DESERTS:
A YEAR-ROUND RECREATIONAL PLAYGROUND

By Christopher P. Baker

With its awesome landscapes and sublime winter weather, California’s desert region has a unique allure. More than five million visitors annually descend on Palm Springs and environs for club- and racket-swinging recreation and to sample nature’s raw beauty, from lush palm oases to soothing hot mineral spas. Add a glamorous yet low-key lifestyle that’s being reinvigorated and reconceived with a youthful new Hollywood energy. No wonder “It’s hot!” has new meaning for a cross-spectrum of travelers thrilled by Palm Springs’ newfound desert-cool sensibility. After all, where else can you golf in the morning, go snowshoeing in the afternoon, and enjoy a chilled martini by the pool in the evening?

An easy 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, “Palm Springs” is understood as the entire Coachella Valley, comprising eight “desert resort communities” clustered at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. They merge into one another along Highway 111—one of California’s great urban drives. The physical setting is out of this world. Majestic mountains soar on three sides, glistening with snow in the winter sunshine. There’s no shortage of activities and attractions. The dining is fabulous. The spas are among California’s best. And the region boasts several ritzy casinos. Museums cater to WWII aviation buffs, art fans and nature lovers keen to experience desert ecology. El Paseo gives Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive a run for its money in its quality and range of boutiques. Palm Springs’ music, film and arts festivals are world-renowned, as is the city’s hip trademark mid-century architecture.

SPORTS AND ACTIVE ADVENTURES

You might be forgiven for thinking that a desert offers little to do and that it’s just too darn hot to do it in any event. Wrong on both counts! The region is replete with exciting recreational activities.

There’s no more quintessential image of the Palm Springs region than an emerald greensward studded by palms and framed by boulder-strewn mountains gloriously snowcapped in winter. In fact, the Coachella Valley has earned the distinction of “Golf Capital of the World,” with more golf courses than you can shake a 4-iron at. More than two million visitors come annually to play golf on more than one hundred courses. Almost as many arrive to explore the palm groves, alpine summits or spectacular desert landscapes of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park, where boulder formations prove an exciting challenge for climbers.

Fabulous winter weather spells Nirvana for hikers, rock-climbers, cyclists and other outdoorsy folk. Incising the slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains, the three Indian Canyons tempt hikers with 30 miles of trails and picnic sites. Fed by natural springs, stands of desert fan palms crowd the canyon floors, providing sheltering oases for kit fox, bighorn sheep and coyote. Ancient petroglyphs can be seen while hiking Andreas Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon, with its spectacular 60-foot-tall waterfall.

CULTURAL CONNECTIONS

Culture vultures delight to find the desert is far from dry. The Native American Agua Caliente occupied the Palm Springs region long before Europeans arrived. Their proud legacy is on show at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in downtown Palm Springs. History buffs also delight in the Palm Springs Air Museum, replete with World War II-era warplanes from a P-51 Mustang to a B-17 Flying Fortress. The monied elite that pours into Palm Springs for the winter is a huge patron of the arts. Hollywood star and long-time resident Kirk Douglas was a major donor to the Palm Springs Art Museum, one of California’s top regional art venues—its Plein Art, MesoAmerican and Contemporary Glass collections are outstanding.

Down valley, more than 150 unique works of art decorate the streets of Palm Desert, grouped for four self-guided tours. Colorful murals grace historic downtown Indio, painting a big picture on the city’s past. And since 2005, visitors can explore the vast Sunnylands Estate, in Rancho Mirage, where billionaire Walter Annenberg hosted President Richard Nixon after he resigned in 1974, and President Ronald Reagan on a score of New Year’s Eves.

FESTIVALS TO CASINOS

Palm Springs has festivals to please every taste. The season kicks off in January with the Palm Springs International Film Festival, when Hollywood’s finest hit town. In March, the world-class Indian Wells Tennis Garden fills to overflowing for the annual BNP Paribas Open. And in April, be there or be square for the Coachella Music Festival, hosted in the warm open air of neighboring Indio. Almost 200 performers rock half a million attendees; unannounced surprise performances have included Beyoncé, Paul McCartney and Gwen Stefani.

Higher culture. Palm Desert’s McCallum Theater resounds to laughter and cheers of delight with a lineup that can range from Itzhak Perlman and The Vienna Boys Choir to The Nutcracker ballet and the Peking Acrobats.

Since the valley’s Cahuilla Indian territory is a sovereign nation, it’s exempt from California’s state ban on gambling. Try your hand with Lady Luck at any of half a dozen casinos. Most have venues that host class acts from world-title boxing to top performers such as Kesha, Sheena Easton, and the desert’s own Barry Manilow. And shopaholics are in for a treat: Art galleries, haute couturiers, and boutique stores specializing in retro modernist décor offer a dash of retail therapy between your spa treatments.

