When I turned my head to the right, I got a glimpse of palm trees. To the left, mountains. It was early February, a time I wouldn’t swim outdoors in my home state of Oregon. But enjoying the mild winter is only one reason that the Southern California desert town attracts people from cooler climates. Palm Springs is famous for its golf and mid-century modern architecture, and there’s lots to do for eco-minded and outdoorsy folks as well.
Greater Palm Springs encompasses nine cities — Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta and Coachella. The borders are sometimes blurry, and visitors usually move between attractions in at least a few of these cities during their stay.
Take a hike
The combination of desert and mountains is what makes Greater Palm Springs so beautiful. The Little San Bernardino Mountains are north of Palm Springs, the San Jacinto Mountains are to the west and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south. In between is desert. Greater Palm Springs offers more than 100 trails to choose from.
How do you pick from 100 trails? In our case, we were traveling with our thirteen-year-old dog. A star athlete in his younger days, he’s getting arthritic now. So we needed dog-friendly trails that weren’t too difficult. We chose to visit Mission Creek Preserve. Try a run by the Wildlands Conservancy. The preserve allows hiking, backpacking and picnicking, and prohibits hunting, shooting and off-road vehicles. Just the way we like it.
We walked the 1.7 miles up to the Stone House picnic area. It was a soft, sandy trail wide enough to keep a leashed dog out of cactus, and to see rattlers coming if they suddenly slithered in front of us. We enjoyed gorgeous mountain views and saw lots of desert plants.
It was a little early for wildflowers, and this year might prove too dry, anyway, but cacti are fascinating and beautiful whether blooming or not. The preserve has 17 miles of trails and picturesque stone picnic shelters. It gets windy in the desert, so these structures have surely prevented many a sandwich from being blown into the sand.
A friend also recommended the dog-friendly Whitewater Preserve. It features a desert oasis and views of desert canyons and the San Jacinto Mountains. Visit Greater Palm Springs suggests these ten as the most beautiful hikes in the area.
We stayed at A Place in the Sun Garden Hotel, a collection of bungalows set around a pool built as a retreat for the crew of the 1951 movie of the same name. Besides the glamor of wondering if Elizabeth Taylor had once slept in our room, we loved its setting on the Taquitz Creek. There wasn’t much water, but the wide riverbed has walking trails on both sides and was our favorite in-town hike. It was also a prime meet and greet spot for local and tourist dogs.
Visit a cactarium
The Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium probably has more stickers per inch than any other garden you’ll ever visit. Founders Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten met his wife Patricia in Palm Springs in 1938. Their shared love of succulents led to running a garden and landscaping design business, creating backyard gardens for stars like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and choosing the foliage for Disneyland’s Frontierland.
Nowadays Chester and Patricia’s son Clark Moorten runs the garden, greeting about 200 guests per day. He grew up with cacti. “I was born with stickers in my butt,” he said on the garden’s website.
The garden is compact, with plants separated out by arid biome, such as the Mojave Desert and the South African-Succulent Karoo. You’ll also see some fossils, crystals, gold-mining relics and a couple of desert tortoises. Leashed dogs are allowed at the cactarium, but be extra careful of cactus spines.
Ride a bike
For a memorable desert experience, join Big Wheel Tours’ Earthquake Canyon Express bike tour. The tour van will take you to a quiet starting point deep in the desert. From there, you cruise along a paved road through the San Andreas Fault zone and grape-growing country. There’s not much traffic and no uphill, just a gradual 20-mile, 1600-foot descent.
For a few hours, you’ll coast along, feeling a desert breeze and gazing at huge, cactus-filled vistas. The tour traverses the transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. You’ll see canyons, mountains and the Salton Sea. At the end, you can refuel with a date shake. Big Wheel also offers a biking/hiking combo tour with a ten-mile ride followed by a desert hike.
See windmills up close
Ever wanted to get an up-close look at giant wind turbines? Palm Springs Windmill Tours offers both self-guided driving tours and VIP chartered tours of southern California’s first commercial wind farm. In twelve stops around the property you’ll learn about successes and failures in wind energy and get close to a working 400-foot wind turbine. The tour takes about 90 minutes and you’re guaranteed to leave a little smarter.
