International desert playground
On Hwy-111, 103 miles East of Los Angeles. Internationally famous as a desert playground for the rich and famous, Palm Springs may well be America’s most sybaritic community – but it’s also far smaller and less elitist (and much less expensive) than its high rolling reputation would have you believe. In fact, much of what the outside world thinks of as Palm Springs includes the other Coachella Valley communities – such as the truly wealthy Rancho Mirage – grouped shoulder-to-shoulder along Hwy-111. Palm Springs itself extends for only a few square miles and its southwestern edge is walled by the San Jacinto Mountains, so close you could reach out and touch them.
For years a forlorn, barely-populated desert outpost, Palm Springs got into gear in the 1930s when the screen stars of Hollywood began arriving in droves. Attracted by the warm climate, the (then) cheap land and the chance to escape the Hollywood paparazzi, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich were among the first big names to have homes built here. They have since been followed by a veritable Who’s Who of the entertainment industry (including the town’s long-serving mayor, Sonny Bono) plus numerous ex-presidents and countless millionaires. Remarkably, though, Palm Springs major landowners are the Agua Caliente Native Americans, a section of the Cahuilla tribe who were granted parcels of the area (even though they’d lived on it for countless generations) in a chessboard-style arrangement with the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1870.
The town makes the most of its delightful setting. Palm fronds are arranged over traffic lights to prevent glare diminishing the clarity of the star-filled night sky; micromist systems spray fine jets of water on restaurant patios to cool (but not soak) diners; and the golf courses, more than 70 of them, are irrigated by recycled water.
Undoubtedly a great place in which to do absolutely nothing, Palm Springs does have a couple of places worth making the effort to see; the Palm Springs Art Museum ( https://www.psmuseum.org), 101 Museum Drive, an ultra modern facility with changing exhibitions of western and desert art, natural history and anthropology – the sculpture-filled garden was financed by Frank Sinatra; and Moorten’s Botanical Garden ( http://www.moortenbotanicalgarden.com), 1701 S. Palm Canyon Drive, a bird and wildlife sanctuary with a mesmerizing stock of desert plants and cacti.
Spotting celebrity’s homes is a popular Palm Springs pastime. The necessary map is available free from the Visitor Information Agency (http://www.visitpalmsprings.com), though you’ll have more fun seeing the same houses with the commentary provided by Desert Adventures ( http://red-jeep.com ; tel. +1 888 440 5337) who also lead tours into the surrounding desert and canyons. By contrast, nobody famous ever lived in the 1884 McCallum Adobe, the oldest house in Palm Springs and, filled with remnants of the town’s earliest days. On this briefly diverting historical plot, you’ll also find the “Little House,” built in 1893 of old railway sleepers, and Ruddy’s General Store Museum, a detailed reconstruction of a 1938 if-they-make-it, we’ll-sell-it shop.
For a bird’s-eye view of Palm Springs and a chance to escape the desert floor heat, take the Aerial Tramway ( https://www.pstramway.com) – off Hwy-111 just west of town – and rise 6,000-feet in 20 minutes to Mount San Jacinto State Park ( http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636), a sub-alpine landscape covered by 50 miles of hiking and horse trails (which the winter snows transform into ski-trails). One of the trails leads to the 10,000-ft summit of Mount San Jacinto and gives unparalleled views over the Coachella Valley and far beyond. A sight which pioneering California naturalist John Muir described as “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.”
Detour – Indian Canyons
Five miles from the centre of Palm Springs, a toll-gate on S. Palm Canyon Drive gives access to the Indian Canyons, a series of palm-filled canyons within the stark folds of the San Jacinto Mountains. The toll is paid to the Agua Caliente people and the canyons form part of their tribal homelands. The Agua Caliente operate a trading post here, selling arts and handicrafts, and the maps, which are essential for visiting the canyons. On a first trip, Palm Canyon is the simplest to explore: a paved footpath leads from a car-park through the canyon – which holds the world’s largest single gathering of palm trees, around 7,000 at the last count – and reaches several points where prehistoric desert people have left their mark.
Detour – Rancho Mirage
On Hwy-111, 11 miles South East of Palm Springs. Contrary to popular belief, those greats of American showbiz such as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope don’t actually have homes in Palm Springs but live in Rancho Mirage, a community composed of guarded estates, ultra-exclusive country clubs and very well maintained (thanks to astronomical membership fees) golf courses. Being incredibly rich and famous can have its pitfalls, however, as demonstrated by the presence of the Betty Ford Clinic, a high-cost detoxification facility named after the wife of former president, Gerald Ford – who also happens to live in Rancho Mirage.