Author’s Note: This article “California’s Palm Springs Desert Area” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Nestled in the Coachella Valley between the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south, Palm Springs’ reputation as the perfect desert oasis is well deserved. Snow-capped peaks, including 10,831-foot San Jacinto, rise abruptly above a desert plain that is bathed in sunshine 354 days a year. The desert air is warm and dry, and the climate is mild, sheltered by the western mountains. The concept “Palm Springs” includes a string of nine small desert communities from Palm Springs to Coachella.
The impression of Palm Springs from the air is that of a checkerboard in the upper Colorado Desert, speckled green and blue with luxurious golf courses and swimming pools, befitting this ultimate desert resort region. The main business in the Palm Springs region, which originally attracted visitors because of its mineral springs, is sport and relaxation, so you’ll find the atmosphere low-key and tranquil. The town of Palm Springs has 45,000 residents and three million annual visitors.
Surrounding desert and mountains offer the vacationer a fascinating portrait of the flora, fauna, and geology of this arid region. Beyond the small towns lie silent canyons, desert reserves, pine-studded promontories, and wildlife sanctuaries.
Though the area is a desert, there is, paradoxically, a huge underground reservoir of water, making the Palm Springs region relatively self-sufficient for water, even with all its golf courses. Elaborate recycling systems get the used water back into the aquifer, except for the water that evaporates, which rankles the old timers, who recall when the air was drier. The humidity is currently rated at about 4 percent. Agriculture east of Palm Springs depends on imported Colorado River water. On another environmental note, northwest of Palm Springs is one of the major wind farms in the world. The San Gorgonio Pass, where Interstate Highway 10 leads into the Palm Springs area, is the site of thousands of large wind turbines. Southern California Edison, the utility, asserts that these turbines power hundreds of thousands of homes. An observer traveling through this wind farm can only marvel at the operation as a contribution to the environmental goal of sustainable living from renewable resources.
Getting to Palm Springs
Commercial jets land at the Palm Springs International Airport, 130 miles east of Los Angeles. From the west, Interstate 10 cuts across the desert from Los Angeles.
Palm Springs History
To comprehend the early history of Palm Springs, spend a day at the Joshua Tree National Park, less than an hour’s drive away, east of the city. Within the desert park you can find evidence of three distinct periods in history–the original Indian settlements, the gold prospectors of the 1860s, and the cattle ranchers who followed with their herds. At the Desert Queen-Keys Ranch you can view holes hewn in the bedrock, where Indians ground seeds. You can also see an old mine, legacy of the gold prospectors, and an adobe barn used by the ranchers of the 1880s.
The entry to Joshua Tree is Twentynine Palms, so named because in the 1870s there were indeed that many palms here (now there are many more). Pause at the Twentynine Palms Museum to view displays on the area’s Indian, cattle, homesteading, and mining story.
Joshua Tree National Park includes more than 850 square miles north and east of Palm Springs. Amidst the dramatic desert scenery, with mountains rising to 5,800 feet from the 2,000-foot plain, the most spectacular plant is the Joshua tree. The trees rise to 40 feet in height and bear foot-long greenish-white blossoms in March-April. Cryptic historical lore says that the first Mormons in the region gave the common name to the plant, imagining that the outstretched arms of the plant suggested the prayerful posture of the biblical Joshua. March and April are also the main months for spring wildflower viewing.
Though the desert environment is severe, the attentive observer will discover extensive animal and bird life here, with the desert bighorn sheep as the largest resident. Several campgrounds are open to the public, but only some have available water. Any fuel or firewood needed by the camper must be brought in. Stop at the main Visitor Center at Twentynine Palms or the smaller southern-entrance visitor center at Cottonwood Springs for an orientation to the park, which has numerous marked nature trails, such as those at Cholla Cactus Garden and Cap Rock. The northern third of the park hosts the dramatic “high” desert, which gets more rain because of its elevation, allowing the joshua trees and other vegetation to flourish. The southern area is the “low” or Colorado desert, with less rain and reduced vegetation, offering a more subdued appearance. Large boulders in the northern third, especially at Hidden Valley, are another major feature, attracting many technical rock climbers because of the fissures in the rocks. Appealing mountain vistas greet a visitor everywhere in the park.
