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10 Best Reasons to Visit Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley (Besides Coachella)

Biomorphic architecture at its finest
Biomorphic architecture at its finest
Courtesy Cabazon Dinosaurs

With the temperature hovering around 65 degrees, it's safe to say it's officially winter here in L.A. And as the local climate gets cooler, the Coachella Valley is in its high season, in part because of almost-certain sunshine from December through May. But in recent years, Coachella has sadly become synonymous with just one thing: Coachella. The late-April hipster Mecca aside, we thought we'd give you 10 reasons to head east in the meantime, and not just to escape the so-called deep freeze.

Welcome to the jungle, aka the maid's quarters at the Twin Palms Frank Sinatra Estate
Welcome to the jungle, aka the maid's quarters at the Twin Palms Frank Sinatra Estate
Brendan A. Murray

10. Offbeat lodging

Sure, you've racked up your Starwood hotel points, but really, how fun is it to stay at a chain? Out in the Coachella Valley, you have your choice of a wide range of alternative accommodations, from camping on the shores of the Salton Sea to shacking up at one of hundreds of boutique inns and cool little B&Bs in the surrounding desert cities. The Rendezvous in Palm Springs has a themed bedroom for everyone, from the Western-inspired "Stagecoach" to "Pretty in Pink," where Marilyn Monroe once stayed. If you have an extra $10K to throw around, consider a three-night stint at the Twin Palms Frank Sinatra Estate, a sumptuous, four-bedroom, seven-bathroom party pad custom-built for Ol' Blue Eyes back in 1947. Don't mind the hairline crack in the sink: Right after she married Sinatra, screen siren Ava Gardner got mad when she caught him skinny-dipping in their piano-shaped swimming pool with another woman. So, she smashed a Champagne bottle in the sink. The cracked sink is still there, but now, it's actually insured.

Biomorphic architecture at its finest
Biomorphic architecture at its finest
Courtesy Cabazon Dinosaurs

9. Gigantic dinosaurs

If you've driven east on the 10 through Riverside County, you've likely noticed Dinny the Dinosaur, a 150-ton fake Brontosaurus, along with his buddy Mr. Rex, a 100-ton homage to the Tyrannosaurus rex. Both were built in the 1960s by Knott's Berry Farm sculptor Claude K. Bell, who wanted to attract people to his Wheel Inn Cafe. The dinosaurs and cafe remain after Bell's death in 1988, and while the area is still an iconic landmark of California roadside culture, it has since been bought by a group of Christians who are using the dinosaurs to promote a highly contested creationist theory of evolution. Still, the Cabazon Dinosaurs are a great place to visit, if only because they have cameos in Tim Burton's 1985 classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

The Desert Hills Premium Outlets offer retail goods at wholesale prices
The Desert Hills Premium Outlets offer retail goods at wholesale prices
Courtesy Premium Outlets

8. Endless outlet malls

Speaking of Cabazon, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention another of the area's distinctive features: the sprawling outlet malls. Though the Cabazon Outlets have nifty stores such as Le Creuset and Adidas, they're eclipsed by the massive Desert Hills Premium Outlets next door, with a whopping 130 discount emporiums, including Barneys New York, Tory Burch, Gucci and L'Occitane. Whether it's picking up a new pair of Vans, a pair of 501s, a Coach handbag or a diamond necklace, you're liable to save a ton of money at the outlets compared with your local mall. Just be careful about racking up the credit card debt, or you probably won't be saving at all.

More than 12 million people have taken a ride on the Tramway since it first opened in 1963
More than 12 million people have taken a ride on the Tramway since it first opened in 1963
Courtesy Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

7. The great outdoors

It should come as no surprise that the Desert Empire is a haven for nature lovers, with dozens of spots that appeal to outdoorsy types, like the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The Indian Canyons feature more than 100 miles of hiking and horse trails, ancient palm groves, panoramic vistas and a huge, 60-foot seasonal waterfall, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes visitors on a ride in the world's largest rotating tramcar, and off-road tour companies give jeep rides through the San Andreas Fault. Just pray the big one doesn't hit while you're out four-wheelin'.

Hacienda Hot Springs: one of many tranquil retreats in the desert
Hacienda Hot Springs: one of many tranquil retreats in the desert
Tanja M. Laden

6. Your sanity

Colonics, ethnic massages and an all-male nudist colony -- oh, my. The desert has long been famous for its healing and restorative powers, but there's more than one way to get healthy out here. We Care Detox Spa and Spiritual Retreat in Desert Hot Springs is all about a demanding juice-fast program and colon hydrotherapy, not to mention a magnesium detox, Korean body splash and something called "raindrop therapy." For less esoteric services, there's Hacienda Hot Springs, which has a Finnish rock sauna and a range of spa treatments, featuring native plants and herbs from the garden. And for anyone looking to go au naturel, there's the Sea Mountain Nude Lifestyle Resort Spa, Living Waters, the Terra Cotta Inn Clothing Optional Resort and Spa and finally, the Triangle Inn Palm Springs, a "clothing-optional resort for men."

