Palm Springs & the Coachella Valley - California

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Palm Springs

Palm Springs was -- and is -- a desert oasis, and that is what makes this famous resort town, and the whole Coachella Valley such an interesting vacation spot. Quite unlike its Nevada counterpart, Las Vegas, Palm Springs is laid back, and very friendly.

It has high style without neon glitz and gaudy architectural theatrics. After two or there days of exploring Palm Springs and the natural element around the town and the artificial ecosystems called golf courses, you come away with a feeling that here is a region of unique beauty -- with the nearby desert ready to enchant you at any time of day, particularly at sunrise and sunset. The town has parks, mountain recreation, trendy boutiques, excellent restaurants and museums -- all offered in an unstressful manner.

This is not just a vacation town for the very rich and famous. Among the more than 150 hotels and motels in Palm Springs are deluxe resort hotels and spas which attract the wealthy. But there are also less expensive motels, old-fashioned bungalow courts, and several small, cozy bed and breakfast inns which offer personalized service at a reasonable price. There are even places where nudists feel welcome around the pool. To find hotels with special interests and facilities, check at the visitor centers. The most accessible one is located on Palm Canyon Drive, at the north end of town. Hotel reservations may be made here, and the center has a variety of local maps and brochures.

For more than 2,000 years, Agua Caliente Indians occupied much of the Coachella Valley, centered in the Indian Canyons, where water and vegetation was plentiful. They used the natural hot springs pool and lived a hunter-gatherer existence. Mexican expeditions first came to the area in 1774, and in 1853, a U.S. government survey party mapped the valley, and established a wagon route through San Gorgonio Pass. Smallpox killed thousands of natives in 1863, and the Southern Pacific Railway arrived in 1877. The dispossessed Agua Caliente band finally achieved victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, regaining their land allotments, but having to wait until 1959 to profit from their heritage. Today, many of Palm Springs' important buildings -- including the Convention Center -- sit on land leased from the band. The original hot spring is now part of the Spa Hotel. This is the place to stay if you're a hot spring fanatic.

What to See and Do

Palm Springs and its sister towns in the valley are big on golf. More than 80 golf courses are found in the valley, with most of the courses open to the public, year-round. Tennis courts are everywhere, and with 8,000 swimming pools in the area, you should be able to find an activity to suit your interests.

As fine as the town is for vacationers, it's the out-of-town experience which should catch your full attention. Indian Canyons offer the largest natural oasis on the continent. The area is home to many birds, reptiles, and other animals, and thousands of plant species which thrive along the canyon streams. There are actually three canyons: Andreas, Murray, and Palm -- with a trading post, hiking trails, horse riding, and picnic areas.

And within an hour of town, several outdoor locations attract visitors. East of Palm Springs -- via Highway 74 -- the San Jacinto Mountains offer great scenery. The little town of Idyllwild is a rustic community with crafts studios, shops, and restaurants. Lake Hemet is a good place to stop for fishing and a picnic. The mountain resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains are about 90 minutes by car from Palm Springs. At Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, you'll find boating and downhill skiing, with resort accommodations and shops.

Located on the bare desert just above Indio, the Indio Hills Reserve is a wonderful ecological preserve featuring hiking trails through dunes and across flatlands, including trails that lead to palm oases, which sit on a fault line, with water bubbling to the surface, creating several oases. An interpretation center offers brochures and special guided tours of the large preserve.

Joshua Tree National Park, via Highway 62, is a superb wilderness in the desert with an amazing collection of wildlife. Closer to town, The Living Desert is a commercial desert wildlife park, with exhibits of desert plants, animals and birds, and guided tours.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you up the side of Mt. San Jacinto, the mountain which dominates the Palm Springs skyline, up to the 8,500 foot level where the tramway stops in San Jacinto State Park. Here are hiking trails, mountain meadows, and attractions including a restaurant and lounge, movie show, horse and mule rides, and campsites, with views of nearby mountain ranges and the Coachella Valley. During winter months, the park is a prime cross-country skiing area. The mountain's summit is at 10,831 feet.

