Palm Springs is one of Southern California’s most popular destinations – for good reason. And its appeal doesn’t end at the city limits.
With its luxurious resorts, world-class golf courses, hot springs and acclaimed restaurant scene, the city itself might have all you could imagine. But a stay in in the desert town can also serve as a launching-off point for exploring some of the top attractions in the region. From mountains and coastal cliffs to wineries and desert vistas, we’ve picked a few favorite spots, each under two hours away by car, that will amaze you. Here’s our list of the best day trips from Palm Springs.
Best day trip for outdoor adventures
Located in the San Bernardino National Forest, with a sparkling mountain lake as its centerpiece, Big Bear offers a fabulous escape from the desert heat. A host of winter activities include skiing and snowboarding – and you’ll find plenty of fun in warmer months as well. Open year-round, the Big Bear Alpine Zoo is a rehabilitation facility and sanctuary for wild animals, including bald eagles, grizzly bears and snow leopards.
From spring through fall you can enjoy hiking, mountain biking and zip-lining. You can also place yourself in the center of the action on a pontoon boat, from which you can take in the beauty of the exceptional surroundings. Wander over to Big Bear Village for dinner (we love the Indian and Nepali specialties served up at Himalayan Restaurant). Afterward, enjoy live music at The Cave, an upscale concert venue.
How to get to Big Bear: Driving is the best way to get to Big Bear, although the windy mountain roads can be harrowing during the winter and chains or snow tires may be required. The drive time is about an hour and 40 minutes from Palm Springs, with the have a choice of two possible routes: Hwy 18 via the I-10/Hwy 62/Hwy 247 through Yucca Valley, or Hwy 38 via the I-10 through Redlands.
Best day trip for wine tasting and art
You don’t have to be a wine lover to enjoy the vineyard-dotted rolling hills of Temecula. But it doesn’t hurt, as you’ll be well-equipped to sample internationally acclaimed vintages from several dozen wineries. At the top of the list should be a visit to Akash, a family-owned and -operated winery with a welcoming open-air patio. Choose from a variety of local food trucks and pop-up food artisans on the weekends. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can book a wine tour with Sidecar Tours, which will take you through the vineyards on the back of a tandem motorcycle.
After a day of sipping, head over to Old Town Temecula to check out public art that ranges from mosaics to murals and sculptures. The one-room Temecula Valley Museum showcases the region’s history with permanent exhibits depicting both the indigenous Luiseño people and the Mission San Luis Rey period. Be sure to stop by Temecula Olive Oil Company to sample a variety of oils and vinegars.
How to get to Temecula: As it’s only an hour and 15 minutes away from Palm Springs, getting to Temecula is fairly simple if you have a car. You can take I-10 West to Hwy 60 West to I-215 South to I-15. Before heading back to the desert, fuel up at Espadín, which offers Mexican favorites.
Best day trip for experiencing nature
Known for its mystical beauty and landscapes filled with seemingly gravity-defying boulder formations, Joshua Tree never disappoints. Hikers will want to explore the Black Rock Canyon Panorama Loop, which follows a sandy wash through dense forests and narrow canyons to a steep ridge that rewards you with panoramic views. (Allow yourself a few hours to tackle this and other trails, and be sure to bring plenty of water.) Joshua Tree was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park, and if you stay after night falls you might be treated to a symphony of shooting stars.
Just a 20-minute drive away is picture-perfect Pioneertown. Founded in 1946 by a group of Hollywood investors including actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, this unique attraction was conceived as a mix of Old West–style film set and functioning village, with exterior facades of saloons and jails housing ice cream parlors and motels. Nowadays, the most happening place here is Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a honky-tonk barbecue restaurant and music venue.
How to get to Joshua Tree: Joshua Tree National Park is about a one-hour drive from Palm Springs off the I-10 East. There are three main entrances into the park and two main roads, Park Boulevard and Pinto Basin Road. It is best not to rely on GPS directions to navigate to Joshua Tree, as many navigation systems will attempt to route you off-road through the backcountry, which could be dangerous. Instead, consult an old-school map before you start your trip.
Best day trip for out-of-the-ordinary art
If you’re looking for a getaway that’s not far from Palm Springs but feels worlds away, then Niland in California’s Imperial County should be at the top of your list. Created by local resident Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain started as a small monument made of dirt and cement and now encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Bible verses and religious motifs. The site remains in pristine condition thanks to a non-profit organization by the same name that offers guided tours.
Nearby Slab City is a diverse community of artists, homesteaders and retirees living off the grid on their own terms. Home to about 150 residents year-round and 4000 in the winter months, the community occupies the site of a former military base. Today, it’s known as the “Last Free Place on Earth” given residents’ libertarian spirit.
How to get to Salvation Mountain: You’ll need to drive deep into the desert to get to Salvation Mountain, as there is no public transportation option. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Palm Springs off Hwy 111 at Niland, not far from Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea. The exact address is on Beal Road in Calipatria; Salvation Mountain is located right on the side of the road.
Best day trip for discovering the coast
Laguna Beach is a year-round retreat for art lovers and nature enthusiasts. Its seven miles of coastline is filled with hidden beaches and coves that invite you to explore tide pools and sea caves. Heisler Park is perched on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, and it offers a perfect vantage point for photos and people watching. Just a block away is the Laguna Art Museum, and its rotating exhibitions of work by contemporary California artists. Enjoy a vegetarian meal at Zinc Cafe & Market, a fixture among locals and a popular brunch spot.
During the summer you’ll have your pick of art festivals: the Festival of Arts (featuring the world-renowned Pageant of the Masters), the Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Fair and more. Venture a bit further down Pacific Coast Highway to encounter the HIP District and the historic Old Pottery Place shopping center. Anchoring the complex is Laguna Beach Books, the county’s last remaining independent bookstore. Browse the carefully curated inventory for a beach read, or ask the always-willing staff for a recommendation.
How to get to Laguna Beach: Driving time to Laguna Beach from Palm Springs is just under two hours, and the best way to get there is to head west via the I-10 to CA-60 to CA-91 to CA-241 south to CA-133 south. CA-133 will turn into Laguna Canyon Road once you get into Laguna, and it ends right at Main Beach in the heart of town.