26 Best Sights in Palm Springs and the Desert Resorts, California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Fodor's choice
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
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One of the richest living natural-history museums in the nation, this state park is a vast, nearly uninhabited wilderness where you can step through a field of wildflowers, cool off in a palm-shaded oasis, count zillions of stars in the black night sky, and listen to coyotes howl at dusk. The landscape, largely undisturbed by humans, reveals a rich natural history. There's evidence of a vast inland sea in the piles of oyster beds near Split Mountain and of the power of natural forces such as earthquakes and flash floods. In addition, recent scientific work has confirmed that the Borrego Badlands, with more than 6,000 meters of exposed fossil-bearing sediments, is likely the richest such deposit in North America, telling the story of 7 million years of climate change, upheaval, and prehistoric animals. Evidence has been unearthed of saber-toothed cats, flamingos, zebras, and the largest flying bird in the northern hemisphere beneath the now-parched sand. Today the desert's most treasured inhabitants are the herds of elusive and endangered native bighorn sheep, or borrego, for which the park is named. Among the strange desert plants you may observe are the gnarly elephant trees. As these are endangered, rangers don't encourage visitors to seek out the secluded grove at Fish Creek, but there are a few examples at the visitor center garden. After a wet winter you can see a short-lived but stunning display of cacti, succulents, and desert wildflowers in bloom.

The park is unusually accessible to visitors. Admission to the park is free, and few areas are off-limits. There are two developed campgrounds, but you can camp anywhere; just follow the trails and pitch a tent wherever you like. There are more than 500 miles of dirt roads, two huge wilderness areas, and 110 miles of riding and hiking trails. Many sites can be seen from paved roads, but some require driving on dirt roads, for which rangers recommend you use a four-wheel-drive vehicle. When you do leave the pavement, carry the appropriate supplies: a cell phone (which may be unreliable in some areas), a shovel and other tools, flares, blankets, and plenty of water. The canyons are susceptible to flash flooding, so inquire about weather conditions (even on sunny days) before entering.

Borrego resorts, restaurants, and the state park have Wi-Fi, but the service is spotty at best. If you need to talk to someone in the area, it's best to find a phone with a landline.

Stop by the visitor center to get oriented, to pick up a park map, and to learn about weather, road, and wildlife conditions. Designed to keep cool during the desert's blazing-hot summers, the center is built underground, beneath a demonstration desert garden containing examples of most of the native flora and a little pupfish pond. Displays inside the center illustrate the natural history of the area. Picnic tables are scattered throughout, making this a good place to linger and enjoy the view.

The sites and hikes listed below are arranged by region of the park and distance from the visitor center: in the valley and hills surrounding Borrego Springs, near Tamarisk Campground, along Highway S2, south of Scissors Crossing, and south of Ocotillo Wells.

A 1½-mile trail leads to Borrego Palm Canyon, one of the few native palm groves in North America. The canyon, about 1 mile west of the visitor center, holds a grove of more than 1,000 native fan palms, a stream, and a waterfall. Wildlife is abundant along this route. This moderate hike is the most popular in the park.

With a year-round stream and lush plant life, Coyote Canyon, approximately 4½ miles north of Borrego Springs, is one of the best places to see and photograph spring wildflowers. Portions of the canyon road follow a section of the old Anza Trail. This area is closed between June 15 and September 15 to allow native bighorn sheep undisturbed use of the water. The dirt road that gives access to the canyon may be sandy enough to require a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The late-afternoon vista of the Borrego badlands from Font's Point, 13 miles east of Borrego Springs, is one of the most breathtaking views in the desert, especially when the setting sun casts a golden glow in high relief on the eroded mountain slopes. The road from the Font's Point turnoff can be rough enough to make using a four-wheel-drive vehicle advisable; inquire about road conditions at the visitor center before starting out. Even if you can't make it out on the paved road, you can see some of the view from the highway.

East of Tamarisk Grove campground (13 miles south of Borrego Springs), the Narrows Earth Trail is a short walk off the road. Along the way you can see evidence of the many geologic processes involved in forming the canyons of the desert, such as a contact zone between two earthquake faults, and sedimentary layers of metamorphic and igneous rock.

