Top 5 Activities in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park

 

Fun, affordable things to see and do as a family

From Sinatra and Elvis to today’s Hollywood A-listers, showbiz folk have long favored sunny Palm Springs, California, as a desert escape from the glare of megawatt superstardom. Drive a few hours east of Los Angeles International Airport, or fly into Palm Springs International Airport, and you’ll arrive in a resort town where, contrary to popular belief, you won’t need a movie star’s bankroll to have a blast.

It’s true that some signature activities, like spa treatments and rounds of golf, can be expensive, but there is much affordable fun to be had on a family vacation in and around Palm Springs. From kid-friendly activities to art gallery hopping, it’s all here under the Coachella Valley sun.

1. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Ride the world’s largest rotating aerial tramway, whisking you from the desert floor to near the top of piney San Jacinto Peak in 10 minutes. Walk the web of mountain hiking trails (in winter you can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis), snap selfies at the scenic overlooks and grab a bite at the Mountain Station building, which houses a restaurant, cafe and lounge that boast sweeping views of the starkly beautiful valley. Money-saving tip: After 4 p.m., the Ride ‘n’ Dine package gets you a tram ticket and dinner at the cafeteria-style Pines Café for $36 for those ages 13 and up and $23.50 for children ages 3 to 10.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you 2.5 miles up Chino Canyon, near the top of San Jacinto Peak, in 10 minutes. Photo by Glenda and Ken, flickr.

 

2. Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Drive about 15 miles southeast to Palm Desert, where you can feed a giraffe, ride a camel or admire a colorful riot of spring wildflowers at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Kiddos young and old will go wild for everything from spry cheetahs to drowsy desert tortoises. Toddlers love the Gecko Gulch playground, especially the slide shaped like a saguaro cactus. Get up close with some of the smaller critters such as hedgehogs and owls at the animal encounters. Tip: In summer, visit early to avoid the hottest part of the day.

Your ticket to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens includes access to daily keeper chats about giraffes. For $7, you can feed these majestic creatures. Photo by Don Graham, flickr.

 

3. Indian Canyons

Palm Springs’ most popular hiking areas — Andreas, Murray and Palm canyons, collectively the Indian Canyons — get your blood pumping with trails to palm groves, streams and waterfalls on land once inhabited by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The tribe charges a small fee for hiking access, offers ranger-led tours and also manages nearby Tahquitz Canyon, where a 2-mile loop trail meets 60-foot Tahquitz Falls. No matter which canyon you choose, it’s a great way to get the kids to put away their devices and blow off some steam the old-fashioned way.

Groves of California fan palms greet explorers of the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, which feature more than 60 miles of hiking and walking trails.

 

4. Palm Canyon Drive

Palm Canyon Drive is the city’s main drag, and it’s where you’ll find shopping galore — everything from designer boutiques to mom-and-pop antiques dealers. On Thursday evenings, locals and tourists rub elbows during VillageFest, a street fair with handmade crafts and produce vendors, food booths and live entertainment.

Palm Canyon Drive in the heart of Palm Springs is a main attraction for shopping, eating and entertainment.

Many of the city’s best restaurants and nightlife spots also line Palm Canyon Drive. For a surefire dinner, many locals will steer you to Miro’s, a cozy, family-run restaurant serving dishes like beef stroganoff and Hungarian schnitzel. If tender ribs and brisket are more your flavor, try Smoke Tree BBQ bar and grill. After dark, downtown buzzes with couples strolling hand in hand and families in search of dessert. Order a banana split or a scoop of rocky road at Lappert’s, the best ice cream joint in town.

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Roughly 40 miles northeast of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park — a wonderland of desert rocks and dense stands of namesake yucca trees — makes for a superb day trip. Since summer temps often soar past 100 degrees, autumn through early spring is the ideal time to visit. This cooler season also has longer nights, which are perfect for stargazing; visit during a new moon and you’ll be rewarded with especially clear views of stars and the Milky Way.

Drop by the visitor center for a flora and geology lesson. After picking up a free brochure detailing a geology-focused driving tour of the park, start at the intersection of the main park road and Geology Tour Road and leave lots of time for the 16 turnouts and nature trails along the way. Don’t miss the short walks to famed Skull Rock and Arch Rock. Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as bighorn sheep. Another worthy stop is the Cholla Cactus Garden.

When hiking works up your appetite, grab a juicy cheeseburger and a slice of pie at Crossroads Cafe in the nearby town of Joshua Tree.

Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park from Palm Springs Joshua Tree National Park is named for the unique yucca trees that dot the desert landscape. Drive along Geology Tour Road with plans to pull off and explore at any of the 16 stops.

 

Bonus: Free National Park Pass for Fourth Graders

If you’re traveling with a fourth grader, you can take part in the Every Kid in a Park program. Launched in 2015 in celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, it offers a free national park admission pass and encourages students to write about their experiences in the great outdoors. Your child needs to fill out some brief information online and print out a pass to take advantage of the offer.

Distances to Palm Springs: Frequently Traveled Routes

How far is Palm Springs from Los Angeles? 106 miles

  • Distance from Palm Springs to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): 121 miles

  • Distance from Long Beach to Palm Springs: 114 miles

  • Distance from Hollywood to Palm Springs: 112 miles

How far is Palm Springs from San Diego? 140 miles

  • Distance from San Diego International Airport to Palm Springs: 141 miles

How far is Palm Springs from Phoenix? 268 miles

  • Distance from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to Palm Springs: 271 miles

Palm Springs and Joshua Tree Surrounding Cities

How far is Palm Desert from Palm Springs? 14 miles

  • Distance from Cathedral City to Palm Springs: 7 miles

  • Distance from Coachella to Palm Springs: 27 miles

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About the Author

Eli Ellison is a travel writer whose area of expertise is the American Southwest. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, AAA.com and WorldHum.com.