Palm Springs Oasis
Known alternatively as a hot spot for gay travelers or a golf or granny getaway, Palm Springs may not be the first place you think of when planning a family vacation.
But this desert locale within a day’s drive from the Bay Area can be the perfect winter or spring break escape with its sunny weather, outdoor dining, tons of pools and a surprising number of venues and activities geared for kids.
Fed up last spring with the Bay Area’s non-stop rain, our family beat a hasty retreat to Palm Springs, where it typically rains only 10 days a year. We were not disappointed. While the temperature was officially in the 70s, it felt much warmer in the dry heat.
What to Do
The Living Desert: This fascinating zoo in Palm Desert showcases animals and plants from the deserts of the world, including the American Southwest, Mexico and Africa. It also includes a desert animal merry-go-round, children’s play area and one of the world’s largest displays of G-gauge model trains. livingdesert.org.
The Children’s Discovery Museum: Young children will have a blast at this hands-on (air-conditioned) museum in Rancho Mirage with more than 50 hands-on exhibits. Dress up, shop in a mini grocery store, climb the rock wall or paint an actual Volkswagen Bug. cdmod.org.
Knott’s Soak City: Older kids may enjoy the water slides, raft rides and 800,000-gallon wave pool at this Palm Springs water park. While there is a splash pool with small slides for little ones and a “family funhouse” for those over 40 inches, many attractions have minimum heights of 42 or 48 inches. knotts.com/public/park/soakcity/palm_springs/index.cfm.
Palm Canyon: After a short (but not stroller-accessible) descent into the canyon, you can meander along a stream under the shade of the palms in a real and stunning oasis. More challenging hikes are also available in Palm, Andreas and Murray canyons, which are part of the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Native American rangers also provide nature talks and lead interpretive hikes. indian-canyons.com.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: The world’s largest rotating tram cars take passengers 2.5 miles up from the valley floor onto Mount San Jacinto, which may be snow-covered even as the valley bakes below. Depending on the season, activities at the top range from snowshoeing and sledding to nature hikes. pstramway.com.
Palm Springs VillageFest: On Thursday evenings, downtown Palm Springs’ main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, is closed to cars for a street fair, which includes food, music and artisans. The stretch is also packed with restaurants with outdoor patios. villagefest.org.
Joshua Tree National Park: Less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, this famed desert national park offers hiking, mountain biking, camping, ranger programs, spring birding and wildflower blooms in winter and spring. nps.gov/jotr.
Where to Stay
The Palm Springs region contains several other cities with popular, large resorts, including Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and LaQuinta.
We’ve come to appreciate the extra space – and kitchen – of a condominium when traveling with our kids. We found a great price on craigslist.org for a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium in the Oasis, a complex on the edge of Palm Springs that includes ownership and time-share units. While it lacked some of the amenities (and the price tag) of a full-service resort, our unit had a pool nearby.
If you’re considering a vacation rental in a resort and not booking through the resort itself, make sure to confirm whether you’ll have access to resort amenities and whether there is an additional fee.
While there are many options in the greater Palm Springs area, some highly recommended hotels include:
Parker Palm Springs, Palm Springs: If money is no object, check out the Parker for its swanky yet funky, retro décor and gorgeous grounds, which manage to be upscale while still popular with families. parkerpalmsprings.com.
La Quinta Resort, La Quinta: This 45-acre resort includes five championship golf courses, 41 pools and nearly 800 casitas, suites and villas. Special rates are available as low as $159 a night. It’s pet-friendly, too. laquintaresort.com.
Westin Mission Hills Resort and Spa, Rancho Mirage: This 360-acre resort includes a family pool with a 60-foot waterslide, kids’ club, two golf courses, private patios and more. starwoodhotels.com/westin.
Where to Eat
Unless you’re staying near downtown Palm Springs, the area is quite suburban, with lots of chain options in both strip malls and actual malls. The River, an outdoor shopping complex in Rancho Mirage, includes a P.F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory, along with several more options, and the tony El Paseo shopping area in Palm Desert has a California Pizza Kitchen and many independent restaurants.
But along Palm Canyon Drive are charming, family-friendly restaurants, many with outdoor patios.
Las Casuelas Terreza is a huge Mexican restaurant, voted one of the top 50 Hispanic restaurants in the country by Hispanic Magazine, with an outdoor patio and giant margaritas. Last summer, the restaurant hosted Kids Nights Out, with live music and entertainment, balloons and other prizes, on Wednesday nights. lascasuelas.com.
For something a bit more cosmopolitan but still family friendly, try Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro’s upstairs outdoor patio for great pizza bistro fare and a stunning view of Mount San Jacinto. matchboxpalmsprings.com.
Off the main strip, another of our favorites was Manhattan in the Desert. The huge portions make it a great place to fuel up after a hike; one deli plate was more than enough for my two kids to share, and still bring back leftovers.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.