Back on the valley floor, Moorten's Botanical Gardens features nature trails through cacti, trees, succulent varieties and flowers. The nursery here is a good place for desert plant lovers to buy cacti and succulents to take home. There are well-designed and executed collections of Western art and artifacts in the Palm Springs Desert Museum, at 101 Museum Drive. The Annenberg Theater here provides a full schedule of performances.

Living Desert, the 1,200-acre desert interpretive center, features exotic birds and animals, a visitors center, bookstore/gift shop, botanical gardens, nature trails, a picnic area, and a cafe. The Eagle Canyon section features mountain lions, wolves, javelina, bobcats, golden eagles and more. Living Desert is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last admission at 4:30 p.m. It's closed from mid-June through August. To get there, drive along Highway 111 to Palm Desert, and turn onto Portola. You'll see signs. For information, call 346-5694.

Summer months feature Class-A baseball with the Palm Springs Angels, affiliated with the California Angels.

On Thursday evenings, Palm Canyon Drive becomes a pedestrian mall -- with street musicians, farmers' market, food booths, antique vendors, and crafts people selling their work. It's called VillageFest. On Friday nights, the northern part of Palm Canyon Drive features the Canyon Stroll, with much the same atmosphere, except car traffic continues on the street.

The Agua Caliente Heritage Festival is held the first weekend after Easter -- it's a lively family affair that includes chili cookoffs, Native singing and dancing, hay rides, and Indian art and crafts sales. Food served includes Indian fried bread, tamales, stew, and culinary activities include pig roasts, and barbecues. The fiesta is a major fund raiser for the Agua Caliente band's Heritage Museum, and is held at Andreas Ranch, near Indian Canyons -- a 5-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs.

Palm Springs is not all there is to resort activity in this desert region. Other towns in the Coachella Valley include Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella. The towns are spread along the valley's main street (Highway 111).

You have a wide range of hotels and motels, for your Coachella Valley stay. Most of the chain motels are here, and they are often larger and more well furnished than their sister motels elsewhere. You also have to decide whether to stay at an expensive golf resort, at a hot spring spa, or in what is probably the most exclusive hideaway resort in the U.S. (Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs).

Desert Hot Springs lies on slightly higher land, under the Little San Bernardino Mountains, east of Palm Springs. This spa town features hot pools at several hotels, and the rich and reclusive stay at Two Bunch Palms, a unique oasis resort tucked away at the south end of this fascinating little town. The major spa hotel is La Toscana Resort, but the Royal Fox Inn, with 115 rooms, and the smaller Cactus Springs Lodge, also have hot spring pools.  

Where to Stay -- Hotel Guide

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Several resort-style parks accommodate RVers. The largest is Outdoor Resorts/Palm Springs, at 69-411 Ramon Rd., Cathedral City (just south of Palm Springs). With 620 sites, this huge landscaped area features grassy sites with concrete pads, store, laundry, restaurant, eight heated pools, ten whirlpools, sauna, and tennis courts. There's also a par-3 golf course. For information, call (760) 324-4005.

De Anza Palm Springs Oasis RV Resort (36-100 Date Palm Drive, Cathedral City) has 140 sites, all with hookups plus a heated pool, whirlpool,laundry, tennis. and an 18-hole golf course is nearby.

Happy Traveler Recreation Vehicle Park (211 West Mesquite Ave., Palm Springs) has 138 sites with hookups, just a block from Palm Canyon Drive. Check for any restrictions here. Pool, whirlpool, recreation room, playground, laundry. For info. call (760) 325-8518.

Pinyon Flats Campground, is a Forest Service campground with primitive facilities, 14 miles southwest of Palm desert, on State Route 74.

Camping is also available at the top of the tram ride, in San Jacinto State Park.

Joshua Tree National Park has organized and primitive campgrounds, and also features backcountry camping. It's under an hour's drive from Palm Springs

© 1997/2005 - Fraser Bridges

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