 

The Alveo chaise lounge and footrest at Revivals Gallery in Palm Springs
The Alveo chaise lounge and footrest at Revivals Gallery in Palm Springs
Courtesy Revival Stores

5. Killer thrift-store shopping

In the age of eBay, it's easy to forget how thrilling it can be to find something you weren't exactly expecting to buy. Fortunately, the desert's huge population of wealthy retirees has guaranteed a steady supply of vintage furniture, knickknacks, designer clothing and collectibles, all located in good, old-fashioned brick-and-mortar. But navigating the desert's bevy of estate sales, consignment shops, antique spots and thrift marts can get a little overwhelming. Some of our favorites include Gypsyland in Desert Hot Springs, a family-owned Hoarders episode come to life. Benefiting the Desert AIDS Project, Revival Stores have several shops in the desert, with a gallery adjacent to the Palm Springs store. Angel View Thrift Mart has locations in Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Rancho Mirage and more, all raising funds for the Crippled Children's Foundation. Then there's the Estate Sale Company, "Palm Springs' Original Consignment Store," and Collectors' Corner in Rancho Mirage, benefiting the Eisenhower Medical Center Auxiliary. Wherever you wind up going, be sure to have a plan of attack before stocking up on second-hand (and third-hand, and fourth-hand) goods. Otherwise, you might be stuck with a giant, gaudy ashtray, even though you don't smoke.

George Clooney is the recipient of this year's Chairman's Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
George Clooney is the recipient of this year's Chairman's Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
Wikipedia

4. Many, many film fests

Since it first launched in 1989, the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in January has come to be known for presenting the foreign-language Oscar nominees. In 2011, it screened 193 films from 68 countries, including 59 premieres. This year, it honored George Clooney. PSIFF is hosted by the Palm Springs International Film Society, who also puts on the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films (aka ShortFest) in June. There's also the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, Cinema Diverse and the Festival of Native Film & Culture. With the desert's fervent focus on film, who needs Hollywood?

A modernist home in Palm Springs
A modernist home in Palm Springs
Brendan A. Murray

3. Mad Men-tality

With 11 days' worth of midcentury marvels, Palm Springs Modernism Week is on its way to becoming Modernism Month. The extended celebration of architecture, design and fashion appeals to both experts and fans of modernism -- a design aesthetic defined by an elegant simplicity that's tastefully complemented by exotic cocktails, poolside parties and a free-spirited ideology, all giving the movement its singularly Californian twist. From Feb. 16-26, Modernism Week rolled out nonstop lectures, symposiums, double-decker bus tours and film screenings. But you don't have to go during Modernism Week to appreciate 20th-century Palm Springs history. Architectural historian Robert Imber of PS Modern Tours gives guided tours year-round, while the burgeoning Uptown Design District features a range of hip and eclectic boutiques, offering everything from funky home furnishings to vintage couture -- all from the Mad Men era and beyond.

Palm Springs Art Museum
Palm Springs Art Museum
Brendan A. Murray

2. Awesome art

It may look like a mini mall, but the Backstreet Art District in Palm Springs is actually a pretty sweet little enclave of local galleries exhibiting desert-inspired art. The first Wednesday of every month, the collective is open late for a salon-style stroll full of snacks and wine. It's not the Downtown Art Walk, but it's still worth seeing.

Meanwhile, over in Rancho Mirage, the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands is the former winter home of Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore. Now promoted as the "Camp David of the West Coast," Sunnylands is a historic house museum with items from the Annenbergs' massive art collection, including pieces by Giacometti and Rodin. Walter bequeathed much of his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so after he died, his widow commissioned grade-A reproductions to keep the walls from being too bare. (Sunnylands is also the couple's final resting place.)

Then there's the upcoming debut of the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, which specializes in postwar and contemporary art. The inaugural edition features The Big Picture, Paintings From Southern California,1960-1980, an exhibition curated by Peter Frank, as well as Material Girl, an exhibition of works by Judy Chicago, who's also receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the fair.

Finally, Pacific Standard Time isn't just about Los Angeles -- it covers midcentury art in all of Southern California, and that includes the Coachella Valley. Beginning Jan. 21, the Palm Springs Art Museum is exhibiting Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982, featuring 140 works of archival photography by David Hockney, Herb Ritts, Ed Ruscha, Julius Shulman and more. But the museum is worth visiting outside of the Pacific Standard Time zone, if for no other reason than its small but pricy collection of modern art, which includes a $10 million spider by Louise Bourgeois and a 1964 "Brillo Box Dress" by Andy Warhol.

The Spa Resort Casino, where hungry one-armed bandits wait to eat your cash
The Spa Resort Casino, where hungry one-armed bandits wait to eat your cash
Courtesy Spa Resort Casino

1. Gambling

There's no need to go all the way to Las Vegas to lose money, because thanks to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, gambling is legal right here. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns and operates two casinos in the Coachella Valley: Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Resort & Casino in Rancho Mirage. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Palm Springs is owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the first Native American tribe in the country to have gaming on its reservation, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians owns Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, one of the largest casinos in California. For a complete guide to California casinos, check out Wiki's handy list of local gaming destinations, but remember, you're better off spending your money at the outlet malls. Just saying.

Tanja M. Laden manages Flavorpill Los Angeles and blogs at Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @PopCuriousMag and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.


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