Palm Springs has long been considered the hot spot for Los Angeles residents who want a desert getaway that includes spa visits, world-class golfing, antique and outlet mall shopping, and spending time in the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Every April, the area swells with music lovers in town for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in nearby Indio. But we love Palm Springs and the surrounding area for its treasure trove of more unusual and unexpected activities that range from visiting Elvis Presley's former love nest to feeding giraffes. Read on for our outside-the-box suggestions for what to do in Palm Springs.
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1. See incredible desert life at Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park is about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, but thanks to the merging of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, it might as well be on another planet. The park is named after the Joshua Tree, a distinct looking varietal of agave with bushy leaves. Popular activities include hiking on marked trails, rock climbing, and horseback riding. Due to the wide open skies and lack of light pollution, nighttime brings some of the best stargazing (apart from celebrity stars, that is) in California.
2. Visit Elvis Presley's former love nest.
Palm Springs is overflowing with mid-century modern homes, which are known to use the surrounding landscapes to influence their design and emphasize local materials and natural light. One of the most famous homes is Elvis’ Honeymoon Hideaway, a 5,000-square-foot house that consists of four circular living spaces stacked on multiple levels. Elvis and Priscilla Presley famously honeymooned here in 1967. It’s easy enough to drive around the most notable neighborhoods of Tennis Club and Araby Cove with your eyes peeled for architectural gems. Alternatively, visitors can pick up a map of mid-century modern landmarks at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, or sign up for a private tour of homes for more detailed information.
3. Take a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Palm Springs is home to the world’s largest rotating tram car. The two-and-a-half mile aerial ride slowly rotates as it takes passengers over the breathtaking cliffs of Chino Canyon and up to the entrance of Mount San Jacinto State Park, where two restaurants, observation decks overlooking Coachella Valley, a natural history museum, and a gift shop are placed at an elevation of 8,516 feet. There are also over 50 miles of hiking trails for those who want to explore.
4. Check out the Cabazon Dinosaurs.
You might recognize the 100-ton Brontosaurus and 65-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex sculptures from their appearance in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” The dinosaurs were originally created as a tourist attraction to bring more diners to the now-defunct Wheel Inn Restaurant. Today, Dinny and Mr. Rex (their nicknames) guard the entrance to a surreal, creationist-themed dinosaur museum that includes fiberglass and robotic dinosaurs, along with a sand pit where visitors can experience a fake archeological dig. We suggest skipping the museum and heading straight to the gift shop inside the Brontosaurus’ stomach.
5. Feed a giraffe.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is a non-profit zoo that has preserved a portion of the Colorado Desert in its natural state for educational purposes. The mostly outdoor exhibits are divided into North American and African environments, and are home to wild cats, a lorikeet aviary, and a petting zoo with African livestock. The Kids Desert playground has cactus-shaped slides and underground animal burrows, but the most popular activities for kids are giraffe feedings and camel rides.
6. Visit a honky-tonk.
Just outside of Joshua Tree National Park sits Pioneertown, originally founded by a group of Hollywood investors who built an 1870s frontier town for filming and tourism purposes. More than 50 Western movies and TV shows were filmed here in the ’40s and ’50s before interest and funding waned. Visitors can still see mock gun fights on Mane Street, but most tourists come here for the music and ribs at Pappy + Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Here, portions of Tex-Mex food are enormous, the outdoor vibe is completely casual, and though local bands usually take the stage, Paul McCartney once popped up as a surprise guest.
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