As we descended into Palm Springs International Airport, I half wondered whether we were doing the right thing in visiting the same vacation destination twice within 6 months. After all, our first trip to the Coachella Valley had only just taken place in May and now here we were – less than halfway through November and already back again! Would it seem redundant? Had I been overeager in booking our return trip within 48 hours of arriving home last time??
One thing about this trip was certainly different – we’d brought another generation with us! Despite being veteran world travelers who have been to some of the most remarkable destinations on earth, my in-laws had yet to visit this particular area, located just a 3-hour flight from their home in Alberta. We were sure they’d enjoy it and were looking forward to spending some time with them, letting them enjoy their grandkids (ahem… date night?) and showing off the parts of the valley that we’d already discovered.
And wow, did we ever get off to a great start! OK, to tell the truth, we spent Day 1 getting some groceries and then lolling about the pool trying to get a hint of colour on our winter-white skin. It was a great start, though perhaps not super article-worthy. But we really got going on Day 2, when we were picked up by De, our favourite and requested driver & tour guide from Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours & Events. Having already experienced the amazing San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour on our last trip, this time we were headed off on another of their other most popular adventures, the Indian Canyons Jeep & Hiking Tour. And such an adventure we had!
Driving from our hotel in Rancho Mirage, De pointed out notable landmarks (we drove right past Frank Sinatra’s house!), and regaled us with stories about the many celebrities and politicians who have lived in and visited the Palm Springs area. Did you know that JFK snubbed Frank Sinatra by refusing to stay in Frank’s Palm Springs house, thus ending their friendship?? Me neither! We drove to a viewpoint near the canyons from which De could best explain to our first-timers about the fascinating geological history that has created the Coachella Valley. From geological to First Nations to the Hollywood influx, I don’t think there’s anything about Palm Springs history that De doesn’t know. And then we were off to the canyons! Indian Canyons describes an area of five canyons just outside of Palm Springs proper: Chino, Palm, Tahquitz, Murray and Andreas canyons are part of the traditional lands of the Agua Caliente first nations and the area is renowned for its wonderful hiking and scenery.
Our first canyon was Andreas, where De introduced us to all the features of a desert oasis, including letting us taste the fruits of the California Fan Palm, the native palm of the area. Although our multi-generational clan didn’t feel quite up to the full 1 mile hike, De made sure we experienced the canyon to the best of our abilities and gave us a thorough rundown on the area’s fascinating history, including some colourful characters in its history. The amount of water flowing through the canyon was a big surprise and we learned that during spring runoff, all the canyons can experience truly torrential run off. Check out the photo immediately below to see why first nations and early settlers would have seen Andreas Canyon as an ideal place to get away from the harsh conditions of the surrounding desert. Keep in mind, I had clean clear water flowing just behind me when I took the picture!
En route to our next stop, we caught a glimpse of the true power of nature, when the road passed between two halves of an enormous rock that was split in half during one of those torrential flash floods.
Our final stop of the tour was Palm Canyon, which contains one of North America’s largest oases. Standing on the rim of the canyon, overlooking the oasis was breathtaking.
From here, De led us on a super short hike to West Fork Falls… where we saw not a drop of water! Why is it called a Falls? During the spring, most of the trail were were walking on is covered by runoff making its way down the canyon, but in the late fall it is entirely dry, allowing us to clamber on rocks polished smooth by rushing water. It was divine.
Our ultimate destination was a shallow cave hollowed out by the torrents that flow through. Suffice to say that seeing West Fork Falls in the spring, when the water is flowing, is now on my personal bucket list! Having had a wonderful introduction to the Indian Canyons area, I can’t wait to go back with a map or guide book and explore more of the myriad hiking trails. And I hope we can try yet another Red Jeep Tour on our next visit to the PS. We still haven’t made it to Joshua Tree National Park!
Centrally located in Rancho Mirage, the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert has a beautiful modern campus and offers something for every age group. On the day we visited, our kids started with a few laps of the outdoor trike track, then popped into the Clifford-themed exploration area that is just perfect for little ones (especially toddling through preschool) and then into the How Things Work Space to experiment with gears, perform balance challenges, build LEGO vehicles to race on the track and enjoy lots more STEM-oriented activities.
But the biggest building (attached to the entrance) is what held our group’s attention the longest. From make believe (think kid-size grocery store and vet clinic) to stop-motion animation, art (I Spy – how many things can you find?) and areas for building, experimenting and making art, this is kid-heaven. It was the brain teasers and puzzles, however, that I had a hard time dragging the adults away from!