The 1.6-mile round-trip Yaqui Well Nature Trail takes you along a path to a desert water hole where birds and wildlife are abundant. It's also a good place to look for wildflowers in spring. At the trailhead across from Tamarisk Campground you can pick up a brochure describing what can be seen along the trail.

Traversing a boulder-strewn trail is the easy, mostly flat Pictograph/Smuggler's Canyon Trail. At the end is a collection of rocks covered with muted red and yellow pictographs painted within the last hundred years or so by Native Americans. Walk about ½ mile beyond the pictures to reach Smuggler's Canyon, where an overlook provides views of the Vallecito Valley. The hike, from 2 to 3 miles round-trip, begins in Blair Valley, 6 miles southeast of Highway 78, off Highway S2, at the Scissors Crossing intersection.

Just a few steps off the paved road, Carrizo Badlands Overlook offers a view of eroded and twisted sedimentary rock that obscures the fossils of the mastodons, saber-tooths, zebras, and camels that roamed this region a million years ago. The route to the overlook through Earthquake Valley and Blair Valley parallels the Southern Emigrant Trail. It's off Highway S2, 40 miles south of Scissors Crossing.

Geology students from all over the world visit the Fish Creek area of Anza-Borrego to explore the canyon through Split Mountain. The narrow gorge with 600-foot walls was formed by an ancient stream. Fossils in this area indicate that a sea once covered the desert floor. From Highway 78 at Ocotillo Wells, take Split Mountain Road south 9 miles.

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200 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA, 92004, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free; day-use parking in campground areas $10, Make a campground reservation at: reservecalifornia.com, Park daily dawn–dusk. Visitor Center Oct.–May 1, daily 9–5

Indian Canyons

Fodor's choice
Indian Canyons
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The Indian Canyons are the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. While hiking three canyons open to the public, you can see remnants of their ancient life, including rock art, house pits and foundations, irrigation ditches, dams, and food-preparation areas. Trails vary in length from 1.2 to 4.7 miles long, are classified as easy or moderate, and are lined with palm oases, waterfalls, rock formations, and, in spring, wildflowers. Tree-shaded picnic areas are abundant.

The Trading Post at the entrance to Palm Canyon, noted for its stand of Washingtonia palms, has trail maps and refreshments as well as Native American crafts. Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep call Murray Canyon home. Fan palms and tall willows contrast with strange rock formations in Andreas Canyon. Ranger-led hikes and talks are included with paid admission, but only they occur from October through June. Note that no animals are allowed. While exploring the canyons, remember you are a guest amid the still-sacred tribal lands.

Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art

Fodor's choice

This installation of “assemblage art” on a sandy 10-acre tract of land in town honors the work of artist Noah Purifoy, whose sculptures blend with the spare desert in an almost postapocalyptic way. Purifoy lived here for the last 25 years of his life until his death in 2004. He used found materials to create works that highlighted social issues, and his pieces have been displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, and elsewhere.

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Fodor's choice
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
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A trip on the world's largest rotating tram car provides a 360-degree view of the desert as it makes the 2½-mile ascent through Chino Canyon and up to an elevation of 8,516 feet in 10 minutes. On clear days, which are common, the view stretches 75 miles from Mt. San Gorgonio in the north to the Salton Sea in the south. In winter, stepping out into the snow at the top, a bit below Mt. San Jacinto's peak, is a treat. In summer, the summit's much cooler temperature is a welcome respite from punishing lower-elevation heat.

Year-round attractions at Mountain Station include observation decks, two restaurants, a cocktail lounge, a gift shop, picnic facilities, a small natural history museum, and two theaters that screen movies on the attraction's construction and on Mount San Jacinto State Park, which is also on the mountain and has 50 miles of hiking trails. In addition, you can take advantage of free guided weekend nature walks, or rent skis and snowshoes at the Adventure Center.

Ride-and-dine packages are available after 4 pm. To avoid long waits, buy tickets online in advance or arrive 30 minutes before the first car leaves in the morning.

