Palm Springs Offers Fun in the Sun Year-Round
If El Niño rains are getting you down, a sunny oasis is just a road trip away: The desert environment of Palm Springs and its neighboring cities boasts an average 350 days of sunshine and less than five inches of rain per year.
While temperatures can top 100 in the summer, there are acres of pools in which to cool off at hip hotels or an abundance of mega-resorts. For those who prefer more moderate temperatures, winter highs average in the 70s, and the weather is often perfect for a spring break getaway.
Palm Springs, which was a Hollywood playground in its heyday, still draws cool- seekers with swanky shopping, world-class golf, midcentury modern architecture and adult-only pool parties. But there are a surprising number of family-friendly activities to make this desert destination worth the two-hour drive from Los Angeles, or about eight hours from the Bay Area.
The Children’s Discovery Museum: Younger children will have a blast at this hands-on (and air-conditioned) museum in Rancho Mirage with more than 50 exhibits. Shop in a mini grocery store, go on an archaeological dig, climb a rock wall or navigate a rope maze. Toddlertown, an area for kids 4 and under, has daily themed activities. A traveling exhibit, “Chagall for Children,” will be open Feb. 6-April 27. 760-321-0602. cdmod.org.
Joshua Tree National Park: Less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, this famed desert national park offers hiking through an otherworldly landscape of bulbous boulders like Skull Rock and the park’s spiky namesake tree. There are also mountain biking, camping, ranger programs, spring birding, night sky talks and wildflower blooms in winter and spring. If you’re not camping, still plan to spend several hours, as the park is huge. There is no lodging or restaurants in the park, and the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center is outside the park entrance. Bring plenty of water. Fourth-graders and their families get in free to Joshua Tree and all national parks this year through the Every Kid in a Park program. 760-367-5500. www.nps.gov/jotr.
The Living Desert: Ride a camel, feed a giraffe, get up close to a butterfly in a new 2,500-square-foot habitat and more at this 1,200-acre wildlife and botanical park in Palm Desert. The preserve/zoo showcases animals and plants from the deserts of the world, including the American Southwest, Mexico and Africa. It also includes an endangered species carousel, children’s play area and one of the world’s largest displays of G-gauge model trains. Camel rides available through April. 760-346-5694. www.livingdesert.org.
Off-Road Adventures: More adventurous families can ride horses and even ATVs through the desert near Palm Springs. Smoke Tree Stables offers guided trail rides for riders ages 7 and up. www.smoketreestables.com. 760-327-1372. At Off Road Rentals, kids as young as 6 can drive an off-road vehicle. 760-325-0376. www.offroadrentals.com.
Palm Canyon: Families that would like to hike in the desert, but don’t have time for an all-day outing to Joshua Tree, should check out Indian Canyons, a series of canyons and trails located on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. At Palm Canyon, you can take a moderately graded footpath into a real oasis with palm trees along a stream. There are also hikes at Andreas and Murray Canyons. One-mile, 1.5-hour ranger-led hikes are available on weekends, and ranger talks are given Monday through Thursday. whttp://ww.indian-canyons.com.
Palm Desert Aquatic Center: If your place of lodging doesn’t have enough swimming spots, check out the Palm Desert Aquatic Center for a low-cost way to spend the day in the water. The city-owned center has three pools, multiple slides and a variety of play features. 760-565-7467. www.cityofpalmdesert.org/Index.aspx?page=611
Palm Springs Air Museum: The museum is home to the nation’s largest collection of World War II flying aircraft, plus planes from the Korea and Vietnam wars. Many of the docents are veterans. 760-778-6262. www.palmspringsairmuseum.org.
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. Waits can be long during busy times. Timed tickets are available online more than 24 hours in advance. www.pstramway.com.
Palm Springs VillageFest: On Thursday evenings, Downtown Palm Springs’ main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, is closed to cars for a street fair including food, music and artisans. The stretch is also packed with restaurants with outdoor patios, making it easy to find a nice spot to have dinner where your kids won’t drive the other patrons crazy. Admission to the Palm Springs Art Museum is free on Thursdays from 4-8 p.m. villagefest.org.
Wet ’n’ Wild Palm Springs: Formerly Knotts’ Soak City, this water park includes water slides, raft rides, an 800,000-gallon wave pool, a lazy river and a surf simulator. While there is a splash pool with small slides for little ones and a “family funhouse,” many attractions have minimum heights of 42 or 48 inches. Opens for the season March 14. www.wetnwildpalmsprings.com
World’s Biggest Dinosaur Museum: Dinosaur fans won’t want to miss this kitschy roadside attraction 13 miles west of Palm Springs, off I-10 in Cabazon. There are more than 50 robotic and static dinosaurs, including a three-story T-Rex and 150-foot-long Apatosaurus you can climb. But be prepared for the owners’ creationist twist on dino history. www.cabazondinosuars.com.
Where to Stay
Lodging choices abound in Palm Springs and surrounding communities, from condo rentals on sites such as VRBO and Airbnb to huge resorts.
We stayed this winter at Marriott Shadow Ridge in Palm Desert, which has two large pool complexes, one with a water slide and the other with a beach area and sprayground, as well as mini golf and a clubhouse with movies and other kids’ activities, plus a kids’ club. We appreciated the convenience of having a condo, with a full kitchen and washer and dryer, but the adjacent JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa hotel property is impressive with flamingoes, five pools, miniature golf and a lakeway gondola.
The recently renovated Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage has Splashtopia, a water park with two 100-foot slides, a 425-foot lazy river, a sandy beach and water play zones with fountains and sprinklers.
The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa, also in Rancho Mirage, is both kid- and pet-friendly. The resort features three pools with water slides, an arcade, terrarium, Desert Rangers program and the Westin Kids Club Discovery Room with activities for ages 4-12.
While there are plenty more large resorts in the area, if you’re looking to stay in Palm Springs proper, the all-suites Hyatt Palm Springs and the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel, which has a heated shallow kids’ pool with sand area, are family-friendly while being ideally suited for taking advantage of downtown dining and events such as VillageFest.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.