Three Days In: Coachella Valley
Editor’s Note: The article was written based on the author’s experiences prior to the pandemic. Some of the lodgings, restaurants, and activities described in this article may be limited today. If you visit, please follow local, state, and federal safety protocols and social distancing practices to keep yourself and others protected.
Palm trees and swimming pools. Endless sunshine and desert vistas. The Coachella Valley, home to cities such as Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Indio, Palm Desert, Coachella, and Rancho Mirage, has reinvented itself and embraced its hipness in a way not seen since the glamour days of the 1940s-50s, when movie stars, dignitaries, and the infamous Rat Pack relaxed and caroused here.
Rich with cultural and outdoor activities, Coachella Valley will give you a taste of its many charms and you’ll see why people return year after year, often staying entire seasons. As a frequent visitor, here are some of my favorite ways to immerse oneself in the atmosphere and lifestyle of this vibrant desert region of California.
As the world’s largest rotating tram car, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram offers spectacular panoramic views of the Coachella Valley from 8,516 feet above the valley floor. Courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway/Marc Glassman
As you explore the Palm Springs area, its iconic features are usually within view. For instance, the San Jacinto Mountains rise abruptly to the west, making them a useful landmark to orient yourself.
Though currently closed at press time, the Palm Springs Aerial Tram offers an exhilarating introduction to the Coachella Valley from 8,516 feet above the valley floor. You’ll ascend 2.5 miles in about 10 minutes in the world’s largest rotating tram car, giving you spectacular panoramic views. At the top you’ll find observation decks, a small museum, two restaurants, and more than 50 miles of hiking trails. Bring a warm layer, as the weather at the top is typically 30-40 degrees cooler than down in town.
After returning to the desert floor, head over to Lulu California Bistro on N. Palm Canyon Dr., in the heart of downtown, for a quintessential dining experience. Hip and popular with the locals and tourists, their large menu of comfort food has something for everyone. Then walk off your lunch by people-watching, while you peruse numerous boutiques, shops, and eateries, such as a few of my favorites: Just Fabulous, an upscale, unique gift boutique, and bookstore; Iconic Atomic offers vintage clothing; and SHAG Art Gallery.
Featuring the work of Josh Agle (a.k.a. Shag), the SHAG Store in downtown Palm Springs is filled with his works featuring slyly humorous takes on consumerism, consumption, and life in Palm Springs and beyond. © Eric Lindberg
No other place in America has as much Mid-Century Modern architecture per square mile as Palm Springs. With clean, sleek lines, simple elegance, and inspired by the dramatic desert geography, these homes, hotels, and civic and commercial buildings are a cultural highlight. You can’t miss them as you drive around town on an easy, self-guided auto tour. Spending an hour or so exploring these neighborhoods will give you another taste of the “real” Palm Springs. Here are some of my favorites: Twin Palms, Vista Las Palmas, Indian Canyons, Movie Colony, Movie Colony East, Historic Tennis Club, Deepwell Estates, and Rancho Las Palmas.
Renowned for its Mid-Century Modern architecture, Palm Springs has more examples of this unique design style per square mile than any other place in America. © Eric Lindberg
By now you’re probably ready for a swim and well-deserved rest. There’s a wide range of accommodations in Coachella Valley, from budget and mid-century kitsch to neighborhood boutique and luxury resorts, with numerous AAA-approved hotels, including the AAA Three Diamond-designated Triada Palm Springs, a boutique resort blending Spanish Hacienda style with the glamour of old Hollywood.
Another option is to rent a Mid-Century Modern home with a private swimming pool and live like a local. There are hundreds of homes at varying price levels, with full kitchens and room to spread out. You can often stay for about the same price as an upper-end hotel, and you can also save some money by getting groceries and eating some meals at home.
For dinner, your biggest challenge will be deciding where to go in this foodie-friendly valley. A good choice is AAA Three Diamond-designated Sandfish, blending traditional Japanese cuisine with world cuisine. They serve fresh, hand-crafted sushi and Japanese dishes in a modern space.
For drinks and dinner with a neighborhood atmosphere, the Tonga Hut is a local institution. Palm Springs’ premier tiki bar serves delicious tropical cocktails, pu-pu platters, Polynesian-Cantonese cuisine, and American favorites. With their vintage surf music soundtrack, the right drink, and a little imagination, you’ll be halfway to Tahiti.
Greater Palm Springs area
Located a short drive from downtown Palm Springs, the three canyons of Indian Canyons offer cool palm oases, desert scenery, and a variety of hiking choices. © Eric Lindberg
The next morning, start your day with a wake-up drink and quick breakfast at any one of the four Koffi Coffee locations around town. After fueling up—your body and your vehicle—drive just southwest of town to the palm-lined desert oases of Indian Canyons, while watching for roadrunners and bighorn sheep along the way. This ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is an unexpected and magical place that once provided abundant water, wild game, and crop land for centuries. You’ll feel like you’re far from the city. I suggest spending at least two to three hours here, as there are several hiking options in the three canyons—Palm, Andreas, and Murray—including ranger-led programs. If you’re here during the warm months, be sure to start early in the morning to avoid the heat.