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Palm Springs Air Museum

Fodor's choice

This impressive collection of aircraft spans from World War II and Vietnam through the War on Terror and includes showpieces like a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, a King Cobra, F-117A Nighthawk, and Grumman cats. In addition to planes, there are cool murals and exhibits on women in aviation, the Tuskegee Airman, and important battles and military operations of the last 100 years including a Tom Brokaw–narrated Pearl Harbor diorama.

There are no ropes, so you can crawl into or walk under aircraft and feel the metal. You can also watch mechanics rehab flying machines and see a flight demonstration. If you dare and can afford the splurge, take advantage of the museum's coolest offering: a flight in a vintage warbird like the T-28 Trojan, T-33 Thunderbird, and P-51 Mustang.


Fodor's choice

In 1946, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers (the music group for which the town is named), Russ Hayden, and various other entertainers invested in Dick Curtis' dream of building a "living breathing movie set." The result was Pioneertown, an 1880s-style Wild West town on 32,000 acres, surrounded by mesas and rock formations. Its main street featured a mix of false-front buildings (jail, bathhouse, etc.) and fully functioning businesses including a bowling alley, motel, saloon, and post office. More than 50 films/shows including Cisco Kid were made there in the 1940s and '50s.

Although some photo shoots and productions still happen there, most folks roll into town as tourists to grab drinks at the reopened bar; look at the movie memorabilia in the small museum; catch a concert at Pappy + Harriet's; meet the mayor (which is usually a goat, horse, or dog); or shop for pottery, vintage duds, and skin-care products in the shops that now fill many of the wood-and-adobe structures on the pedestrian-only lane. Weekends are especially bustling, with staged gunfights, drive-in movies, food carts, and comedy shows.

Sunnylands Estate, Center & Gardens

Fodor's choice

Despite being an active retreat venue, the stunning 200-acre winter home of the late Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg, which has welcomed eight presidents and first ladies, royalty, numerous world leaders, and countless celebrities, is open to the public for free. You could easily spend a day taking a self-guided audio tour of 9 acres of art-filled grounds; viewing art exhibits; watching a film about the estate and the desert diplomacy that has happened here; grabbing a bite in the café; and participating in wellness activities, classes, or other programs. For an insightful peek inside the 25,000-square-foot mid-century marvel, book a 90-minute Historic House Tour. Guided estate (shuttle and walking options) and birding tours are also available.

37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, CA, 92270, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: House tour $55; historic walking tour $26; guided birding tour $39; open-air shuttle tour of grounds $28; visitor center, gardens, and parking are free, Closed Mon. and Tues. Closed early June–mid-Sept. and during retreats

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Fodor's choice
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
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Come eye-to-eye with more than 600 animals including desert dwellers like wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, cheetahs, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, warthogs, naked mole rats, and owls at the Living Desert, which showcases the flora and fauna found in arid landscapes. Easy to challenging trails traverse terrain populated with plants of the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran deserts. In the African WaTuTu village, you'll find a traditional marketplace, as well as camels, hyenas, and other animals. Wallabies, emus, and kookaburras inhabit the immersive Australian Adventures area.

Get your bearings with a 30-minute shuttle tour. Pet domesticated creatures, including Nigerian dwarf goats, in a "petting kraal," attend zookeeper talks throughout the day. Crawl and climb all over the Gecko Gulch playground, ride a carousel, and check out a hall that holds ancient Pleistocene animal bones.  Time your visit to begin in the early morning to beat the heat and feed the giraffes.

29 Palms Art Gallery

Going strong since 1951 and headquartered in a 1936 adobe abode built by pulp western author and screenwriter Tom Hopkins, this nonprofit organization and gallery hosts exhibitions by local painters, sculptors, and jewelry makers who are inspired by the desert landscape. If you find yourself inspired, sign up for one of the many youth and adult art workshops. There's a small gift shop. 

Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs

This 24-hour downtown casino has 1,000 slot machines, as well as table games, a high-limit room, a coffeehouse, a steak house, and two bars—including a sports-theme one with mammoth screens displaying live games and matches. For dancing and live entertainment, head to the casino's Cascade Lounge.

