Well known for a certain springtime music festival, the Coachella Valley is home to nearly a dozen desert cities. Palm Springs, located in the afternoon shadows of towering Mount San Jacinto, has long been the most popular draw. While the city itself features standout lodging, dining, and architecture, its surrounding environs are also well worth deeper exploration, even when midsummer temps surge well into the triple digits.
A week before my family and I arrived in Palm Springs for a midweek three-nighter, a record-breaking high of 121 degrees was still making the conversational rounds throughout the bustling downtown area. We were welcomed by a comparatively feeble 111 degrees, with forecasts of 115 for the days to come. That’s hot. But it’s not out-of-hand hot. You just need to do what we did — concentrate outdoor activities to early mornings and post-twilight, and in between, partake in pool time, shade, air conditioning, and plenty of hydration.
After the 200-mile drive from Santa Barbara, we dumped our duffles in spacious third-floor adjoining suites at Palm Mountain Resort & Spa (palmmountainresort.com). Like most Palm Springs lodging, Palm Mountain’s centerpiece is a big pool surrounded by chaise lounges and sunshades. The resort also offers plenty of relaxing spa services by appointment and has partnered with nearby Palm Spring Fitness Center (palmspringsfitnesscenter.com) to provide guest access. Bonus: the resort is a block from the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, where most visitors convene for walks to downtown food, drink, and shopping.
Locally famous (and nationally praised) Las Casuelas Terraza (lascasuelas.com) is filled with terracotta hallways revealing vintage portraiture, hidden booths, and, away from the quiet dining areas, a palapa bar with live music and dancing. Recipes date back to the family matriarch cooking for Arizona copper miners; her passed-along standards, such as enchiladas and carnitas, taste like cherished family memories. I recommend leaving room for dessert empanadas.
For more modern decor and an expanded take on hormone-free beef, free-range chicken, wild seafood, and almondwood-fried pizzas, visit Kaiser Grille Palm Springs (kaisergrille.com). The place is big on organic proteins and making its own sauces, dressings, and desserts. My daughter’s seared ahi came with wasabi-whipped potatoes. Plus, there are vanilla-bean date shakes for desert.
Across the street is LULU California Bistro (lulupalmsprings.com), a two-story establishment with a misted patio out front. We sat down to three flat-rate menus ($20, $30, and $40), with the number of courses increasing with price and main-course specialties — from chicken and pasta to steaks and chops — sized appropriately. The kids dug the horseshoe booths and cotton candy for dessert.
Family fun indoors during the heat of the day can be booked at Escape Room Palm Springs (escapeps.com), which offers six different challenges. We opted to spend an hour (and change) to find a spellbook to lift a curse on Merlin’s Magic School. The countdown clock urged us to work together, cracking clues along the way, with plenty of big smiles from our captivated kids.
Outdoors, semi-early risers can climb aboard with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours & Events (red-jeep.com) to visit the San Andreas Fault or an Agua Caliente palm oasis, among other outings. Our guide, Morgan Levine, who’s been with Desert Adventures for 30 years, described our in-town cruise of celebrity neighborhoods as “the tour of the dead movie stars’ houses,” and she didn’t hesitate to refreshingly counterbalance all the fame and creative talent with tales of alcoholism, gambling, and racism inherent to the era’s show-biz elite. With plenty of curbside examples, we also learned that “Palm Springs has the best unmolested mid-century architecture in the world,” Levine said. Don’t forget to tip your guide.
Another morning spin took us about 20 minutes outside of town to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens (livingdesert.org). Banish all preconceptions of a sad and sketchy animal prison on the hot cracked earth — this meticulously cared for nonprofit facility was a trip highlight, with loping Mexcian wolves, mature cactus gardens, an endangered pupfish habitat, and a three-acre African savannah overlook with giraffes and ostriches, among other exotic megafauna.
Above it all stands San Jacinto (elevation 10,834), the northernmost peak of a peninsular range stretching 1,000 miles to Cabo San Lucas. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (pstramway.com) runs up and down the steep mountainside between the heat-blasted base of the mountain and a lodge at 8,000 feet, where the temperature is 30 degrees cooler and the views stretch from the San Gorgonio Wilderness to the Salton Sea. There’s also a restaurant, bar, natural history museum, and easy trails through a pine forest filled with crisp, clean air.
If you’ve never ridden the tramway, it’s well worth a visit, just like that desert zoo. Same could be said of Palm Springs as a whole.
Check out visitpalmsprings.com for more travel tips.