Where to Go Off the Beaten Path in Palm Springs and the Desert

50857 Burns Canyon Rd, Pioneertown, CA 92268, USA
The charm is simple—and highly photogenic—at this 1947 property, where old western actors like Roy Rogers used to get away between takes. When new owners bought the ranch in 2016, they began renovating bit by bit, outfitting the rooms with vintage-inspired Smeg refrigerators, turntables, Coleman lanterns, and Pendleton wool blankets. The accommodations vary wildly, ranging from four original knotty pine–paneled cabins to midcentury-modern rooms in the lodge to a glass-and–corrugated metal duplex called the Hatch House, which Lloyd Russell designed in 2008. There’s even an option to stay in a remodeled 1960s Airstream, which features a live-edge wood bar with copper inlays. True to its original intent, the 11-acre ranch is laid-back and without pretense, the kind of retreat where hikes in neighboring Joshua Tree National Park stand in for a spa day, and guests make their own meals in the antique kitchens and at the outdoor grills. The real magic happens at sunset on the observation deck, and is best enjoyed with a BYO cocktail.
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.
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.
67710 San Antonio Street
Some people dream of private islands with snowy sand and palm trees. Others fantasize about sleeping in a John Lautner house. For the latter, nothing beats this remote 1947 compound of luxury “living units” designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, the only Lautner residence open to public bookings. All concrete, redwood, glass, and steel, the four flats, which sleep two adults each, are distinctly designed with vintage furniture, organic cotton pillow-top mattresses, Heath Ceramics–tiled showers, and contemporary kitchens. Spend the day sunbathing from your private patio and cooling off in the saline plunge pool, and stargaze from the skylight above your bed at night. The micro-resort is self-catering, but that makes it all the more special—instead of eating in a restaurant, up to 12 people can dine under a communal redwood pergola; arrangements can be made for private chef dinners there, too. A hidden speakeasy-inspired bar for guests of the Ranch House (this additional accommodation, not a Lautner, sleeps four) only fuels the retro fantasy. Plan ahead: Weekends fill up months in advance.
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.
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.
5230, 4200 E Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264, USA
There’s something about a place being “secret” that makes it exponentially more exciting. Counter Reformation, the European-style wine bar hidden from sight inside the Parker hotel, lives up to that notion. Open from Thursday to Monday, 3 to 10 p.m., the pocket-sized shrine to great wine has no tables and takes no reservations (though leaning at the low-lit 14-seat bar is encouraged). But there is food, and fantastic food at that. Instead of trying to be everything to everybody, Counter Reformation’s tapas menu is short and original, including caviar served with crème fraîche and a quail egg, plus a layered summer tomato salad with melon. The wines are carefully curated from California, France, and Italy, with a few wild cards from places like Portugal and Oregon, and are all priced the same. While the spot has the feel of an insider’s club, it’s without pretense, with the experts behind the bar providing enthusiastic guidance. For dessert, order the foie gras macarons with sea salt, with a sip of champagne. If you overdo it, don’t worry: You can ask for forgiveness in the restaurant’s authentic confessional booth, shipped in from Italy.
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