NATURAL WONDERS

Brimming with the glories of nature, the desert is a paradise for anyone who appreciates stupendous landscapes. The scenery is far more diverse than you might imagine, ranging from below sea level to almost 11,000 feet atop Mount San Jacinto.

Abundant rains in winter carpet the desert with wildflowers—nowhere more spectacular than the springtime bloom of Antelope Valley Poppy State Reserve, near the town of Mojave. Snaking south through the Coachella Valley, scenic palm-lined Highway 111 will deliver you to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Capital of desert botanica, this 500,000-acre park is ablaze with fiery red poppies and other wildflowers.

A 30-minute drive northeast from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park spans 1,240 square miles of Mojave and lower Colorado deserts and protects one of the most spectacular desert regions in North America. Popular with rock climbers, its dramatic landscapes are made surreal by the “Joshua tree” species of yucca, with strange, arm-like branches.

From Joshua Tree, historic Route 66 unfurls past Mojave National Preserve, where the Kelso Dunes tower almost 1,000 feet above the desert floor. They’re known as the “singing dunes” because they emit a buzz or rumble when sand slides down the dune-face. Nearby, 32 ancient volcanic cones stud Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark—a gateway to the stand-out draw of the northern Mojave: Death Valley National Park. The highest ground temperature ever recorded on earth was here, at Badwater, a sunken trough that reaches 282 feet below sea level. Yet Death Valley is rimmed by 11,000-foot mountains. Winter months are deliciously temperate, when tourists flock to marvel at chromatic canyons and sun-bleached salt pans. Well-paved roads lace the park, while dirt roads open up a world of extreme adventure for visitors with suitable vehicles.

FAMILY FUN

Kids love the desert, which offers heaps of family fun, including old ghost towns such as Pioneertown, an old movie set where shoot-out recreations bring old Westerns back to life. Another favorite is the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, exhibiting nearly 400 species of animals, from aardvark to zebra. With luck you might even spot bighorn sheep in the wild on a Desert Adventures eco-tour by Jeep. Even camels add to the fun at Indio’s Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival in February.

In summer, beat the heat splashing about at Knott’s Soak City. Or take to the air with Fantasy Balloon Flights for a bird’s-eye view of the Coachella Valley. Then delight the kids, and yourself, with a ten-minute jaunt to Alaska (at least metaphorically) aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It ascends through four life zones to the mountaintop station, where the air is 30 degrees cooler than it is in the desert below.

5 MUST SEE, DO

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Revolving through 360 degrees as it climbs more than two miles to the mountain station at 8,516 feet elevation, this tram whisks you to another world. It’s a sensational ride, perfect for escaping the heat of summer to hike amid pine forest where the temperatures are pleasantly cool. Or head up to the snows in winter to explore by snowshoe or on cross-country skis. The mountain station has a gourmet restaurant–great for a candlelit dinner with the lights of the valley sparkling far below.
pstramway.com

Palm Springs Modern
The mid 20th-century Modernist movement imbues Palm Springs with much of its unique appeal. For a fascinating insight into sophisticated designs, explore the city with an expert architectural guide who can explain the inspiration for the iconic Bank of America building, Kaufmann House and “Ship of the Desert.” Perhaps you’ll even get to see inside the famous steel houses, and even a home or two of the rich and famous.
palmspringsmodern.com

Windmill Tours
There’s a reason thousands of wind turbines stud the landscape north of Palm Springs and northwest of Mojave: gale-force winds whip through the San Gregorio and Tehachapi passes, respectively. Thick as forests, the turbines inspire a “WOW!” response. Curious to find out the facts behind these giant fans with blades half the length of a football field? Palm Springs Windmill Tours will take you behind the scenes and give you the low-down on four generations of technology.
windmilltours.com

Pioneertown
Set amid an otherworldly landscape of boulders and Joshua Trees in the high desert, aptly-named Pioneertown was built in 1946 as the Hayden Movie Ranch–a set for Western movies. No longer a Nowheresville, this lived-in “museum” has been revived as a trendy and thriving destination by an influx of artists and movie types. It features a real-life and lively saloon, an antique bowling alley, a trading post and a recently renovated old Western motel where you can huddle around firepits at night.
pioneertown-motel.com

Living Desert
Wildlife abounds in the desert, but for the most part you’d never know it–critters hide by day, especially in summer. It’s easy to get close to desert flora and fauna at Living Desert Zoo & Park, which displays animals from arid environments around the world. Local denizens include bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes and coyotes, while exotic fauna include camels, giraffes and cheetahs. A new addition, the Ant Lab, gives you an insider’s view of an active desert ant nest.
livingdesert.org

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