawn carriages provide a romantic way to explore downtown by night. Otherwise, a car is a must-have for exploring the valley.

Nightlife

The Palm Springs region has a vivacious nightlife especially on weekends, with plenty of dance clubs, bars and live music venues. In Palm Springs proper, many of the venues are geared to the city's large gay population, while most of the upscale clubs are down valley in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. Most live music venues double as lounge-bars, many of them throwbacks to the heyday of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

Dining

Palm Springs is renowned for fine dining. In fact, some of California's top chefs are there, conjuring recherche dishes that draw epicureans from far and wide. Options span the globe. The area is known for its top-class steak houses and fusion restaurants, but French, Italian, and even Chinese and Japanese restaurants earn raves. The produce is always fresh—much of it grown locally in the Coachella and Imperial valleys—including dates, which find their way into many dishes, notably during the annual California Date Chef Competition each April.

There's no shortage of dining for more simple tastes, too, from classic American diners to charming mom-and-pop cafes. A handy resource is Palm Springs Life: Dine Out magazine, available in the arrivals lounge at Palm Springs airport.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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