Cabot's Pueblo Museum

One of the first homesteaders in Desert Hot Springs, Cabot Yerxa, the man often credited with "discovering" the hot springs the Cahuilla Indians had known about for centuries, built a quirky, 35-room, Hopi-inspired pueblo by hand using reclaimed and found materials between 1941 and his death in 1965. Now a museum, the adobe structure is filled with memorabilia from Yerxa's wild life, including his encounters with Hollywood celebrities and his expedition to the Alaskan gold rush. The inside of the home can only be seen on self-guided audio tours, but grounds-only tickets are also available.

67616 E. Desert View Ave., Desert Hot Springs, CA, 92240, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $13 for home tour, grounds-only $5, Closed Mon. Oct.–May 31, Mon. and Sun. June–Sept. 30, Tour slots available every ½ hr

Coachella Valley Preserve

To glimpse how the desert looked before development, head 14 miles northeast of Indio to this 20,000-acre preserve watched over by the Bureau of Land Management. It has a system of sand dunes and several palm oases formed when underground water rose up through the San Andreas Fault lines. A variety of increasingly endangered species live here including Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards, flat-tailed horned lizards, giant red velvet mites, and giant palm-boring beetles. One section, the Thousand Palms Oasis, includes a visitor center, primitive toilets, and a mile-long trail that meanders past pools supporting the tiny endangered desert pupfish. Guided hikes and bird-walks are offered there November through April. Be aware that it's exceptionally hot in summer here.

Faye Sarkowski Sculpture Garden

Established in 2012 by the Palm Springs Art Museum, the 4-acre desert garden, open from sunrise to sunset, holds 14 cutting-edge works by contemporary sculptors, including Donald Judd, Betty Gold, Yehiel Shemi, Felipe Castañeda, Jesús Bautista Moroles, and Dan Namingha.

Hi-Desert Nature Museum

Natural and cultural history of the Morongo Basin and high desert are the focus here. A small live-animal display includes scorpions, snakes, lizards, and little mammals. You'll also find gems and minerals, fossils from the Paleozoic era, taxidermy, and Native American artifacts. There's also a children's area and art exhibits.

Moorten Botanical Garden

In 1938, Chester "Cactus Slim" Moorten, an original Keystone Cop, and his wife, Patricia, opened this showplace for desert plants—now numbering in the thousands—that include an ocotillo, a massive elephant tree, and a boojum tree. Be sure to stroll through the Cactarium, the world's first as the Moortens coined the term, to spot rare finds such as the welwitschia, which originated in southwestern Africa's Namib Desert.

Morongo Casino

A 20-minute drive west of Palm Springs, this casino has nearly 4,000 slot machines, high-limit gaming, big-money tournaments, table games, a poker room, and some fast-casual dining options. It sits on 44 acres alongside a 308-room luxury resort, a pool with sandy beach and lazy river, a full-service spa and salon, a coffee shop, Cielo restaurant, 12,000 square feet of meeting space, and a state-of-the-art venue that draw big names in music and comedy.

National Date Festival and Riverside County Fair

Indio celebrates its raison d'être each February at its date festival and county fair. The mid-month festivities include an Arabian Nights pageant, camel and ostrich races, and exhibits of local dates, plus monster truck shows, a demolition derby, a nightly musical pageant, and a rodeo.

Oasis of Murals

Twenty-six murals painted on the sides of buildings depict the pioneer history, military service, wildlife, and landscape of Twentynine Palms and its past and current residents. The public art project began in 1994 and the group behind it, Action Council for 29 Palms, restores them as needed. You can't miss the art on a drive around town, but you can also pick up a free map from the visitor center.

Palm Springs Art Museum

This world-class art museum, housed in a building by famed architect E. Stewart Williams, focuses on photography, modern architecture, contemporary glass, and fine art. Outside, you're greeted by several large-scale works, including Seward Johnson's 26-foot, 34,000-pound Forever Marilyn statue, which depicts the actress in the iconic, billowing-dress Seven Year Itch pose. Inside, 28 bright, open galleries contain permanent-collection works and photos by such artists as Dale Chihuly, Allen Houser, Deborah Butterfield, Ginny Ruffner, Mark Di Suvero, Julius Shulman, and William Morris. Other highlights include enormous Native American baskets, as well as furniture handcrafted by the late actor George Montgomery.