Whenever I visit Palm Springs, I eat at least one meal at the AAA-approved Sherman’s Deli and Bakery. They have an extensive menu and large portions of comfort food. I guarantee you won’t leave hungry. Your only mistake would be skipping desert, as their bakery case is filled with all types of dreamy treats.
After your hearty lunch, why not take a load off, and head to Desert Hot Springs on the north side of town—home to more than 20 boutique hotels, offering natural hot spring pools from an underground aquafer? Even if you’re not a guest, many of the hotels offer day passes. A soak in one of them is relaxing and rejuvenating. My favorite is Two Bunch Palms, with its tropical forest setting, large grotto, and separate teak and concrete mineral water soaking pools. El Morocco Inn & Spa, The Good House, and The Spring Resort and Spa are also popular. They all offer spa services, such as massage; however, some are adults-only.
If spas aren’t your thing, and you’d rather continue exploring other parts of the Valley, I suggest visiting Sunnylands, in Rancho Mirage—Walter Annenberg’s former estate. This Mid-Century Modern gem has hosted eight U.S. presidents, world leaders, celebrities, like Frank Sinatra who was married here, and many others in the spirit of international diplomacy. You’ll want to make reservations well in advance for a guided tour of the home, artwork, and grounds. The adjacent visitor center and 9 acres of desert gardens are free and worth a stop.
The desert art garden at Sunnylands, with twin reflecting pools, extensive cactus landscaping, and a winding labyrinth, is a quiet retreat with expansive views of the mountains. © Eric Lindberg
If the art at Sunnylands has you craving more, or simply because you enjoy good museums, stop by the Palm Springs Art Museum. Founded in 1938, their vast permanent art collection, changing exhibits, and beautiful sculpture gardens are world-class.
After your cultural or hot springs immersion, seriously consider Paul Bar for a well-crafted drink at an authentic Palm Springs watering hole. Don’t be discouraged by its strip mall location; there are several reasons locals line up outside the door. Between the East Coast ambience, classic cocktails (try the frozen Sidecar), and bowtie-wearing, Irish-born, Bronx-raised owner Paul O’Halloran, Paul Bar is one of the Valley’s hidden hotspots. They offer comfort food dishes, such as meatloaf, chicken schnitzel, steak frites, and Thai yellow curry.
For dinner, Spencer’s, a AAA Three Diamond-designated restaurant in the Historic Tennis Club neighborhood, is stylish yet informal with great classic American cuisine. It consistently garners the “Best of…” local awards in a variety of categories. I prefer sitting on the outdoor patio dining under trees with a view of the mountains.
For exceptional Asian cuisine, Rooster and the Pig is well worth the wait, with fresh, delicious small plates, and main dishes. Arrive early because this popular Vietnamese-American strip-mall gem often draws a crowd.
Named for the area’s otherworldly Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park straddles the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert, protecting a ruggedly beautiful ecosystem. © Eric Lindberg
A 50-minute drive north from Palm Springs will bring you to the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. This is a very popular park, so arrive early to avoid entrance lines—especially from October to May, and on weekends.
My own history with the park began during a family camping trip in 1960. Hiking through Joshua tree forests, climbing jumbo-sized boulders, and sleeping under a star-filled sky, I fell in love with the place. Because those long-ago sentiments remain strong today, I return here regularly.
Straddling two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, the park is famous for its abundant Joshua trees. Supposedly named by early Mormon settlers, the trees reminded them of the biblical figure Joshua, who raised his hands skyward in prayer. Another icon of the park are the numerous jumbles of large boulders scattered across the valleys and mountains. This terrain has made Joshua Tree a top rock-climbing mecca.
Although the main park road provides many places to stop and enjoy the views, dozens of trails take hikers deeper into the desert. Four of my favorites are Barker Dam, Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, and Ryan Mountain. Designated trails welcome horseback riding, and bicycling is allowed on all roads open to vehicles. More than 250 species of birds have been seen in the park. Nine campgrounds with a total of almost 500 sites invite visitors to spend the night. Those who do are often rewarded with spectacular stargazing under one of the darkest skies in America.
Joshua Tree National Park offers dozens of hiking trails ranging from easy strolls to challenging all-day treks. © Eric Lindberg
After returning to the heart of the Coachella Valley, one great choice for dinner is Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. This classic steakhouse has been a swanky, Palm Springs institution for 75 years, and has served stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Marilyn Monroe. I recommend their crispy brussels sprouts. Another memorable dining experience can be found at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Workshop Kitchen + Bar. Retrofitted from a 90-year-old movie theatre, this farm-to-table gem serves New American cuisine. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but definitely worth the splurge.
Immersing yourself in Coachella Valley is a delightful introduction to the culture, architecture, and lifestyle of this unique corner of California. Just as with the dry Colorado climate, drink plenty of water, and wear sunscreen and a hat. The peak season is from October to April, and summers are hot with fewer tourists. But no matter when you visit, you’ll feel far from home in this desert oasis.
More “Three Days In”
Watch your inbox for more things to do in Coachella Valley in the next EnCompass Exclusive e-newsletter—a monthly email that provides exclusive content you won’t find in the print edition. Plus, keep an eye out for the next series of “Three Days In” in the January/February 2021 edition