The Best Things to See and Do in Palm Springs and the Desert
For many Angelenos, Palm Springs is primarily a long weekend getaway, a place to lounge by a swimming pool with a good book in hand. The city, however, rewards those who make time for a longer visit.
1 Tram Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262, USA
Golf and sunshine are the main magnets that draw visitors to Palm Springs, but a 10-minute ride will take you up into a snowy evergreen forest. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway climbs up to a mountain wilderness at 8,500 feet (2,590 meters). The Swiss-built tram floats over Chino Canyon and is the only rotating tram car in the Western hemisphere. From the top, look out over the irrigrated grids of Palm Springs and the other Desert Cities of the Coachella Valley, which descends to below sea level. Across to the northeast, beyond the San Andreas Fault, are the low mountains of Joshua Tree National Park. A network of hiking trails branches out from the tram chalet into the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, which includes the highest peaks in Southern California. (Winter weekend crowds can be crazy; you’ve been warned.)
2901 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262, USA
This mid-century modern former gas station was intended to be the first thing that people saw as they approached Palm Springs from the highway. Today the building serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Center. It’s worth it to stop by just to admire the architectural details up close, but you can also gather information and tips for your stay at the same time. The friendly staff can tell you about upcoming events, noteworthy restaurants, and shopping areas.
62975 Blair Lane
Throughout his life, African-American artist Noah Purifoy reimagined junk as art, using found materials to create sculptures inspired by Southern California’s culture and landscape. Some of his best-known pieces were made out of charred debris from the 1965 Watts riot, and he worked tirelessly to bring art programs into the local community and prison system. Then in the late 1980s, Purifoy moved to the desert, where he spent the last 15 years of his life creating his original and distinctive magnum opus: a series of large-scale sculptures sprawled across 10 acres of sandy red earth in the Mojave. The space redefines the notion of a museum, with an atmosphere that’s both meditative and reminiscent of Mad Max. While the found items are evident upon close inspection, the impact of the pieces themselves—with such titles as “The White House,” “Band Wagon,” and “Ode to Frank Gehry”—is deeply moving. The museum is open all day and free (though donations are encouraged), but you can also schedule a one-hour group tour or a private tour with a docent. Pro tips: Visit as early as possible or at sundown to avoid the scorching heat and experience the place at its most picturesque. Bring water and watch out for snakes.
1701 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264, USA
For decades, the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium operated quietly, visitors referred by word of mouth for strolls through the family-owned one-acre grounds. Then Instagram happened. Thanks to social media, this collection of exotic desert plants, succulents, and crystals dating to the 1930s now sees hundreds of people per day. The second-generation members of the Moorten family, who still manage the garden, make sure the grounds are impeccable. There’s plenty to see year-round—the garden is open daily, except Wednesdays—but the best time to visit is in April to late August, when you’ll find it abloom. Tours led by master gardeners several times daily reveal the fascinating stories behind the plants; desert shrubs, succulents, and garden supplies are also for sale. Whether you believe it’s from the crystals or not, the place is charged with positivity and peace. Pro tips: Arrive early to nab a shaded table for a bring-your-own picnic. And if you run into proprietor Clark Moorten, ask him about his childhood trips through Central and South America in search of specimens for the collection.
6551 Park Boulevard
Never mind if you’ve never snapped on a climbing harness before. The sole prerequisite for a private climbing experience with Cliffhanger Guides in Joshua Tree National Park is a willingness to try something new. After speaking with you at length about your comfort level and goals, one of the outfitter’s pro guides will custom-tailor an expedition around the area’s 9,000 rock climbs. Instead of visiting crowded tourist-frequented areas, you’ll wind up on lesser-known paths that often lead to blond domes of gritty quartz monzonite that you’ll have all to yourself. Slab climbing—a style valuing balance and fine footwork over forearm strength—usually prevails, giving you the stamina to handle a five-hour half-day or unlimited-time full-day trip. The expedition includes all necessary technical equipment, along with a less-than-rugged picnic lunch—hummus, fresh vegetables, wine-soaked cheese—but climbers should bring their own water. The guides are friendly and approachable, happily pointing out rare desert plants and giving you a local’s perspective on the area (ask about their favorite trails and juice bars). The region’s popularity continues to explode, with weekends and holidays filling up weeks out, so book in advance.