A 433-seat theater and an 85-seat hall present plays, concerts, lectures, operas, and other cultural events while two gardens are filled with sculptures. There's a great gift shop for classier souvenirs. Free Thursday nights are accompanied by DJ performances. Note, too, that the museum operates a separate Architecture and Design Center ( 300 S. Palm Canyon Dr.), which, coincidentally, is housed within a former savings-and-loan office also built by Williams.

Palm Springs Walk of Stars

Palm Springs Walk of Stars
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More than 400 bronze stars are embedded in the sidewalks (à la Hollywood Walk of Fame) around downtown to honor celebrities with a Palm Springs connection. The Chairman of the Board, Elvis, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Dinah Shore, Ginger Rogers, Liz Taylor, and Liberace are among those who have received their due. Started on Palm Canyon Drive in 1992, stars have spread to Museum Way and Tahquitz Canyon Way.

Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory

Get a good look the night sky at this city-owned observatory next to the public library. The complex includes five high-powered telescopes—four on the deck and a main telescope in the 360-degree observatory dome that's designed to look like a comet. There is a 3 pm tour on weekdays, and stargazing parties are usually scheduled two times a week. Astronomy lectures are also held regularly. 

Salton Sea State Recreation Area

Each year, this huge recreation area on the sea's northeastern shore draws thousands of campers, hikers, anglers, paddlers, and bird-watchers (the park is on the Pacific Flyway). Ranger-guided walking tours take place during the winter migration season (November to February) when up to 4 million birds visit daily. Fishing is best from June through September.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

Jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, this 280,000-acre desert habitat protects animals like Peninsular bighorn sheep and contains areas of geological, cultural, and scientific significance. You can experience the monument using an augmented-reality app or by hiking one of several trails that wind through it. You can access the backcountry from the Coachella Valley and the nearby alpine village of Idyllwild.

Shields Date Garden and Café

Sample, select, and take home some of Shields's locally grown dates. Ten varieties are available, including the giant supersweet royal medjools, along with specialty date products such as date crystals, stuffed dates, confections, and local honey. At the Shields Date Garden Café you can try an iconic date shake, dig into date pancakes, or go exotic with a date burger. Breakfast and lunch are served daily.

For almost a century, Shields Family dates have been grown, sold, and enjoyed on this site, which now includes a 105-seat theater showing “The Romance & Sex Life of the Date” on a loop, a store where you can sample the 10 varieties, gulp down a date shake at the original 1960s counter, and purchase all kinds of snacks and sweets featuring the star fruit, a café serving breakfast and lunch, and a walk through a 17-acre date grove and botanical garden that features 23 biblical statues.

80225 Hwy. 111, Indio, CA, 92201, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Café closed July 4–Aug. 6. Garden closes on very windy days, $5 for garden walk

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

Named after pop star and area congressman Sonny Bono, the 37,900-acre wildlife refuge on the Pacific Flyway is a wonderful spot for viewing migratory birds. There are observation towers, photography blinds, and platforms, as well as numerous trails through desert scrub and wetlands along which you might view eared grebes, burrowing owls, great blue herons, ospreys, yellow-footed gulls, or any of the 400 species that have been documented on and around California's largest lake.  Though the scenery is beautiful, the waters here give off an unpleasant odor, and the New River, which empties into the sea, is quite toxic.

Tahquitz Canyon

Hikers who power through the strenuous 1.8-mile trail, 350 feet of elevation gain, and approximately 100 steep rock steps in this secluded restroom-less canyon on the Agua Caliente Reservation will be rewarded with a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, ancient irrigation systems, and native flora and fauna. Venture out on your own or join ranger-led walks (free with admission), which are conducted four times a day except during the summer when there is only one at 8 am. At the visitor center at the canyon entrance, watch a short video, look at artifacts, and pick up a map. Remember to be respectful as this is sacred tribal land.

500 W. Mesquite Ave., Palm Springs, CA, 92262, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $15, Closed Mon.–Thurs. from July 5–Sept. 30