It wasn’t a town I had on my radar screen. It certainly didn’t sound like our kind of place. Palm Springs? Really??? The image conjured in my mind was a town known for its polo matches and a plethora of golf courses. Designer boutiques and upscale restaurants added to it. But I kept an open mind when Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa, informed us that they’d be spending a good deal of the winter near the town and wondered if our travel plans would perhaps coincide with their location. Lo and behold, Palm Springs was directly in line with our drive from Borrego Springs to Joshua Tree. Literally smack in the middle of our route. Although by then it was late in the planning (Palm Springs and environs being a hot spot for snow birds), I got to work and snagged us a spot in a conveniently-located RV resort. Fait accompli! Palm Springs was added on to our itinerary.
Bordering the east side of Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Route-86 is where we took a turn north, finding that it’s an easy drive of about 75 miles to the town of Palm Springs. A very scenic drive. First you’ll see the great Salton Sea (you’d end up IN the Salton Sea if not making that turn to the north). It ran for miles and miles before finally disappearing in our rear-view mirror. Connecting with I-10, we passed through the Coachella Valley, fertile farmland interspersed with countless country club golf courses. A beautiful landscape . . . it’s a different world out here in Southern California.
Locally known as “The Desert Empire” to differentiate it from the neighboring Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley is an area of fluctuating but constantly increasing population. Having around 500,000 people living here in April, the number drops to slightly less than half that size by July, only to bounce back and hit a high of nearly 800,000 people by January. It all goes to show that the area, including Palm Springs, is one popular winter destination.
Although the valley is an extension of the Sonoran Desert and thereby has a very arid climate, agriculture is big business here. Having large underground aquifers left over from the last ice age (over 10,000 years ago) when this area was under a fresh water lake, and with the help of the Coachella Canal which brings water from the Colorado River, the area is a prime date-growing region . . . providing 95% of our nation’s crop. After passing endless miles of what we took to be palm tree nurseries, it finally dawned on us that “Hey, this is some kind of crop!” Indeed it was.
But it doesn’t stop with dates. A variety of fruits and vegetables are growing here. Table grapes are big. Citrus fruits in abundance. Artichokes, avocados, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, figs, grains, lettuce, mangoes, nectarines and peaches—the list goes on and on. Domesticated grasses, flowers and trees for warm-weather or desert climates are cultivated too. Mostly they’re sold for use on the golf courses and in landscapes. Which brings me around to one of the ubiquitous scenes you can’t help but encounter . . . several times a day during your time here.
Golfing . . . everywhere. Lots of country clubs. An abundance of courses. Hard to believe there could be so many within such a relatively small area of land. But golf they do. Roughly 125 golf courses blanket the area, making it one of the world’s premier golf destinations. It is the most popular golf vacation destination in California. Welcome to Palm Springs! Just as I expected.
But what I didn’t expect were the mountains . . . so tall and so close. Approaching the city limits of Palm Springs, it appeared we would be driving straight to the very base of mountains soaring up at the end of the palm-bordered street! Now that was quite the surprising eye-opener! A setting such as this was going to add bonus points to a town I was ready to pass by.
They are the San Jacinto Mountains, and the Coachella Valley stretches along the eastern side of the range. Considered to be a ‘sky island’, the fauna and flora found in these mountains cannot tolerate the triple-digit temperatures found in the surrounding valleys. While the annual precipitation on the east side of the range averages only 6 inches a year, above 5,500 feet the average can go as high as 30 inches—another factor isolating life found in the elevations. Within eyesight of Palm Springs rises the highest point in the range, San Jacinto Peak, at a height of nearly 11,000 feet. Interestingly, its northeast face is the steepest escarpment in the continental U.S., gaining 10,000 feet in just a few miles—no other mountain rises so high so fast, not even the Sierra Nevada or the Grand Tetons. Wow! It is squeezed between the San Jacinto fault on the west and the San Andreas fault system on the east, both faults being very active and very capable of producing major earthquakes. Hmmm, that surely should give a local pause.
Happy Traveler RV Park was easy to find—it’s only a block off Palm Springs’ main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. An interesting place, it’s biggest assets are the spectacular mountain views as well as being within walking distance of downtown Palm Springs (or a mere half a block from the local trolley stop). But (and this might be a huge “but”), you’d best have a rig less than 40 feet long if you want to stay here. Does ‘packed in like sardines” draw you a mental picture? This was surely one of those myriad of times when we found ourselves deeply appreciative of being Airstream people.
How the big rigs fit in (and there were some of those here) was a mystery to us . . . but fit they did. As it was, Chris found it a challenge backing in, but after several minor adjustments, we were in like Flynn! Ready to enjoy a 4-day visit. Whew!
Although settlement of this area had its roots in agriculture, it didn’t take long for the idea of a tourism industry to have its beginnings. The early 1900s saw people with health conditions coming here for the dry heat. When naturalist and travel writer George Wharton James’ two volume The Wonders of the Colorado Desert described Palm Springs as having “great charms and attractiveness”, the tourists began to arrive. That was in 1910. Another book promoting the area, published in 1920—Our Araby: Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, brought in even more travelers, necessitating more construction of hotels and luxurious resorts. “Build it and they will come” certainly proved true—soon movie stars were making the pilgrimage, attracted by the hot, dry, sunny weather, seclusion, and proximity to where they worked. Estates were built and country clubs sprang up.
