Travel Tips: Palm Springs’ Laid-Back Vibes and Rugged Potential

The poolside desert town is a snowbird capital, an LGBTQ+ stomping ground, and SoCal’s low(ish)-profile hot spot
Lost Horse Valley, part of Joshua Tree National Park
Lost Horse Valley, part of Joshua Tree National Park

National Park Service/Brad Sutton

For Golden Age celebrities, it was a hideaway from Hollywood, a beachless secret of California, cupped by mountains on one side and beset by the hallucinations of Joshua Tree National Park on the other.

Palm Springs is still that poolside desert town. But now it’s also a snowbird capital, an LGBTQ+ stomping ground, and SoCal’s low-slung, low(ish)-profile hot spot.

For travelers, winter makes a great drop-in season, between December and April. The vibe is laid-back, almost granola. Nightfall chills streets hugged by bougainvillea. Polynesian-inspired masks peep over sunset-colored cocktails in the town’s trademark cave-dark tiki bars. In the foothills, an aerial tramway floats up craggy slopes, deposits tourists, then hauls them singing and swaying back down to this twinkling 45,000-person outpost two hours east of Los Angeles. It’s an excuse to relax at a resort, to brush up against an existential imposition of natural beauty, and to bounce from mod-art museum to kitsch purveyor.

Of course, it’s also ideal for West Coast wellness gurus—who do their best to spite the dry air. As of late last year, a new draw is the Sensei Porcupine Creek retreat. Surrounded by date trees, the 230-acre private estate has become an upper-crust escape featuring yoga, spa services, tennis, and golf. 

Keys Ranch, part of Joshua Tree National Park
Keys Ranch, part of Joshua Tree National Park

National Parks Service/Kurt Moses

Not all are in it for the pampering. Rugged explorers can’t overlook the yucca-spotted Joshua Tree National Park, which extends 800,000 acres about an hour’s drive east of the city and contains two deserts—the Mojave and the Colorado—to draw hikers, climbers, boulderers, and overnight campers. (Vehicle tours escort the less outdoorsy.)

For more-contained wilds, the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens features North American, African, and Australian animals, not far outside Palm Springs. An almost 2-mile looped hiking trail climbs up to the Tahquitz Canyon Waterfall, part of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indian Reservation. And the Moorten Botanical Garden bristles with cacti, plus thousands of other hardy desert plant varieties.

Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs
Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs

Courtesy of Bootlegger Tiki

Much smoother are the cocktails downtown. The bar hoppers of Palm Canyon Drive—the city’s main strip, studded with galleries and midcentury-mod furniture stores—should keep the region’s tiki history in mind. These Hawaii-tinted watering holes traditionally sling rum cocktails (speared fruit, teeny umbrellas). Historically speaking, Bootlegger Tiki is a good place to start. It’s based in the former digs of one of the state’s original tiki restaurants, Don the Beachcomber.

Those desperate to entertain their kids can check out the Palm Springs Air Museum, which showcases dozens of old planes, or visit the hilariously posed dinosaur statues that make for scientifically insensitive photo ops at Cabazon Dinosaurs, 25 minutes outside of town.

Modern art and design spans the Palm Springs Art Museum
Modern art and design spans the Palm Springs Art Museum

Lance Gerber

Palm Springs’ own public sculptures range from visually arresting (a shimmering figure in repose) to genuinely puzzling (giant babies), and it’s practically impossible to miss downtown’s towering statue of Marilyn Monroe, who leans forward in her famed skirt-fluttering pose next to the Palm Springs Art Museum. The museum is a better bet for cultural enrichment: Its collections cover Native American art, contemporary and modern sculptures and paintings, and whimsical examples of architecture and furniture design. Those inspired by the city’s mod statements should peruse standout retro thrift shops like Revivals, Mitchells, the Fine Art of Design, and Iconic Atomic.

For lodging, some resorts offer daylong credits, so visiting can become its own vacation activity. The Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa was enchanting enough to stage a recent season premiere of “The Bachelorette.” Situated in the Santa Rosa Mountains, the Ritz-Carlton offers views from 650 feet over Palm Springs Valley, and La Serena Villas has private, manicured bungalows.

One thing that is practically mandatory at all lodging options: the glistening, electric-blue pool, a chlorinated oasis that is, at its core, Palm Springs.