Perhaps it’s spring fever but after a year of being far too home bound, I had to break out and looked east to the desert. Miles of natural beauty, an international biennial sculpture show, and renowned installations made it easy to settle on a central hub. There are so many day trips from Palm Springs to choose from but for this trip, I focused on art – both curated and outsider varieties. I packed the car and picked my sister up at the Palm Springs Airport. With culture, history, great food, and a host of amenities we easily filled our Southern California road trip itinerary.
Structure Your Day Trips From Palm Springs
- Arrive: Palm Springs Airport or drive from Los Angeles (approximately 2 hours,) the San Diego area (approximately 2.5 hours, or Las Vegas (approximately 4 hours.)
- Pick up Desert X 21 maps at the Ace Hotel or the Windmill City Shop on Palm Canyon Drive (the main boulevard through town.)
- Check into accommodations.
- The Palm Springs area hosts all kinds of delightful accommodations from big resorts to tiny bungalows. I adore the Palm Springs Small Preferred Hotels selections. The Monkey Tree Hotel is close to the Tennis club and away from the main area. Read about it in this earlier post.
- The first hotel you see when driving in from the north is the Inn at Palm Springs. It was recently renovated and splashed with color. Each room has a different decor theme and faces the central pool. I loved the cozy and socially distanced sitting areas. The variety of furniture and pool toys are a treat. It’s a modest spot that hits all the right notes when you don’t plan on making your stay about the hotel.
- Stay where the stars played in the fabulous 50’s. Gloria Swanson, screen idol and great beauty, spent weekends away from Hollywood at her sweet home near the Palm Springs Swimming and Tennis Club. The home has been luxuriously renovated into the stylish Amin Casa.
- The largest and brightest, Saguarro Hotel, is a trendy spot with its famous party pool and popular outdoor dining. Every space is covered in bright paint and artful angles spring out of the lawn, hammocks swing near the pool, and wire sculpted furniture fills the lobby. Want a quiet space to lay your head? Ask for a room facing away from the pool. There aren’t coffee pots in the room, but the lobby café makes one of the best cappuccinos I’ve had in the States.
- Once you’re rested up and have selected which day trips from Palm Springs to make, take to the road.
Desert X 21 – March 12 to May 16th
This is the third round in Palm Springs of the popular, world-renowned Desert Biennial. That means: Plan your visit during the weekday or start early on the weekends to avoid crowds. The installations are placed throughout the valley, from the hills of Desert Hot Springs to the main road in Cathedral City. I spent the better part of three days driving to the different sites.
Tip: Stay flexible. Prepare for weather from high winds to high temperatures. We had to postpone visiting one of the sites due to windy conditions but returned closer to sunset when the view was even better. A few of the sites require advance registration between Thursday and Sunday – sign up online. It’s easy to arrange and navigate using the Desert X App.
Robolights Year Round
Palm Springs has homegrown artists too and one of the most edgy destinations has been created by Kenny Irwin. For years, he’s collected cast-offs and creates monolithic robotic displays across his family estate. They spring to life during the holiday season, unless he’s out of town. In 2019 he erected a Robolights in Detroit across a lot at the Museum of Art. You can still drive or walk by the home block anytime of day. Here’s a taste of Robolights from a few years back:
Movie Sets and Eccentrics – Shopping and History Day Trips from Palm Springs
Step into the Wild West in Pioneertown. If you love unique, photographic sites, the weathered grain of wooden storefronts and shops are worth the visit. That desert look has been mecca a for movie makers for over 80 years.
In the 1940’s, Pioneertown was built by a small group of actors and their friends. “Their goal was simple and unique: to create a place where they could work (and play) with friends, family and co-workers. A functioning 188o’s themed town which was easily accessible from both Los Angeles & Palm Springs and would serve as a filming location, vacation destination & permanent residence for people working in the entertainment industry, ranchers and desert lovers alike.”( From the Pioneertown site.) The plans didn’t turn out due to a lack of safe drinking water but still over 40 movies and 50 Television shows have been filmed along the ‘Mane’ Street location.