By the 1930s Palm Springs was immensely popular with movie stars and estate building expanded into the Movie Colony neighborhoods. Then came more clubs—The Racquet Club in 1934, the Tennis Club in ‘37 and the first golf club also opened in the 1930s. Nightclubs were popping up as well—The Dunes in 1934 and the Chi Chi Nightclub in ’36. Southern California’s first self-contained shopping center was built in Palm Springs in 1936.
While Palm Springs remains popular with Hollywood’s rich and famous, retirees and Canadian tourists are adding to its expanding population. Housing capacity doubled between 1947 and 1965. No longer just a place to visit in the winter, the town began to morph into a year-round community. Today it has a population of about 45,000 permanent residents. While its had its share of ups-and-downs dependent on economic swings, tourism is now a major factor in the city’s economy. Having over 100 hotels and resorts, with just as many restaurants and dining spots, Palm Springs is open and doing good business. Following the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, its downtown area has been revitalized, making it now a center of attraction. It’s a pleasant place to stroll and window shop; small cafes and atmospheric eateries tempt the passer-by to stop and try their offerings.
A great introduction to the downtown area is to take in Villagefest held every Thursday night from 6-10pm. Set up in the heart of town, it attracts hundreds (if not thousands) to the event each week. Like a huge farmers market on steroids, it continues block after block. Booths offer handcrafted items, a diversity of artwork, unique food, as well as great street entertainment performing on each consecutive block. It’s one big party atmosphere where shops along Palm Canyon Drive stay open late and the Art Museum offers free admission. An event not to miss!
With a tour of the downtown and a taste of Villagefest under our belts, we were ready to get involved in activities offered in the Palm Springs locale. There was one that was top on my list—Indian Canyons.
“If you are only going to hike one place while in Palm Springs, this is the one you want to make sure you don’t miss.”
With a write-up like that, who could resist?
Traversing the east side of Coachella Canyon you’ll see the San Andreas Fault. Because of this fault, the Valley has many hot springs. Fault lines cause hot water springs or geysers to rise from the ground. These natural water sources made habitation and development possible in the otherwise inhospitable desert environment around Palm Springs.
If you read my post on Anza Borrego, then you were informed that the California fan palm flourishes around water oases. Though water might not always be visible, these palms grow downstream from the hot springs source. Often trampled by animals come to drink at the spring, coupled with requiring a great deal of water and a certain temperature range, many palms never make it to maturity. Protected oasis habitats such as are found in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Coachella Valley Preserve and here at Indian Canyons, to name just a few, ensure the survival of this state’s only native palm tree.
Centuries ago, ancestors of the Cahuilla (Kaw-we-ah) Indians settled in the Palm Springs area, developing extensive and complex communities in the canyons. They had plenty of water and hundreds of varieties of plants and species of animals to ensure stable living conditions. They planted crops of melons, squash, beans and corn, hunted animals, and gathered plants and seeds for their food and medicines. Fast forward to the late 1800s when this area was experiencing the establishment of settlements. Stage coach routes were crossing Indian territory and later the railroads came through. From that time, our federal government deeded 32,000 acres of their native land to the Agua Caliente people. Today, this great recreational area of scenic wonder is owned and utilized by the native Indians, who generously make it accessible for public enjoyment. We headed out for a day of hiking and exploration.
We began with a hike on the most popular trail, Palm Canyon. Fifteen miles in length, it is billed as one of the great beauty spots in western North America. The abundance of the California Fan Palm trees make for a breathtaking contrast to the stark, rocky gorges and barren desert lands that surround it. It begins with a short but steep descent with multiple switchbacks to the canyon below, and then you’re pretty much home free.
Once down, you are immediately surrounded by hundreds of fan palms. You can’t help but be overwhelmed. This might not have been our first palm oasis to encounter, but it was by far the most extensive and impressive. Soon you are virtually engulfed by these giants . . . it’s a wondrous thing to experience.
The trail leads through the canyon, slowly gaining in elevation. Along the way you follow the course of the water, the palms bordering its banks and providing constant shade as you hike. Occasionally you’re able to get a close-up encounter . . . soak your feet, take a dip, or just enjoy the ambiance.
Occasionally, you come back out into the open . . . it’s a chance to see the world around. High rock canyon walls encase the oasis, unrelenting sun is once again bearing down. Then more palms are up ahead and soon we’re shrouded back in their shade.
Near the end of the hike, we break through the oasis, to begin climbing up one side of the canyon’s wall. Back comes the sun—unrelentingly so, and the trail becomes increasingly rocky. What started out as a stroll through cool shade has turned into something quite different (and not in such a good way). I look ahead to where this uphill travail is leading, stoically trudging on. The end in sight, I made it up and turning around, looked back to find my reward.