Palm Springs Main Attractions
In addition to the numerous resorts offering golf, tennis, swimming, and sunning, some main attractions of Palm Springs include the Moorten’s Botanical Garden, Indian-owned Palm Canyons, naturalist-led jeep tours, Desert Museum, Living Desert Reserve, the aerial tramway to Mt. San Jacinto, the Midcentury Modern architecture of Palm Springs, and fine dining.
The Moorten Botanical Garden is a popular and cozy stop in Palm Springs that shows what plants can survive in some of the world’s major deserts–North American, Baja Californian, Central American, and African. Started in 1938, the gardens are open for the casual stroller.
The Indian-owned Palm Canyons of Palm Springs offer a fascinating glimpse at the natural world and the political structure of the region. Though Palm Springs has a certain Hollywood aura, leading one to suspect that the presence of palms is a man-made addition, the palm trees here are the ancient and native Washingtonia filifera, with some individual specimens ranging from 1,500-2,000 years old. Some land on which the palms grow remains in the hands of the Cahuilla band of the Agua Caliente Indians, the ancient landholders here, who own every other square mile section. A checkerboard appearance from the air follows the political pattern of development, or the lack of it, in adjacent sections since the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891 set up the boundaries. When you hear tales of impoverished Native Americans, know that the Agua Caliente are notable exceptions. They own some of the choicest real estate in the region, including the Spa Hotel and Casino, site of one of the original mineral springs thought to have restorative powers. The Cahuillas has not always had an idyllic existence, however. At the time of the Spanish arrival, it is estimated there were 25,000 of these Indians. Smallpox wiped out most of them in the 1860s. Today there are about 900 Cahuilla, of which a portion are the Agua Caliente band. The Indians own about 32,000 acres of land, about 42% of the Coachella Valley.
Rich in dollars today, the Cahuillas were wealthy in botanical knowledge earlier. It is said that they knew how to survive in the desert by using roughly 250 plants in the region for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. The native palms of these palm canyons yielded for the Indians about 200 pounds of fruit per tree per year.
The Indians have licensed a jeep concessionaire to organize tours of some of their canyons. The drivers tend to have a good botanical and cultural knowledge of the scene. For a jeep trip with a guided and themed themed eco-tour, contact Desert Adventures at www.red-jeep.com. The company also leads tours to many other attractions, such as Metate Ranch, with a parallel interest in geology, botany, and cultural history. Metate Ranch is along the San Andreas Fault, allowing you to see where the grinding tectonic plates permit groundwater to seep upwards. The water allows a long, thin oasis of palm trees to string along the mountainside. This tour includes a hike up a slot canyon formed by erosive forces.
The largest palm oasis of all, Palm Canyon, boasts some 3,000 native Washingtonia palms along its 15-mile length. Formerly, the Indians used the palms for sandals, baskets, utensils, and shelter. Hiking and horseback riding are popular here and in nearby Andreas Canyon, which is also on tribal land. Several stables do a brisk business in horse rentals. Andreas Canyon has attractive rock formations and a stream running through it. Murray Canyon is a third palm canyon easily explored here. The Agua Caliente have their own Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.
The Palm Springs Desert Museum has become the cultural focus of the area because of its emphasis on the performing and visual arts as well as nature. A 450-seat theater offers an attractive platform for performances. The Denney Western Art Wing emphasizes all-American productions. Be sure to check what current show, often of Southwest artists, is on display. Natural History galleries acquaint you with the indigenous plant and animal life. Indian history is explained, with over a thousand Indian artifacts and crafts. Two sunken sculpture gardens ornament the 5-1/2 acre grounds.
The Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park is located 15 miles from Palm Springs in Palm Desert, a satellite town famous for its golf courses and celebrity tournaments. c The Living Desert is a 1,200-acre zoo and botanical display featuring the various desert areas of the world. There are hundreds of animals, plus an aviary, and about six miles of self-guided trails. An interesting ethnobotanical garden features the plants that enabled Indians to survive by providing them with food and fiber. The Pearl McManus Hall presents a fascinating “after sundown” room in which visitors can see a variety of nocturnal desert dwellers scampering about.
If you want to acquire some understanding of the plants and animals of this desert region, be sure to visit this Living Desert Park. You can walk a mile-long, paved path alongside gardens of plants from the representative regional deserts–the Mojave, Upper Colorado, Yuman, and Sonoran. While you walk, admiring the various cacti and other plants, you pass stations showing the animals of the desert, such as the kit fox, tortoise, big horn sheep, and coyote. Birds of the desert are well presented, both in a walk-through aviary and in separate exhibits for prairie falcons, kestrels, owls, hawks, and golden eagles. You’ll emerge with a better awareness of the subtle defenses that desert plants and animals have developed to conserve water against the triple threats of searing sun, high temperatures, and desiccating wind.
Within Palm Springs an Aerial Tramway, built in the early 1960s, runs from the desert floor to 8,516 feet and the Mount San Jacinto Wilderness State Park. This tramway excursion is a dramatic and pleasant way to enter the the mounain highlands, where 54 miles of hiking trails beckon. In 14 minutes you’ll climb through five botanical zones from Valley Station in Chino Canyon at 2,643 feet to the Mountain Station at the edge of Long Valley. The ride appeals for several reasons. If you happen to be in Palm Springs during a warm period, the temperature at the top of the ride may be 40 degrees cooler than on the valley floor. Hiking in the highlands can be a pleasure in summer when survival in Palm Springs itself depends on air-conditioned support systems. When the weather is cool in Palm Springs, in the winter, know that the temperature at the top of the tramway will be chilly and snowy. Views during the sharp vertical ascent are stunning, both during the climb itself and as you linger in the cocktail lounge or picnic grounds at the top. The Mountain Station also boasts a restaurant that offers a pleasant repast. Trails in the San Jacinto Wilderness invite hikers in summer and cross-country skiers in winter (skis can be taken on the tram). As you travel up and down the tram, you will be absorbed by the white striations on the rocks, the red lichen, and the tenacity of the vegetation in this forbidding domain. There may be snow on the crest any time of the year.
From Mountain Station the hike is six miles to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. When you reach the high altitude, the pine-clothed terrain contrasts sharply with the stark desert environment of the valley floor. All considered, the aerial tram offers one of most distinctive vertical ascents available anywhere to the traveler.
Back in Palm Springs, the Village Green Heritage Center is a historical museum with the two oldest homes in the town (the McCallum Adobe, circa 1885, and Miss Cornelia White’s house, from 1894.
The city fathers and mothers of Palm Springs expend considerable energy to preserve and perpetuate the tone of the community. Careful zoning codes restrict building height and regulate signage. Utilities tend to get placed underground. The poshness surfaces in statistics, such as: there are 10,000 swimming pools in the region.
Golf courses are a major draw here, with Palm Springs referring to itself as the “Golf Capital of the World.” The first championship course, the Thunderbird, opened in 1951. Today there are numerous private and public courses, with Palm Springs Municipal ranking as one of the better public courses.
In recent years the density of significant Midcentury Modern Architecture in Palm Springs has attracted many appreciators and much attention. The numerous homes and public buildings built here 1945-1975 are a special architectural legacy, using new industrial materials, such as corrugated metal and walls of glass, in innovative design concepts. Palm Springs allowed a new type of house and lifestyle, integrating indoor and outdoor life, which was possible because of the dry, sunny, bug-free environment. One leader of the movement, Robert Imber, offers an informative tour. There is now a February Modernism Week festival devoted to the movement.
Fine dining establishments in Palm Spring draw patrons from both the well-to-do local population and from visitors. One good place to start your culinary exploration would be contemporary cuisine at Copley’s On Palm Canyon. The restaurant has outdoor seating with a view of the mountains, yet with glass panels that provide protection from wind. Consider starting a meal with a roasted beet salad and continuing to the rack of lamb, accompanied by your favorite wine varietal available by the glass.