Go for a swim
If you come from a cooler climate and enjoy swimming, you’ll be as excited as I was to book a lane at the Palm Springs Swim Center. When I visited, COVID restrictions were still in place. The pool was split into lanes horizontally to accommodate more swimmers, with lower numbered lanes in the shallow end and higher numbers in the deep end. The water was a nice, warm 82 degrees. I especially enjoyed the locker room shower — the walls don’t come quite to the ceiling, so you get a view of palm trees while washing your hair. Check current rules to see if you need to reserve in advance or not.
Relax at a spa
Palm Springs is known for spas. After all, it took its name from the hot springs that dot the desert. You can choose spa experiences ranging from upscale, indoor treatments to more natural, outdoor hot springs pools. One local insider told me her favorite is Azure Palm Hot Springs. In addition to healing waters, Azure Palm offers a yoga studio, juice café and a Himalayan salt room. There’s even a Greater Palm Springs Wellness Pass that lets you earn rewards when you go spa-hopping.
This is an easy area for vegans to navigate, as there are several all-veg restaurants, plus most regular restaurants have an above-average vegan IQ. Our favorite meal came Native Foods, a Southern California-based chain that started in Palm Springs in 1994. It stresses delicious over healthy, with sandwiches like the Real Nashville Hot, a spicy, plant-based fried chicken with slaw and pickle chips, which my husband ate. I ordered the cauliflower chickpea shawarma wrap, which was also good but not as good as the faux chicken sandwich.
Chef Tanya’s Kitchen is a standout vegan restaurant, with locations in Palm Springs and nearby Palm Desert. Chef Tanya was the person who started Native Foods. She moved on to found her new empire in 2017. Originally, her kitchen was a manufacturing facility for seitan and tempeh, but it evolved into a deli. It serves a line of tempeh power burgers and the Chupacabra chick’n sandwich, which includes seitan filets, avocado, cilantro and jalapenos on a torpedo roll. Chef Tanya’s also has a little shop where you can buy both house-made vegan foods and other vegan products. We stocked up on her desserts. The best were the apple cobbler and the lemon drizzle cake.
Nature’s Health Food & Cafe is doubly convenient, being a fully stocked health food store with in-store organic vegetarian restaurant. In the morning, you can order vegan banana nut pancakes topped with walnut crème. For lunch and dinner, try a blackened soy chicken quesadilla or the tofu steak plate with veggies galore. There’s a comfortable, dog-friendly outside seating area or you can take your food to go.
For fancier dining, vegans like the Persimmon Bistro & Wine Bar, which serves vegan wood-fired pizzas with California wine and craft beer.
Hotels in Greater Palm Springs face the problem of how to maintain attractive grounds and plenty of guest amenities in the middle of a desert. Embarc Palm Desert has converted much of its landscaping to rock and cacti garden. A sensor-monitored irrigation system waters the part that still needs watering, preventing sprinklers from turning on when temperatures are low or if it’s raining. Embarc also uses tankless water heaters, motion sensor thermostats and LED lighting.
Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs is the U.S. first carbon-neutral resort. Its 70 hotel rooms run on solar power. The resort carefully manages the water that feeds its mineral pools, using a sustainable closed water circuit. There’s a retention pond where grey water can be treated with reverse osmosis, then returned to the irrigation system. The resort’s restaurant uses locally-sourced produce, and incorporates olives and fruits grown onsite into the menu.
While the eco-minded might look askance at Palm Springs’ verdant golf courses, local resorts have found high-tech ways to minimize damage. La Quinta Resort and Club’s golf courses have Audubon International certification, which means they’ve been assessed for factors like water quality management, chemical use and safety, water conservation and wildlife and habitat management. The resort composts all leftover food into mulch, and filtered water runoff from the composting machines is repurposed for irrigation and filling golf cart batteries.
Photography by Teresa Bergen