The 8 Most Beautiful Places to Spend Time in Nature on a Trip to Palm Springs, According to a Travel Photographer
When you hear Palm Springs, you likely envision the glamorous days of old Hollywood, Midcentury Modern homes with glistening pools under palm trees, and endless miles of golf courses and vintage shopping — all of which makes it such a dreamy destination. But there's another side to the desert oasis that may surprise you.
California is a glorious state from the mountains, redwoods, and vineyards to the beaches and deserts (of which there are three). Geographically, Greater Palm Springs is situated in the Coachella Valley within the Colorado Desert and can take you from the palm tree sprawl of the valley to the pine trees of Mount San Jacinto. The landscapes are breathtaking, and experiencing the natural attractions has the potential to be re-centering, if not life-changing.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a true engineering feat for its time; the completion of construction and first ride took place in 1963. In 2000, the tram cars were updated and became the largest rotating tram cars in the world. Passengers go from an elevation of 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet in just 10 minutes. Once on top there are several areas to explore on the mountain with some of the most photographic views, plus educational exhibits and a restaurant and bar inside the visitor center.
Native home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Indian Canyons offers three different canyons to explore. Throughout the canyons are traces of irrigation systems, reservoirs, food preparation, and housing foundations, all artifacts of early Agua Caliente society. Andreas Canyon is the epitome of desert oasis. The skirted fan palms stand tall along the creek, nestled among extravagant rock formations — providing cool shade beside the calming sound of running water for the ultimate natural tranquility. In Palm Canyon, visitors can hike or horseback ride into the canyon and explore the world's largest oasis of Washingtonia filifera (California fan palm). The winding path is the perfect way to observe the juxtaposition of desert rocks and green palm trees.
Shields Date Garden
Besides tourism, agriculture is the largest industry of the valley. For a taste, plan the classic stop to Shields Date Garden in Indio. Have lunch at The Cafe, stock up on fresh dates and date crystals, and do not skip The Theater. The uninitiated will learn how dates came to be one of the biggest crops in the Coachella Valley and will be able to observe the techniques, both old and new, used to farm them. For further education on the agricultural history of the area, visit Coachella Valley History Museum. Driving through Indio, you'll see rows of date groves and some of the hardworking farmers who help bring them to your table.
Palm Springs Windmills
For 40 years, the windmills of Palm Springs have served as a larger-than-life welcome sign to travelers near and far. The massive wind turbines farm a different type of green — one that is sustainable and provides cleaner energy sources to the state. To see them in motion is mesmerizing.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Unlike the average zoo, the magic of The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert is in its open and sprawling spaces for the animal exhibitions. Giraffes peek over grassy knolls and birds fly freely within the Australian habitat. Conservation of desert life is the heart of the zoo's mission and exploring the variety of wildlife is a not only educational but also inspiring experience.
San Andreas Fault
The San Andreas fault runs through the Coachella Valley, and you can see part of the fault line up close with Red Jeep Tours. Any curious mind will find the tour enthralling as you bump along in the open-air jeep and discover the fault's effects on the rock formations. The sunset tour is the most picturesque and includes an unparalleled view of the clear night skies.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens
A spectacular and tranquil garden surrounds the Sunnylands Center in Rancho Mirage, home to The Annenberg Foundation Trust. The gardens consist of 70 native and arid adapted plant species that were meticulously designed by The Office of James Burnett, landscape architect. Visually stunning rows of cacti, succulents, and drought-tolerant grasses are intentionally calming and whimsical — the inspiration for the garden came from the Annenbergs' famed collection of Impressionist paintings. Stroll the 15 acres and get inspired by the landscape which is capped by the panoramic view of Mount San Jacinto.
Joshua Tree National Park
Last but certainly not least is Joshua Tree National Park. While technically not in Palm Springs or the Coachella Valley, the popular national park is within an hour's drive from the airport. Joshua Tree stretches both the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert, making for an expansive array of flora and fauna. The park is also an International Dark Sky Park, perfect for perfecting astrophotography. To complete a full-circle Palm Springs trip, take the Keys View trail for a full view of Coachella Valley.