Just over two hours from Los Angeles and boasting its own international airport, the Coachella Valley is a fun, active destination for Angelenos looking for a quick getaway and travelers looking to bask in Southern California’s perpetually sunny weather. Every spring, tens of thousands of music lovers descend upon the region for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and many opt to spend a few extra days exploring the activity-rich area.
The Coachella Valley is comprised of Cathedral City, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage, and I opted to focus my trip on Palm Springs and Palm Desert. Almost anywhere you choose to stay in the area will have ample opportunities for lounging by the pool, nearby golf and tennis options, and hikes for nearly all levels of fitness. To satisfy your adventure and shopping desires, my personal favorites include the Desert Adventures Jeep tours, budget-friendly eats and shopping along El Paseo Drive in Palm Desert, checking out the antics of animals at The Living Desert, hiking in Indian Canyons, and enjoying an evening strolling through the renowned VillageFest in Palm Springs.
Below, in fuller detail, are my thoughts on all five—plus how to get there:
- Desert Adventures Jeep tours
- Budget-friendly eats and shopping on El Paseo Drive
- The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens
- Hiking in the Indian Canyons
- Palm Springs VillageFest
- How to get there
1. Desert Adventures Jeep tours (website)
Desert landscapes surround the Palm Springs and Palm Desert area, but I discovered the best way to truly experience the environment was via an open-air Jeep tour. I opted for Desert Adventures since they offer experiences that literally go off the beaten path and bring participants into areas that are completely inaccessible without a tour.
Our leader, De, picked us up in a special open-air red Jeep that fit seven passengers; one in the front, and two rows of three facing each other on the side. Riding through the streets with the wind whipping through our hair was the perfect start to the adventure.
As she drove, De educated us on the history of the Coachella Valley. We made a stop to see Colorado River water and learn about how water travels. She discussed the variety of agriculture in the area and shared that the number-one crop was table grapes. I hadn’t had a specific interest in water or agriculture prior to the tour, but it left me curious to research more.
Our next stop was to see a massive palm oasis, with trees boasting giant, untrimmed skirts. Nearby man-made sand dunes featured patterns of coyote footprints. Since it was only visited by participants on the tours, the area felt raw and unkempt. De pointed out palm fruit and other local edible plants, which we were able to taste. (In my opinion, the palm fruit looked a bit like a misshapen raisin.) Under the cover of the massive skirts of the palm trees, where we ducked to avoid the sun, felt like another world.
We then hopped back in the Jeep and traveled to the original site of a Cahuilla (pronounced Kaw-we-ah) Indian village. The company created an experience to represent what the actual village had been like. We were able to get a sense of the Indians’ living experience and even tested out a custom-built sweat lodge—which I can imagine would have felt eerily authentic during the heat of a Palm Desert summer!
Following our taste of Indian culture, we traveled to a spot that gave us a stunning view of the area’s mountain ranges and where De manually changed our wheels over to four-wheel drive. We learned that many of the tall mountains the products of San Andreas Fault activity and that the area contained some mountain ranges that ran east/west instead of north/south—which was particularly unusual.
De brought out maps and gave us a brief but comprehensive overview of earthquakes and fault lines. For the first time since I experienced the 1994 Northridge quake, the information felt real—and relevant. There was something undeniably cool about having a guide explain fault lines and such at the actual location of one. It felt more raw than looking at seemingly abstract charts in a beat-up textbook as an elementary school student. Sitting in a Jeep right near the San Andreas fault and learning about how overdue Southern California was for another major earthquake made the reality of that possibility feel even more stark.
Tip: De informed us that the San Andreas Fault is roughly 800-miles long, ranging from 100-feet to two-miles across. Many tour participants half-expected to see an actual and dramatic fault “line” during our visit, although De explained that wasn’t the case here. Hence, our cheesy tourist photos would be limited to a sign announcing the fault.
After De’s Earthquake 101, the true fun began. She maneuvered the Jeep through tight, winding canyons and I briefly flashed back to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Jagged rocks at staggering angles surrounded us as the vehicle made sharp turns, with surprises and eye-opening vistas around each corner.
We stopped at Fossil Canyon to do the Horseshoe hike, which involved tight spaces and the opportunity to climb up into a small hole in the mountain at the end for a photo op. Later, we drove through Hole in the Wall Canyon, where a curious coyote ran by our car.