Today it’s still a visually stunning location with a few restaurants and quirky shops to wander. I enjoyed the ‘Cowboy’ Coffee at the Red Dog Saloon. They brew the slightly sweet drink with a hint of Mezcal and whipped cream top drizzled with molasses. Very tasty and good for warding off the chilly desert wind. I’d dip into one of their draft brews on a hotter day. The vegetarian wraps were small but each a true taste treat. Order several. Another colorful and popular spot is Pappy and Harriets, but the packed parking lot wasn’t a match for my pandemic cautions. Find out about other dining options here.
Hunting for Treasures
If you’re into thrifting, save time to stop in Yucca on the way back to Palm Springs. There are amazing furniture finds but my sister and I value shopping for clothes together – we’ve done it since we were teens. Our find this trip: The Black Luck Vintage Shop. The friendly owner took social distancing seriously and only let a few in to the shop at at time. There are several other stops on the main road. This was a spontaneous stop on my day trips from Palm Springs but turned into a favorite.
Hot Water and Miracle Hill
Desert Hot Springs is home to glorious and notorious spas like Two Bunch Palms, also favored in several movies but the town didn’t flourish until one man found the water that put it on the map.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum
Artist, community visionary, humanitarian and environmentalist, Cabot Yerxa was no stranger to risk. In 1913, he homesteaded 160 acres in what is now Desert Hot Springs. Water was key to survival and while digging he found the mineral hot springs that have made the place famous. Still looking for potable water, he kept digging and discovered a cold water aquifer. The two wells gave the neighborhood its name, Miracle Hill.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle
Between 1941 and 1950, Cabot built his home and a museum from discards and he kept salvaging from abandoned cabins, dragged driftwood home from the Salton Sea and reframed glass panes to the end of his days. His rambling ‘pueblo’ is open to visitors still. It’s watched over by an enormous statue of the legendary, Waokiye. The 43 foot tall giant Indian head is carved from an incense cedar tree. The name means ‘traditional helper’ in the Lakota Sioux language.
The hours change depending on the season so check the museum website before visiting. There’s also an audio tour.
Two-Dimensional Art in Coachella Village
While mural art can be found throughout the Coachella Valley from Joshua Tree to Anza Borrego, the Coachella Walls Project is a cohesive and mission-oriented series. The project launched in 2014 to honor field workers and farmers. It’s some of the best I’ve seen with local artists as well as Los Angeles based creatives mixing paint together. I first visited in February and was stunned to see new work emerge two months later. If you go, order a cup of coffee at the local shop or treat yourself to something from the panaderia or local café. Support the locals!
And Now Something Completely Different – Bombay Beach
My beginners eye-view of what’s going on in this tiny community on the edge of the dying Salton Sea leaves lots to the imagination but I can show you pictures. There’s much more to learn about the people creating these structures, and others across the desert, in the documentary: Iconicity by Director, Leo Zahn. Dig into the popcorn and enjoy.
This paint splashed Christian inspired monument is on the edge of Slab City. It was closed to visitors due to the pandemic but worth pulling over when driving south along the east side of the Salton Sea.
Walk Between Monsters From The Past
Originally metal artist, Ricardo Breceda forged giant replicas of creatures that once roamed the desert reaches of Southern California. My favorites of his are the more fantastical pieces like a sea serpent that stretches across a road and a giant grasshopper that reminds me of 1950’s sci-fi movies. His commissioned artworks are spread across the property called Galleta Meadows but have also popped up across town. This is one of the furthest of the day trips from Palm Springs but doable with planning. There’s a detailed map showing the location of over 120 of his sculptures available from the Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association gift shop or online.
It’s possible to visit all of these in a few days but don’t rush. Save time to peruse the many upscale Consignment Shops, or thrift spots, if that’s your thing. Don’t miss seeing the beautiful homes in the Hollywood Colony and step out of the desert heat in the Palm Springs Museum, once it reopens. Hopefully, the Desert X Biennial will return in 2023 to a pandemic free world. Until then given a car and the time, find your own artful day trips from Palm Springs.