I highly recommend checking out CDMOD when you’re visiting the valley with kids and you should also find out if they happen to be offering Drop Off & Dine during your visit. The kids play and learn at CDMOD, while you get to enjoy an evening at the restaurants and shops of The River open air entertainment plaza!
Despite having visited the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on our last visit, our kids needed no convincing to do it again and show it off to their grandparents! The 10-minute ride up in a rotating tram car and exceptional views from the top make this worth repeat visits and, although we didn’t have time for a hike on this visit, we already know that the 50+ miles of hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park are yet another reason to head on up to the summit.
Our family doesn’t golf. Or should I say… we had never golfed before? With this (see below) stunning view of the Pete Dye Golf Course from our balcony at the Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas, it seemed a shame not to at least give it a go. So we got in touch with Westin Golf Academy – located a short walk away on the same property at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa – and booked a family lesson.
Despite our morning start, the mercury was already rising, so we hopped on one of the resorts’ many courtesy carts for an easy-breezy trip to the clubhouse. Our friendly PGA pro instructor, David Curtis, met us at there and outfitted the whole family with appropriate clubs, lefties included. Over at the driving range, he put all of us newbies at ease and then walked the whole family through the basics of swinging a golf club. Between his demos and our attempts, we all managed to learn how to do a half-decent drive, chip and pitch. Since we already know about putting (mini golf!), we now have all the skills needed to play the game. Tiger Woods, watch your back!
OK, we do still need a whole lot of practice, but can now understand why people get hooked on hitting that little white ball; this particular family is looking forward to golfing again!
To my mind, every good trip – even a true vacation – involves at least a little learning. Our jeep trip and visit to the children’s discovery museum provided that, but there’s always room for more. Turns out that another great place to do some learning in Greater Palm Springs is at the Palm Springs Air Museum. And don’t worry, there won’t be any grumbling from the kids about museums being boring… when you can climb into a cockpit, see how an ejection seat feels, admire a collection of fighter jets, try your hand at flight simulators and watch a diorama reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, boring is not on the menu!
Manned by volunteers who are also veterans (including some whose active service involved the very planes and ships on display!), this Palm Springs museum houses an immense collection of World II and Korea/Vietnam era aircraft and memorabilia within 65K square feet of hangar space and on the tarmac outside. Even if it’s hot, I do recommend you head outside for a peek at the fighter jets, military vehicles and helicopters out there. The outdoor collection also gives you a great view of the runways at Palm Springs International Airport, so aviation fans have another reason not to miss it!
A number of the planes in the museum’s collection are still flyable so cross your fingers that your visit coincides with a special event when you can see them in the air, or sign up for a Warbird Ride for the ultimate experience! Don’t miss the B-17 Flying Fortress in the 3rd hangar and if tummies are rumbling, fill up at the good little cafeteria right beside its port wing. Talk about lunch with a view!
Sunnylands (a.k.a. The Annenberg Estate) is the former home of philanthropists and socialites Walter and Leonore Annenberg and a perfect example of the area’s renowned mid-century modernist architecture. The estate is renowned for having played ‘home away from home’ to many notable 20th century figures, including seven U.S. presidents, the British royal family and Hollywood icons like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers and many others. When we learned that access to the Sunnylands Visitor Center and Gardens is free, we decided it would be the perfect way to spend a morning before catching our flight home. And it was!
While the historic estate is not visible from the center, the center is notable in its own right for striking modern architecture and beautiful sculptured gardens featuring native plants, walking paths and water features. The historic estate and home can be toured with advance reservations; this is very high on our list of things to do on our next visit.
Evenings in the Coachella Valley are special. Whether we were grilling on the deck of our villa, hanging out in the hot tub, eating outside at one of the area’s excellent restaurants (Tommy Bahama in Palm Desert and Jackalope Ranch in Indio were favourites) or wandering through the VillageFest street market on Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, our November evenings were notable for warm temperatures, bright stars and twinkly lights everywhere!
So, in answer to my own question… our first visit to the Greater Palm Springs area was no fluke; we LOVE this place and so did my in-laws (I think they were actually a bit surprised how much fun we managed to pack into just 1 week while keeping both adults and kids super happy). After two visits, we still feel like there’s so much we still want to do – and do again – that we will surely be back to the Coachella Valley as soon as regular life allows!
Many thanks to Greater Palm Springs – Find Your Oasis for providing some attractions and meals and to the Westin Mission Hills Golf Academy for our family lesson. The opinions expressed here are my own. ~am