Washingtonians love the oasis of greater Palm Springs. Many “snowbirds” winter in the California desert known as the Coachella Valley. Others come for a “rain getaway,” enjoying a few days to golf and lying next to the pool.
With over 300 days of sunshine, the appeal is clear, but often visitors miss the hidden gems. Beyond the more than 100 golf courses and thousands of swimming pools lies a treasure chest of desert jewels.
California is cautiously reopening, and as of this writing, restaurants and bars are open for outdoor service. Museums and entertainment venues remain closed. Since most activities revolve around being outside, social distancing is easy. Check the most current California COVID restrictions at covid19.ca.gov and come prepared to wear a mask everywhere.
The arid Coachella Valley runs southeast from San Gorgonio Pass, 50 miles to the northern shore of the Salton Sea. The naturally occurring San Gorgonio Pass was created by the San Andreas fault and today serves as a major thoroughfare between Los Angeles and Arizona. The valley is 15 miles wide, bordered on the northeast by the San Bernardino Mountains and on the southwest by the San Jacinto (10,833 feet) and Santa Rosa mountains.
The name Coachella is thought to have come from the Spanish word conchilla, meaning seashell. The valley is part of an ancient inland sea and throughout the Salton, you can find trough fossilized shells.
Today, the valley is made up of multiple towns along the historic Highway 111 and the newer Interstate 10. Population explodes in the winter months from 200,000 to 800,000.
There is nothing wrong with coming here to golf or lie by the pool. But if you want to enjoy a treasure hunt and go a bit rogue in the valley, try the lesser-known jewels of the Coachella.
Let’s start with food because, hey, everyone loves to eat when traveling. The area is well known for mouthwatering dining. But look beyond the crowded five-star Tripadvisor spots to find out-of-sight venues.
John Henry’s — a Palm Springs hidden gem, frequented by locals. Tucked away in an unlikely location with limited parking; call ahead for a reservation.
Paul Bar — an astonishingly delicious, small restaurant in a sad little strip mall near the airport. Don’t be put off by the exterior. Fabulous food.
Chef George — a Hungarian restaurant with a gigantic menu. Few visitors come here. Delicious European fare in La Quinta.
Café Aroma — if you make your way up to Idyllwild, don’t miss Café Aroma; sublime food and wine.
La Cucina Mexican — drive 40 minutes to Anza on the beautiful Palm to Pines Highway (see more below) for tacos at the tiny, authentic and delicious La Cucina Mexican Restaurant. Muy bueno.
Windmill Market — Date shakes are popular throughout the valley, but the teeny Windmill Market in North Palm Springs serves the best (and many other things too).
Though many of the museums are still closed, outdoor sculpture is very popular. Local galleries are open.
El Paseo — stroll the streets of El Paseo in Palm Desert for shopping. Be sure to check out the many galleries, including “A Gallery,” a bit out of the way but worth it. Stop also at the Melissa Morgan Sculpture Garden.
Palm Springs Museum — as of this writing, the indoor museums are closed but the two outdoor sculpture gardens (Palm Springs and Palm Desert) are slated to reopen soon. Check the museum online at psmuseum.org.
Borrego Springs — about 50 minutes southeast of Palm Springs, you’ll find an astonishing collection of scrap metal sculptures scattered around a 10-mile area. Worth the drive.
As of this writing, most of the museums remain closed. Self-guided history tours are a great way to learn about the area.
Midcentury-modern architecture tour — easily done on foot or by car, this tour will take you to beautiful architecture treasures from the Palm Springs midcentury period. Search for “drive-thru modern marvels” at palmspringslife.com for details.
Famous homes tour — best done via car. You will see celebrity homes from past and present. Get the GPSmyCity app on your smartphone to create a tour map.
The desert is bursting with beauty year around. There are multiple ways to get up close and personal with the flora of the desert, in town and afield (watch for rattlers). Highly recommended are:
Sunnylands — this Rancho Mirage historic home and gardens of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg is jaw dropping. The four desert gardens are free to the public, while the gardens around the stunning home built in 1966 can be toured for $25. As of this writing, the interior tour of the home is closed due to COVID. sunnylands.org
Living Desert Zoo and Gardens — even if you aren’t interested in the zoo, the cost of admission is worth it to wander the prodigious living desert adjacent to the zoo, flush with plants and wildlife. If you are an experienced hiker, hike Eisenhower Mountain for spectacular views. livingdesert.org
Coachella Valley Preserve — a true hidden gem, the preserve rarely shows up on the local things to do list. Immerse yourself in the wide variety of desert life from wet sulphurous palm oasis to crumbling hills and dry river beds along the San Andreas Fault. Free. coachellavalleypreserve.org
Moorten Botanical Garden — hidden in plain sight on Palm Canyon Road in Palm Springs, the garden is worth the $5 entrance fee to walk among the private 83-year-old cactus oasis. moortenbotanicalgarden.com
Joshua Tree National Park — don’t miss this unique national park about an hour from Palm Springs. Hike any of the trails or enjoy a leisurely drive through the changing high-desert landscape. The park is the convergence of the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. nps.gov/jotr
Learning New Things
It’s always fun to learn something new on vacation so check out these suggestions for young and old:
Wind Farm Tour — before COVID, this windmill turbine tour was done on a bus, but now individual vehicles up to five persons can take a self-guided tour for $50. Following along on an audio guide as you drive, it’s an educational must-do. windmilltours.com
Shields Date Farm Cultivation Video — a valley institution, Shields has a popular restaurant and date palm garden, but taking the time to watch the fascinating video “The Romance & Sex Life of the Date” is worth the trip. shieldsdategarden.com
If you have the time or are on a road trip where you can include these hidden gems in your itinerary, you won’t regret it:
Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain — The Salton Sea (parks.ca.gov) was created by a breach in the Colorado River in 1907. At 226 feet below sea level, it was once a thriving resort area. Rising salinity due to evaporation has created a lake with few fish and fewer people.
The history of the area (both ancient and recent) is captivating. About 30 minutes east of the Salton Sea, make a pilgrimage to the strange Salvation Mountain (salvationmountain.us). Created by Leonard Knight over a 28-year period, the painted mountain is unique.
Idyllwild via Palm to Pines Highway — the Palm to Pines Highway (Highway 74) is a consummate drive for the views alone. Stop in Julian for pie or head to Temecula for wine. Or, make it an overnighter in historic and charming Idyllwild. This mountain town (5,500 feet elevation) is a true breath of fresh, cool air after time in the desert. idyllwild.com
Come for the winter, spring or fall. Come for a long weekend any time of year. No matter when you visit, take a treasure hunt of the Coachella Valley and discover the hidden gems of the greater Palm Springs region.