While deserts may be more closely associated with barren, dry characteristics, Palm Springs and the broader Coachella Valley are flush with things to do. In recent years, the region has attracted far more than retirees and Coachella fans.
Whether you’re wanting to slow down and unplug with a rejuvenating sound bath or race something fast, southern California’s Palm Springs and surrounding cities have got you covered.
1. Hike through culturally rich desert canyons
Explorers of all levels will find a trail to love in culturally significant Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyons. Indian Canyons has more than 60 miles of walking and hiking trails that include encounters with native plants like honey mesquite and yucca (once used by the Cahuilla Indians— the region’s original inhabitants — for food, medicine, and dyes). Tahquitz Canyon features a strenuous hike to get to a 60ft-tall waterfall. There’s room to picnic, meditate, and ride horses, too.
Daily admission fees range from $7–15, and daily interpretive hikes led by park rangers depart from the visitors' centers.
2. Unplug with a sound bath at the Integratron
Tap into resonant, live sounds of quartz crystal singing bowls while sprawled face up in the acoustically impressive, dome-like structure of the Integratron. The wooden dome was built in Landers in 1958 by George Van Tassel using the joinery technique – without nails or screws – and features views of the desert from its windows. Supposedly, the structure also sits at the center of geomagnetic vortices.
Van Tassel believed in the metaphysical and built Integratron as an attempt to extend human life. These days, the dome is owned by three sisters. Their Sound Bath experience attracts curious and enthusiastic folks chasing relaxation and reflection most Thursdays through Sundays – head here for a brief pause to your frantic daily realities.
3. Book a Warbird flight at Palm Springs Air Museum
Reserve a seat on WWII, Korea, and Vietnam War–era aircraft at Palm Springs Air Museum. The museum is arranged across four hangars, and many of its docents once flew the planes exhibited there, including the B-17 multi-engine combat plane and C-47 Skytrain used in military transport.
Palm Springs’ aviation history includes Palm Springs International Airport’s former life as an airbase. During WWII it was used for military training and aircraft maintenance before it was sold to the city following the war.
4. Buckle up at the BMW Performance Center
If you prefer your machinery on land, head to BMW Performance Center in Thermal. Its driving experiences range from two hours to full-day group or private instruction and time on the track. The Performance Drive experience gets you behind the wheel of several vehicles, such as the X and M series, to navigate tight corners and zippy straightaways, plus an opportunity for an accelerated lap with an instructor – drifting included.
5. Explore a desert-wide outdoor art exhibition
Local and international artists use the Coachella Valley’s desert landscape as inspiration to create oftentimes large-scale works as part of the biennial outdoor art experience Desert X — from billboards to a completely mirrored ranch-style house, plus towering cubes fashioned out of yellow plastic water gallons. These commissioned pieces aim to challenge our past and future possibilities across universal themes like climate change and the interpretation of home.
Most of the dozen or so installations are free, and typically on display between February through May.
6. Cruise up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Ascend 8500ft in a rotating tram car to the top of Mount San Jacinto via Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which claims to have the world’s largest rotating tramcars. From above, check out expansive desert views and walk or hike more than 50 miles of trails.
The ride takes 10 minutes, travels 2.5 miles and temps drop nearly 30°F compared to the valley floor. Looking for snow? During winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow camping (permit required) are possible.
7. Stay at a clothing-optional resort
When it comes to public nudity, American culture skews more conservative than others, which makes clothing-optional hotels and resorts that much more of a novelty. Palm Springs is well-known among the naturist community and is home to a number of clothing-optional boutique hotels and resorts. For example, Desert Sun Resort hosts three swimming pools, a tennis court, a full spa, fire pit areas, and a restaurant. Its original building was constructed in 1943 by actor Errol Flynn. Other options include Tuscany Manor, which opened in 2019, and Desert Paradise Resort for gay men located in Warm Sands neighborhood.
These secluded retreats (both clothed and clothing-optional) became a go-to for the Hollywood crowd in the 1950s, where actors could escape without breaching their studio contracts, which often prohibited travel more than 100 miles from Hollywood without permission. Palm Springs clocks in at 99 miles from Hollywood.
8. Explore desert tiki culture
America’s tiki (a Maori word for a carved figure) culture dates back to the 19th century. The rise of vaguely Polynesian-themed bars encompasses an exaggerated perspective of Oceania that became an escape for Depression-era Americans following WWII, especially among US soldiers returning home from the South Pacific.
And while the movement isn’t without criticism of cultural appropriation, Palm Springs establishments such as Bootlegger Tiki, Tonga Hut, and Toucans Tiki Lounge and Cabaret – that also offers weekly drag shows – celebrate the cultural phenomenon with kitsch and tropical layered-rum drinks (though rum was originally a Caribbean thing).
9. Party at Palm Springs Pride
What began as the LGBTIQ+ community's nationwide organization for social equality and acceptance during the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and '90s has grown to one of the most widely recognized celebrations around the world.
Palm Springs’ Pride is no exception. Its initial iterations began as song and dance performances as part of the “Sizzle” event at the Riviera Hotel. Now in the fall revelers can expect a full week packed with a parade, parties, and events from a golf tournament to rainbow art installations, and a children’s garden hosting arts, crafts, and games.
Similarly, Dinah Shore Weekend is arguably the world’s largest lesbian and queer women event. The music festival began in the early '90s and has since hosted a number of famous musical acts like Salt-N-Pepa, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry. It’s also held in the fall.
If you’re planning travel in the fall, book accommodations well ahead and expect to make restaurant reservations as well.
10. Feed giraffes at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Feed a towering, gentle giraffe, observe zebras, jaguars and more at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. Its Rhino Savanna habitat is expected to open in 2022, which will include space for two African black rhinos, antelope, and a variety of birds across four acres. Parking is free, and the last admission is at 1pm during summer months, and 4pm all other months.
The zoo’s partnership with KultureCity offers resources for guests with sensory needs such as bags filled with fidget tools, noise-canceling headphones and weighted lap pads. “Headphone Zone” and “Quiet Zone” areas are also located throughout. The Zoo requests a two-week notice for guests who require extra accessibility.
11. Get yourself in hot water at Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza
When it opens, visitors to Downtown Palm Springs will have more opportunities to experience indigenous history and culture at Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza. Relax at The Spa at Séc-he (meaning boiling water), where geothermally heated water from nearby, magnesium-rich Agua Caliente Hot Spring is pumped in for various treatments. These waters have collected underground for more than 12,000 years and were originally used by the Cahuilla Indians for bathing, healing, and communicating with spirits.
A 48,000-sq-ft museum will also house cultural artifacts, an art gallery, education center and garden. The Plaza is still under construction and expected to open in 2022.
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