101 N Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262, USA
It’s a sign of the Palm Springs boom that what started as a modest local museum is now a premier destination for art and design aficionados. Today, the establishment, first opened in 1938, celebrates performing arts, modern art, and architecture in three locations. The main building, a designated historic site designed by architect E. Stewart Williams, is the most trafficked, with works by Henry Moore, Ed Ruscha, Dale Chihuly, and other marquee names. The Palm Springs Art Museum in the Palm Desert location features a rotating selection of exhibits by contemporary artists, as well as a sculpture garden where you can have a contemplative afternoon picnic. The Architecture and Design Center, in a structure originally designed by Williams, hosts exhibitions on architecture and design that change twice a year, rounding out an extensive permanent collection that includes works by Julius Shulman, Alexander Calder, David Hockney, and Marc Chagall. Pro tip: The museum buzzes with energy, particularly on free Thursday evenings, but for a more tailored experience focused on a particular theme, take one of the tours led by passionate and knowledgeable docents.
686 Palisades Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262, USA
Architecture geek or not, you only need a set of eyes to appreciate the Albert Frey House II. The innovative architect built his personal home on a mountain lot that to most people seemed uninhabitable, shaping a compact modernist glass-and-steel structure around a massive rock so it almost blends into the landscape. Even the interior takes its cues from the desert, with its original sky-blue ceiling and curtains to match the yellow Encelia flowers that bloom each spring. The glass invites in streams of light by day and reflects the stars at night, bringing the rooms to life in ways Frey surely planned. A longtime Palm Springs resident, Frey bequeathed his home to the Palm Springs Art Museum on his death in 1998, allowing it and its contents (including architectural drawings, correspondence, and personal effects) to be seen by people in the field of architecture. But even those not in the industry can get the full experience by booking through the Modern Tour at least 48 hours in advance. Tours are led by author and historian Michael Stern, who knew Frey—and many of the midcentury masters—so a deep dive full of insightful anecdotes is guaranteed.
891 North Palm Canyon Drive
Since opening her first store in Palm Springs in 2002, fashion designer Trina Turk has forged a style that’s become synonymous with desert chic—an inimitable riot of color, pattern, and texture. Her original shop has now expanded twice to fill an entire 3,800-square-foot Albert Frey building, helping spark the revitalization of the city’s upscale Uptown Design District. Designed by Kelly Wearstler, the interior’s penny tile flooring, vintage foil wallpaper, and Lucite and acid-yellow accents create a glamorous, playful backdrop for Turk’s trendsetting women’s and men’s collections. This being Palm Springs, an entire department is devoted to swimwear (don’t miss the dressing room’s wallpaper). You’ll also find curated pieces that fit with the Trina Turk aesthetic, such as pool floats from Sunny Life, Missoni Home towels, Dinosaur Design resin accessories, and Jonathan Adler home goods. Insider’s tip: This is the brand’s only location where you’ll find vintage treasures, including Missoni and Pucci caftans, that Turk hand selected.
388 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262, USA
The high desert seems to generate its own creative force field, attracting and inspiring artists for decades. Today’s generation showcases its work at BKB Handcrafted Art + Design. The Palm Springs outlet of this shop (the original is in Joshua Tree) features locally crafted, modern pieces, each one chosen for its soul and authenticity. You’ll find pendant lights and vessels by the shop’s founder, ceramicist Brian Bosworth, along with desert-influenced weavings by All Roads Studio, block prints by Aili Schmeltz, and sculpture by Jonathan Cross, displayed in a gallery-like space that’s both minimalist and warm. The shop’s selective, exclusive element extends to locally made olive oil, jewelry, and furniture, too, making it a must-visit for thoughtful gifts and souvenirs. BKB has also become a stylish and unparalleled hub for the desert’s creative community, regularly hosting art openings, artist talks, and events. Pro tip: Swing by on a Saturday—that’s when artists usually drop by to deliver new work or just hang out.