A movie star playground for outdoor lovers’ paradise just under two hours from Los Angeles, Palm Springs is an upscale desert getaway with a marked mid-century modern vibe and an eclectic cultural scene. In the early days of Hollywood, film stars signed exclusive contracts with their studios requiring them to stay within a two and a half-hour radius- yet the gossip reporters were only paid for a hundred miles of travel, making 110 miles an attractive spot to escape scrutiny.
The original inhabitants of the area were the Cahuilla people two thousand years ago who used the name ‘Se-Khi’ which means boiling water. Mexican explorers on an expedition to find a track route from to Alta California from Sonora. This was the first record of the existence of the hot water springs at Palm Springs in 1823 and some the phrase became used ‘La Palma de la Mano de Dios’ (the palm of God’s hand) in reference to the area.
The United States government sent a survey party in 1853 to locate a wagon route through San Gorgonio Pass, though it wasn’t until 1884 that the first recorded settlers arrived. The Agua Caliente reservation had been established in 1876 in a checkerboard pattern with alternating parcels gifted to the Southern Pacific Railroad to encourage development of the Sonoran Desert; this system means that today more than ten percent of Palm Springs is owned and leased out by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Purchasing his land from the railroad, Judge John Guthrie McCallum sought the dry climate to cure his son’s tuberculous and proceeded to construct a nineteen mile aqueduct to irrigate the Coachella Valley. For a brief period in the late 1800’s, there was interest in growing early fruit in the valley, but those efforts were soon eclipsed by ‘health tourists’ who believed the dry heat would aid their ailments. Sheltered by mountains on all sides, Palm Springs enjoys over 300 days of sunshine annually yet received less than five inches of rainfall.
In 1928, the luxurious twenty acre El Mirador Hotel opened and quickly drew attention of the Hollywood elite; today the hotel and its Spanish-Colonial Revival styled bell tower is the centerpiece of the aptly named ‘Movie Colony’ neighborhood, the most desirable real estate for the celebrity set. While the neighborhood is is made private with walls and landscaping, visitors still flock to see Frank Sinatra’s first desert home, the Twin Palms, which played the role of ‘party central’ in the 1950’s.
Palm Springs is a treasure trove for lovers of Mid-Century Modern architecture, as the collection is one of the largest in the world. Characterized by flat planes, overhanging rooflines, large glass windows, shaded verandas, and ample open plan living space, these iconic buildings incorporate the surrounding desert to create a feeling of oasis. Palm Springs is a true ‘getaway’ with something for everyone: shopping at upscale boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries, golfing on over one hundred reputable courses, or enjoying a creative, ever evolving dining scene. Compact and swanky downtown Palm Springs sports its own ‘Walk of Stars’, which since 1992 honors over 400 notable local residents.
A renowned downtown institution, the Palm Springs Art Museum was founded in 1938 as the Desert Museum and in 28 galleries contains a permanent collection of more than 24,000 objects including Native American and Mesoamerican art, assorted artifacts from other cultures, natural science collections in geology, biology, and archaeology, and contemporary art with key works of desert landscape painting.
The museum began a shift in its focus towards art and away from the natural world in the 1950’s and by the 1970’s a new entity of the Living Desert Museum- now the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens located in nearby Palm Desert – was formed to take over the mission and grow with its emphasis on displaying the varied desert environs of the world. Over four hundred species of animals in residence include giraffes, camels, mountain lions, zebras, meerkats, and cheetahs.
Other opportunities to discover the surrounding desert landscape include Indian Canyons, where Tahquitz Creek and tributaries of the Palm Canyon Wash have created a series of easily hiked narrow palm-lined canyons. Also easily accessed just seventeen miles from town is the 17,000 acre Coachella Valley Preserve, most known for the Thousand Palm Oasis and home to the endemic fridge-toed lizard. On a smaller scale, the one acre family owned Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium has since 1938 cultivated roughly 3,000 desert plants and cacti from around the world.
For a different sort of museum experience, the Palm Springs Air Museum boasts over forty historic airplanes from WWII, one of the world’s largest collections, many of which were produced locally and are in flyable condition. A much beloved attraction is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway which ascends San Jacinto Peak, affording a 12.5 minute ride in the world’s largest rotating tram car. The 1963 tram transports riders to the alpine forest at 8,500 feet where it can be forty degrees cooler than the desert below and views can exceed two hundred miles.
Palm Springs has a wacky side too as evidenced in the kitschy multi acre Robolights display, a thirty year tradition centered around over three hundred giant brightly painted robots, plastic aliens, and many other artistic creations custom crafted from recycled materials. Known as the date capital of the country, dates were imported and planted as a crop in 1907 and today the area represents 90% of the country’s date production. Several date farms surrounding Palm Springs are open to the public with tours, displays, and a chance to consume a signature date shake.
If you’re willing to travel out an hour, the rugged rocks and stark desert beauty of Joshua Tree National Park lie at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The bristly, slow growing Joshua tree is properly a succulent- or yucca- with the ability to store water through dry spells. Prevalent in the Mojave, the Joshua trees were named by mid-1800’s Mormon settlers who saw their twisted shapes and thought of the story of Joshua raising his hands to the sky in prayer.