On the way back, we happened upon some workmen I assumed to be tribal members rebuilding a bridge across the flowing water. I paused before crossing, to say how much we enjoyed taking this trail. One of them spoke up and suggested that if we have time, we might also appreciate taking the Andreas Canyon Trail. Having learned long ago in our travels that unsolicited recommendations generally turn out to be very much worth our while, we took off to find its trailhead.
If the view we first saw from the parking lot was any indication, the Andreas Canyon Trail was not going to disappoint. After admiring the great height of those stately skirted palms, we started out with high expectations.
Not one of the longer trails, this one was a loop that followed another stream through groves of more California Fan Palms. Even more verdant than the Palm Canyon Trail, the abundant vegetation growing along the water gave the feel of a jungle environment. It was lush, and green, and heavily shaded . . . a cool respite on a hot winter day. Could there be a more enjoyable hike?
Crossing over the water at the apex of the loop, the other side was hiked from a higher perspective. Above the oasis and looking down on it, we had a more open view of the surroundings. Still green along the trail, the mountain views rose up behind that hidden oasis. How incredibly scenic!
If ever you find yourself visiting Palm Springs and have any interest in nature, we would highly recommend looking up Indian Canyons. Just on the outskirts south of town, it is really convenient and I’m here to say you won’t regret taking time for a trail (or three). Here in these special hidden oases you might just grasp what this valley was before all the building and play grounds began. An incredibly wonderful place. The Cahuillas knew a good thing when they found it. You’ll leave with a memorable impression.
There’s another side to Palm Springs that I have yet to mention, and you can have good exercise while you explore it. It came as somewhat of a surprise to learn that this is a very friendly biking town (more bonus points to add on here). Having an extensive system of bike paths that are mostly well-marked, you can choose to tour the downtown area, or famous celebrity homes, or go through the picturesque palm-lined residential district. That’s my cup of tea—biking and sight-seeing rolled into one good time.
Wasting no time at the start of a new day (and fortified with a hearty breakfast), we took off to explore and follow one of the official bike routes around town. Choosing the 13-mile citywide tour that circles the town, we’d get a sample of many Palm Spring assets. You can access the entire Palm Springs bike routes here.
Going in a clockwise direction on the city loop, we passed places we had not yet seen. The Art Museum, the oldest golf club in Palm Springs and the backside of some downtown shops. A convenient coffeehouse came into view . . . we stopped for a late morning latte and some sweets. Now that’s a good start to a ride!
The best part was to come . . . biking through unrestricted (meaning ‘ungated’) nice residential areas. I was soon to get an introduction to the unique Palm Springs architectural style that had its beginnings several decades ago. It would be a real eye-opening experience.
Beginning back in the 1920s, architects with a modernist vision were attracted to the desert environment. Using the dramatic topography of the Coachella Valley as an inspiration, certain architects began to create a design style that came to be known as Desert Modernism Noted for its use of glass, clean lines, natural and manufactured resources and indoor/outdoor spaces, this new style seemed to evoke a lifestyle of simple elegance and informality. Influenced by the demands of desert living and the intense climate, the architects and designers employed use of inventive materials, modern construction techniques, post-war technologies and found an enthusiastic and willing clientele to build for here in Palm Springs (read: the wealthy and avant garde type).
Architectural modernists flourished with commissions from the movie stars, using the town to exemplify architectural innovations, new artistic venues, and an exotic back-to-the-land experiences. Inventive architects designed unique vacation houses, such as steel houses with prefabricated panels and folding roofs, a glass-and-steel house in a boulder-strewn landscape, and a carousel house that turned to avoid the sun’s glare.
Palm Springs architecture became the model for mass-produced suburban housing, especially in the Southwest. This “Desert Modern” was a high-end architectural style featuring open-design plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, swimming pools, and very large windows. Environmentalists soon condemned Desert Modern, but still its popularity caught on. Here were houses that fully merged inside and outside, providing spaces for that essential Californian style—and indeed middle-class American—life: leisure. The style was here to stay.
After touring a few miles of these neighborhoods, we began to notice a definite change in the appearance of the residential community. We were cruising the streets where people lived, but instead of seeing their homes, there were gates and private entrances blocking what lay beyond. Wow, talk about security and barred entries! Nevertheless, I found these gates did have their own character. I called it Palm Springs Privacy.
Our biking day didn’t end with the house tour, we were just getting ‘warmed’ up. After stopping for a lunch break, I was ready to hit the bikes again. It was one of those times (however rare) when I felt I could go on biking until dark. We almost did!
It was a very satisfying day (and the conditions couldn’t have been more perfect!).
Palm Springs turned out to be another one of this trip’s destinations where we wished for a lengthier stay. In retrospect, there were many more trails yet to hike, more biking to be done and hey! there was the tramway up to the summit of the San Jacinto Mtns. So much to do, much more to see . . . I guess a return trip would be in order. Palm Springs has a lot to offer.
From the lush oases of Palm Springs, Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris
POSTSCRIPT . . As it turned out, Randy and Teresa had a change of plans that necessitated canceling their Southwestern winter plans. We’ll never regret swinging through Palm Springs, and something tells me someday they’ll be making it here too.