The best things to do in Palm Springs bring sunshine, serenity and exploration together, with the occasional dinosaur
Written by Michael JulianoWednesday June 21 2023FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailWhatsAppAdvertising
If the name ‘Palm Springs’ conjures up images of the sun and, well, palm trees, your imagination is on the right track. Palm Springs is all about soaking up the sun and lounging around to your heart’s content, making it a relaxing destination without equal. This little slice of California class is relaxation personified.
It isn’t all about sitting in the sun. The best things to do in Palm Springs cater to the adventurous and energetic, especially keen hikers looking for opportunities to get up into the mountains. The botanical gardens and meadows are magnificent, and there is always the chance that you will bump into a 100-ton dinosaur along the way. We worked with local experts to compile the ultimate list of Palm Springs adventures, starting with the largest tramway in the world.
What to do in Palm Springs
1. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
There are several places to get great views in this city, but if you want the ultimate view? It’s Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a huge gondola ride built in 1963 which connects Coachella Valley and San Jacinto Peak, and the largest of its kind worldwide. Jump on the tramway and stop off for lunch at the top of the mountain, or use it as transport to get you deep into the hills for a magnificent hike.
Photograph: Shutterstock.com / Michael Vi
2. Palm Springs Art Museum
Palm Springs Art Museum is a vast collection of contemporary art, from paintings to glass and sculpture, but with a desert theme, a beautiful museum inside and out. Think Native American art, Modernism, and the American West, laid out in a 10,000-square-foot auditorium featuring everyone from Edward Curtis to Henry Moore. There are also two sister locations, one downtown and one in Palm Desert.
Photograph: Michael Juliano
3. Joshua Tree
Craggy peaks, climbable boulders, and those beloved yuccas are barely an hour’s car ride away. Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for overnight campers, but you can explore plenty in a single afternoon, from an easygoing hike around Hidden Valley to vistas from 5,000 feet up at Keys View. If you’re coming from Palm Springs, you’ll want to enter from the northwest entrance in Joshua Tree; if you’re staying farther east into the Coachella Valley, you can use the south gate, but it’ll put you—for better or worse—in a more desolate area that’s farther from the park’s main attractions.
4. Palm Springs Visitors Center
Even if you don’t need any information from the official Palm Springs welcome center, this distinctive spot is worth a stop to admire its treasured architecture; the Space Age structure opened in 1965 as a gas station, but when the Albert Frey and Robson Chambers’s retro design was slated for the wrecking ball in the ’90s, it was saved and turned into a visitors’ center. If you need some guidance, you can book a tour of Palm Springs right here.
5. Palm Springs Air Museum
This air museum primarily showcases World War II and combat aircraft from the wars in Korea and Vietnam. You’ll find more than 40 flyable and static planes across three warehouses, from the B-17 flying fortress to the F-4 fighter jet, and a couple of aircraft on the tarmac, like the C-47 and PBY Catalina Flying Boat. The museum also offers limited high-priced flights aboard the C-47 Skytrain and P-51 Mustang.
6. Living Desert Zoo & Gardens
True to its name, this zoo looks just like a living slice of the Sonoran Desert. Located a couple of miles outside Palm Springs, the primarily outdoor locale is broadly split into North American and African environments. Explore the grounds to find an assortment of wild cats and hoofed mammals. You can also feed the giraffes, which is an experience and a half.
7. Tahquitz Canyon
Flowing water in the middle of the desert? Indeed, this two-mile loop leads to a 50-foot waterfall tucked into Tahquitz Canyon. The falls are located within the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians reservation, so you’ll need to pay an admission fee. On the plus side, the cost keeps the trail impeccably maintained, unlike many of L.A.’s graffiti-filled waterfalls. Ranger-led hikes are also available.
Photograph: Shutterstock.com / Unwind
8. Sunnylands Center & Gardens
Sunnylands (the former winter retreat for the wealthy Annenberg family and a popular summit space for decades of U.S. Presidents) resides on a 200-acre plot of irrigated desert in Rancho Mirage. A nine-hole golf course occupies most of that space, but 12 acres are dedicated to public gardens and a visitor center with a rotating selection of artwork from the Annenberg collection. Tours of the mansion are available but regularly sell out months in advance. Sunnylands is closed between June and September.
Photograph: Shutterstock.com / Steve Cukrov
9. Moorten Botanical Garden
Though only an acre in size, this botanical garden is packed with prickly varieties of cacti and other desert plants. The family-owned park dates back to the 1930s and harbors more than 3,000 specimens of desert plants from around the world, grouped by region. There’s also a nursery if you want to take some plants back home with you—a lively souvenir if you ask us.
10. Cabazon Dinosaurs
The 100-ton Brontosaurus and T. Rex sculptures once beckoned motorists on their way to Palm Springs to a 24-hour diner. Today, they guard the entrance to a Creationist-themed dino museum with an interesting take on the facts. At the very least, pose for a photo with Mr. Rex and walk into the gift shop housed inside Dinny the Brontosaurus’s belly.
Photograph: Courtesy Just Modern
11. Palm Canyon Drive
You can barely walk a block along Palm Canyon Drive without stumbling upon an eye-catching gallery, antique, or furniture showroom. Palm Springs and mid-century modernism go hand in hand, and you’ll find plenty of galleries (notably a showroom from retro-inspired artist SHAG) and furniture stores dedicated to the jet-setting aesthetic.
12. Tennis Club neighborhood
Palm Springs is brimming with gorgeous mid-century modern homes. Remember that most of these are private abodes, so you can’t exactly knock on the front door. But cruise around some notable neighborhoods, from Tennis Club to Araby Cove, and you’ll spot plenty of architectural gems along the way. Highlights include the Del Marcos Hotel and the Edris House.