Nearby Trips from Palm Springs
Aside from Joshua Tree National Park, nearby trips from Palm Springs offer rewards in all directions.
As an example of modern resort lodging, the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage could be cited. Adorned in a peach-colored Moroccan oasis motif, the property epitomizes the grand tourist palaces in the desert. The resort offers all amenities, from golf to swimming, and a high level of service.
Several of the other grand properties have distinct facilities. The Ritz-Carlton rests on a promontory overlooking the valley and nurtures a local population of desert bighorn sheep. The Renaissance Esmeralda Resort in Indian Wells has a Mediterranean feel with its blue-and-green fabric, tile, and wood decor. Marriott’s Desert Springs in Palm Desert defines the word mega-resort with its huge atrium, boats that travel on waterways around the property, and an abundance of pools. However, the desert also offers exclusive getaway resorts, such as Two Bunch Palms, where the spa regimen is mud and mineral baths, organic foods, and privacy.
There are also intimate, small inns, especially in the town of Desert Hot Springs. One example is the El Morocco Inn and Spa.
Tourism is the big business in the northwest part of the Coachella Valley. Agriculture assumes dominance in the southeast portion, generating roughly one billion dollars of income, with table grapes the main crop. However, dates are the most exotic crop for travelers. Shield’s Date Garden in Indio is worth a stop. The Medjool date is a choice variety, and can be enjoyed whole or in many other foods, such as a date shake. Some 250,000 date palms here yield about 40 million pounds of fruit per year, which is about 95 percent of the U.S. date production. At the National Date Festival, in mid-February, an Arabian Nights theme includes camel races. The Coachella Valley, with its year-round warm climate, plus plenty of imported water, is a promised land of agriculture. Where else can you get 10 cuttings per year on an alfalfa field? Frost-tender crops, such as grapefruit, grow here with success, and the year-round warm temperature, with plentiful sunlight, allows a wide range of “summer” crops, such as squash and tomatoes, to flourish here in the winter, when markets are strong and prices high.
South from Indio is the Salton Sea, originally a dry desert basin below sea level. The Salton Sea was created in 1905 with the flooding of the Colorado River, which emptied billions of gallons of water into this shallow desert sinkhole before being diverted back into its riverbed. Today the sea and surrounding desert comprise a 16,000-acre recreation area. In addition to boating, water-skiing, and fishing, the desert features canyons with petroglyphs, hot mineral springs, sand dunes, rock hunting grounds, and miles of trails. The increasing salinity level of the Salton Sea, now much saltier than the ocean as the water evaporates, makes the future of tourism here problematic.
Of particular interest are the rock formations known as fish traps, found just north of the Salton Sea. Archaeologists surmise that the circular stone pits were constructed to trap fish in the extinct Lake Cahuilla, which covered the area A.D. 900 to 1400.
Visit the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge along the eastern shore. During the winter months 150 species of birds can be spotted amidst the fields and marshes. Migrating geese, especially, cloud the sky when they lift off the water at dawn.
West of the Salton Sea (and south of Palm Springs) lies the immense desert reserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, spreading over 600,000 acres of the Colorado Desert. At the main park headquarters,, located at Borrego Palm Canyon, you can obtain information and maps after viewing the exhibits on geology, history, flora, and fauna. The park honors Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who pioneered this route to California in 1774. The word borrego in Spanish means sheep, referring to the wild mountain sheep here. Originally, there were two parks, now joined. Though immense, this desert park is accessible by more than 600 miles of roads, and camping is permissible anywhere within the reserve. The immensity of the park makes it advisable that you file a plan with the rangers so that patrols to remote areas can locate you if you should experience difficulty, such as car failure. In this arid wilderness it is still possible to see desert bighorn sheep, as well as over 600 species of plants.
Palm Springs Area: If You Go
The tourism entity presenting the nine-city region is the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitgreaterpalmsprings.com.