Palm Springs, California
Nestled in the Coachella Valley of the Sonoran desert and sheltered by mountains from nearly every angle, Palm Springs has been a hot-spot oasis for well over a century, drawing in Hollywood celebrities and heat-seeking snowbirds, golfers, hot spring spa tourists and modern bohemians.
They’re all in search of their own version of desert solitude. Known for its old-Hollywood resort history, tasteful mid-century design, and districts full of upscale boutiques and fine dining delights, Palm Springs earned its reputation as an all-encompassing recreational destination capable of appeasing all appetites and budgets.
You can immerse yourself in ethereal desert landscapes here without breaking the bank. Here are some of Amazing America’s favorite ways to get outside and explore Palm Springs and its neighboring area.
The Best Hikes in Palm Springs: Tahquitz Canyon, South Lykken Trail and Cactus To Clouds
Palm Springs has dozens of hikes for every ability and motivation in its immediate vicinity, and you could easily spend weeks in the greater Desert Empire and not account for it all. For an inaugural Palm Springs visit or lighter activity day, Tahquitz Canyon and Indian Canyons, found on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, are two locations that couple memorable outdoor experiences: waterfalls, refreshing hot spring swimming holes, and one of the largest California Fan Palms Oases in the world. You’ll enjoy the luxury of convenience, as both canyons are right in Palm Springs, and you can choose casual hikes that clock in at under two or three miles.
For the more ambitious-minded, the South Lykken Trail, also with a starting point right in the city, is a Palm Springs locals’ favorite, especially around sunrise before temperatures quickly climb in the afternoon sun. It never seems too crowded, especially for a downtown Palm Springs trail, and offers enough challenging sections and steeper grades to make it feel like a rewarding workout. It’s just under nine miles if you do the entire bit, but you can easily call it a day at one of the earlier vista points. Either way, there are brilliant views of Palm Springs and the surrounding valley throughout; be sure to keep your ears and eyes sharp, as it’s one of the best hikes for spotting bighorn sheep, too!
Now if you’re looking for a bucket list adventure that will test your stamina while in Palm Springs, Cactus to Clouds is regarded as one of the hardest hikes in the United States, and for good reason. Starting from the Palm Springs desert floor and ascending the Skyline Trail all the way to towering San Jacinto Peak, the trek is 21 miles long, with near-persistent sun exposure and over 10,000 feet of thigh-burning elevation gain. The aptly-named Cactus to Clouds hike is no easy feat, and requires a very early start, solid conditioning and proper preparation to safely reach the summit, but it’s an epic Palm Springs adventure that you won’t soon forget.
Ascend the Desert Sky: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is one of the most exciting attractions in Palm Springs, offering almost 6000 feet of elevation gain on what is crowned the world’s largest rotating tram car. Built in the 1960s, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway traverses through the dramatic cliffs of Chino Canyon, one of the steepest in North America. You’ll commute through five different biomes in just twelve minutes, as the ride offers invaluable access into the San Jacinto Mountains and pine-studded views that are usually only rewarded after a full day’s hike on foot.
Mountain Station at the top boasts a couple of eateries for food and drink, a small museum, and the expected summit gift shop, but to get the most out of your skyward trip from Palm Springs, spend some time soaking in the views from one of the observation decks. Ready for another hike? Over fifty miles of high elevation trails await at your disposal — one of which takes you to Mount Saint Jacinto, the second highest peak in southern California at 10,834 feet! During peak winter, you can even explore cross-country skiing or snowshoeing; during the summer season and hotter months, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a great way to beat the heat outdoors, since the mountain air at elevation is usually 20 to 30 degrees cooler once you hop off the tram.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park’s wonderland of sculptural rock formations, quintessential cacti-studded desert landscapes, and of course, celebrity Joshua Trees, often make it feels like you’re on another planet. Yet the park’s western entrance is just a mere hour away from Palm Springs. You could spend several days exploring the unique ecosystems that make Joshua Tree National Park one of the United States’ most distinctive geological landscapes. But if you’re pressed for time, even a windshield tour along Park Boulevard, the roughly 35-mile main road that winds through some of the park’s top scenic stops like Ryan Mountain, Hidden Valley and the Cap Rock Nature Trail will leave you inspired.
If you’re looking for more time shuffling on ground, Joshua Tree National Park is home to a bounty of trails ranging from flat, 30-minute outings, to slightly longer scrambles that pass by historical remnants of old mining camps and early homestead settlements, like the Wall Street Mill or Lost Horse Mine. Those craving an even greater dose of thrill, on the other hand, might be interested in hiring a guide and setting out on one of the thousands of established rock-climbing routes scattered on Joshua Tree’s famed metamorphic masses, many of which date back nearly two billion years.
If you can stick around sunset or snag a camping spot inside the park for a night, you will be rewarded with one of the most special stargazing experiences in Southern California, as Joshua Tree National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park location. Just be sure to bring layers and blankets to bundle up while counting those shooting stars and contemplating the Milky Way, as temperatures drop quickly after sunset in the high desert.
Pioneertown: A Slice of the Wild West
If you want to feel like you’ve time-traveled to the old west — or stepped into a rolling picture show — head to Pioneertown, just 45 minutes from Palm Springs, and get your fix. Originally a western film set built by investors, Pioneertown is actually home to several hundred full-time residents these days, most of who will tell you their bygone-era nook is one of the Palm Spring area’s best kept secrets.
With a distinctly western, tumbleweed-blowing, gun-slinging atmosphere, the main highlight is the famed “Mane Street,” modeled after an 1870s mining town, which offers its fair share of pioneer-themed mercantiles, old-timey saloons and photogenic buildings that are definitely worth some hours from your Palm Springs getaway. The scenic drive into Pioneertown from the charming town of Yucca Valley might be worth it alone!
Hit The Road: The Best Day Trips from Palm Springs
If you have the time and means, there are countless longer day trips from Palm Springs that reveal a whole other side of Southern California living. The village of Idyllwild, for instance, is an artsy mountain community in the San Jacinto Mountains that offers cool, green respite from the desert floor, especially when Palm Springs is scorching. In just under an hour from the city, you can combine hiking or biking in a canopy of towering pine trees with a relaxed stroll amongst the countless mom-and-mom cafes, bookshops, crafty galleries, and homemade snack shacks, and still be back in Palm Springs for a late dinner.
If a dose of off-kilter sightseeing is more your speed, a 90-minute drive from Palm Springs will bring you to the colorful roadside art installation known as Salvation Mountain, the off-grid, alternative-living fringe community of Slab City, and the ever-declining yet mesmerizing Salton Sea, a toxic beautiful disaster, of sorts, that is as fascinating as it can be depressing. Both day trips showcase different worlds, but they will surely leave their mark on your Palm Springs vacation in the best of ways.