Deserts:
A paradise for adventurers, golfers, shoppers and spa-lovers

By Christopher P. Baker

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California’s desert region has lured visitors for more than a century to bask in its year-round warmth and enjoy its hot mineral springs, lush palm oases, and serene landscapes. After all, there aren’t many places where you can golf in the morning, go skiing or snowshoeing in the afternoon, and enjoy a cocktail by the pool in the evening. Which explains why more than five million visitors annually descend on Palm Springs and the surrounding desert region, where the summer never dies, the architecture is retro-cool, and the spirit feels as refreshing as an iced martini.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack made Palm Springs the definition of cool. By the 1970s, the Hollywood set had moved “down valley” to Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage, with their luxurious golf courses and country clubs. But Palm Springs has staged an impressive comeback. Newly fresh and compelling, this hot spot—ground zero for desert vacations—exudes contemporary cool. No wonder a whole new generation of Hollywood stars is flocking to where it’s the 1960s all over again. Plus, a spectacular redevelopment plan, currently underway, promises to add even more luster to downtown Palm Springs, with an exciting new luxury hotel, a stunning new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and a pedestrian walkway linking the world-class Palm Springs Art Museum to “The Strip.”

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. 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. And farther afield, Death Valley National Park outdoes them all for its kaleidoscopic physical beauty.

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. Fabulous winter weather spells Nirvana for hikers, rock-climbers, cyclists and other outdoorsy folk.

Let’s start with golf. 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: about 120 in all.

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.

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 more than 10,000 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.

Cultural Connections

Culture vultures thrill 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 major patron of the arts. Hollywood star and long-time resident Kirk Douglas was a major donor to Palm Springs Art Museum, one of California’s top regional art venues—its Plein Art, MesoAmerican, and Contemporary Glass collections are outstanding. And any sojourn through Palm Springs is a magical mystery tour of “art-chitecture,” thanks to the city’s stock of more than two thousand midcentury Modernist homes.

Many of the finest exemplars of Modernism are boutique hotels, and almost all have played host to the Hollywood A-list. “Sinatra slept here” and “This was Angela Jolie’s room” is no idle chatter.

For the Fun of It

Palm Springs has festivals to please everyone. 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. 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.

Family Fun

Kids love the desert, which offers heaps of family fun, including old ghost towns such as Pioneertown and Randsburg. 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 the 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.

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