We were there mid-April, and for the most part, the temperatures were a pleasant 80 degrees. Except when they climbed into the 90s. Then, like the desert creatures, we scurried from one shady spot to another. Or went swimming and sipped gin and tonics.
Putting On The Ritz In Palm Desert
Our sojourn in the Coachella Valley was yet another (and the last) of the seven weeks of adventures we experienced while stuck in San Diego awaiting our trailer repairs. We were generously offered the use of a lovely Spanish style villa in Palm Desert by a family friend. We were delighted to have the opportunity to experience ten days of fun and relaxation in this unique area.
We enjoyed an eclectic palette of adventures, including hiking through barren deserts to ancient palm canyons, biking through scenic neighborhoods of mid-century homes (while searching for movie star hideaways of the 30s, 40s, and 50s), visiting the fabulous gardens of a diplomat philanthropist, and touring the excellent museum of modern art.
Here, the highlights of our tour of Palm Desert and nearby Palm Springs:
Biking Palm Springs
When you roll into town, definitely make your first stop the Palm Springs Visitors Center. They provide a wealth of great information on the area, including maps for biking in Palm Springs. It’s a very bike-friendly town. The neighborhoods are lovely and a fascinating step back in time to the heyday of mid-century modern architecture and the hideaways of Hollywood legends.
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Sunnylands Center & Gardens
In the midst of the barren desert, ambassadors and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg built a retreat in 1963. Their intention was to create not only a winter home, but a place for world leaders to meet in a relaxed setting.
The Sunnylands Visitor Center offers a fascinating film and multi-media exhibits on the Annenberg’s lives and their many notable guests. To this day, diplomatic meetings continue on the property (President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping here in 2013). The surrounding nine acres of gardens were planted to reflect the Annenberg’s love of Impressionist Art.
Walking through the gardens feels like stepping into a painting. It’s a gorgeous and peaceful place for a stroll, for iced tea on the patio of the cafe, and even for free yoga classes on the lawn. (Free admission to gardens and visitor center, open Thursday through Sunday, closed in summer.)
Coachella Valley Preserve
Hiking options are limited in this hot, dry, desolate country—unless, of course, your goal is heatstroke. We did find a few oases in the desert and made a beeline for them in early mornings to get in some backcountry exploration.
The Coachella Valley Preserve, on the northern side of the Coachella Valley, nestles up to the Indio Hills. The Palm House Visitor Center (a very cool rustic structure) is staffed with knowledgeable volunteers who offer a variety of guided hikes and programs as well as tips on the best hikes in the area. With 25 miles of trails—but most apparently staked out in the blazing sun—we chose to link two hikes together, traversing the aptly named Moon Country trail for a taste of desolation and the McCallum pond trail to a blessedly cool shady palm oasis. (By donation, open year-round, programs September through April.)
The Cahuilla Indians thrived in the Coachella Valley for centuries, developing peaceful communities near water in the shaded palm canyons. They still maintain tribal land in several canyons, including Palm, Andreas, and Murray Canyons, all of which are near Palm Springs and accessed from the same trailhead. We chose the Murray Canyon Trail, a 6-mile hike that has a reputation as the least visited and most beautiful. The first hot, rocky, and desolate mile, we wondered if we had made a big mistake—but we persevered and came to a gorgeous palm oasis with a long hike upstream to several waterfalls. (Indian Canyons charges a day-use fee of $9 for adults, $7 for seniors.)
Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
Another nice surprise in the hot as hell desert is the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Well-maintained trails lead over a boardwalk through the marsh, through cottonwood and willow thickets, and along a ridge trail for good views of the mountains. We looped together all of the trails for a meandering several-mile hike. The canyon is a magnet for birds, and more than 240 species have been spotted here.
Palm Springs Art Museum
Located in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, the Palm Springs Art Museum showcases major collections of modern and contemporary art, glass, photography, and Native American and Western art. The spacious, light-filled venue is a delightful place to cool off on a hot afternoon. Thursdays are free admission from 4-8 p.m. We thoroughly enjoyed a tour led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic docent who encouraged us to go beyond our initial feelings of “like” or “dislike” of various pieces.
The Living Desert Zoo And Gardens
There’s no comparison to our experiences at the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, but we were interested in seeing the variety of worldwide desert botanical gardens created by The Living Desert. It’s a very well done park and most of the animals are there as rescues, unable to be released because of injuries. One of the most fun things was hanging out in the aviary watching a pair of roadrunners building a nest. The male, who had been a lonely bachelor for several years, recently acquired a mate and was beside himself with glee.