The tour fulfilled my duel desires for both soft adventure as well as education. In addition to the San Andreas Fault Jeep Eco-Tour I did, the company offered a similar option that included a stargazing lesson at the conclusion of the tour.
2. Budget-friendly eats and shopping on El Paseo Drive
Shopping aficionados won’t want to miss El Paseo, Palm Desert’s answer to Rodeo Drive. Abound with high-end stores, top restaurants, thousands of flowers, art galleries, a distracting view of the mountain as well as artwork in the center median, simply walking El Paseo is as much of an experience as is shopping or dining there. My favorite spot is The Gardens, a special shopping section on El Paseo featuring perfectly manicured and expansive gardens, ample space to sit and relax, and luxury stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Co., Louis Vuitton, and Cole Haan, among others.
Although much of the shopping along El Paseo might be beyond an average traveler’s budget, many restaurants are surprisingly affordable—if you’re willing to be flexible with your timing. Every week, budget travelers and cost-conscious locals flock to the many food-related happy hours available on El Paseo. Restaurants that might otherwise be out-of-budget, such as Sullivan’s, Pacifica, Ristorante Mama Gina, and Wolfgang Puck, offer incredible deals on both food items as well as drinks, typically between 3-6 pm or 3-7 pm. If you don’t mind an early meal, this is your best bet to enjoy a higher-end restaurant without decimating your food budget. We opted for Pastry Swan Baker’s The Fix for happy hour (they’ve dubbed it Attitude Adjustment Hour) and ordered a slew of food options including wings, a wedge salad and nachos ($6 each) to share. Drink specials averaged $3-$4.
3. The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens (website)
Due to its large space and focus on education, The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens feels like a non-traditional alternative to a typical zoo experience. If you need a short break from the cuteness and antics of the animals, the huge model train exhibit (current as of April 2015) provides nearly endless entertainment. There’s a heavy focus on learning about plant life as well. I was heartened to learn that rehabilitation was a big part of The Living Deserts’ mission, and their Wildlife Rehabilitation program works hard to help orphaned and injured animals.
Tip: As an added benefit, visitors can also opt to enjoy a hike on a nearby trail before or after hanging out with jaguars, eagles and ostriches.
Before you arrive, check the daily schedule to learn about times for giraffe feedings, reptile shows and chats with keepers. Also: If you’re a fan of Pumbaa the warthog from The Lion King, don’t forget to check out the new litter of warthogs that arrived this spring.
Located at 47900 Portola Avenue in Palm Desert, the Living Desert is just up the hill from El Paseo Drive—and both can easily be enjoyed in a day.
4. Hiking in the Indian Canyons (website)
Exploring the Indian Canyons on a hike is a definite highlight for outdoor enthusiasts. The desert landscapes, streams and unique flora and fauna provide for a unique experience, and hikers of all skill levels can find a trail to suit their tastes.
For us, a secondary highlight was our stop at the Trading Post to peruse books, learn about the history of the Indians in the area and purchase local crafts.
5. Palm Springs VillageFest (website)
I kicked off my long weekend by heading to VillageFest (aka the Palm Springs street fair) on Thursday night. Palm Canyon Drive serves as the backdrop to a curious mixture of vendors at the weekly street fair, selling everything from wine bottle designs to muscle gel to gourmet coffee to unique art. Live music tickles the air on select corners while locals and travelers alike stroll down the multiblock experience, many opting to explore the fair prior to or following dinner in the area. Although Palm Canyon is the main highlight to see vendors, we also veered a block away to check out the Hard Rock Hotel—which is also excellent for people watching.
Tip: We opted to wing our dinner plans and quickly learned that restaurant waits during VillageFest were a bit longer than we anticipated. Next time, I’d opt to put in my name at a restaurant first and then check out the fair. If you’re in a hurry, there are also a plethora of food vendors at VillageFest offering quick bites to suit a variety of tastes.
My two favorite restaurants in the area are Matchbox—where the thin-crust pizzas and views of the street fair are definite highlights—and Las Casuelas Terraza, which features write-home-about guacamole, live music and dancing.
VillageFest is held on Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, between Baristo and Amado. Street parking and free parking lots are available nearby. It takes place every Thursday from 6-10 pm from October to May and from 7-10 pm from June to September.
6. How to get there
Palm Springs Airport is the closest local airport, although some visitors opt to fly into Ontario Airport (~1 hour away.) A car is a near necessity since the buses can be difficult to navigate, although Uber and cabs are always an option. Palm Springs and Palm Desert are roughly 20 minutes apart by car.
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