Lay of the Land
The area commonly thought of as “Palm Springs” is more accurately known as the Coachella Valley, a desert stretch of highway offshoots tucked between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains. These cities, nine in total covering roughly 250 square miles of manicured oases, include Palm Springs and Palm Desert, along with the smaller Cathedral City, Indio, La Quinta, Coachella, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Desert Hot Springs. While most resorts are located in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, activities to be had in the area are spread throughout the breadth of the valley, from the San Gorgonio Pass to the northern shore of the Salton Sea.
A resort city through and through, Palm Springs gained popularity in the early 1900s as a getaway for health tourists whose conditions required a dry heat. By the mid-century, it became a hotspot for the celebrity of Hollywood, many of whom—such as actors Fritzi Ridgeway, Charles Ferrell, and Ralph Bellamy—actually opened up their own resorts to cash in on the influx of visitors.
This attention from Golden-era Hollywood gave Palm Springs a distinct character, with its most significant landmarks and style becoming a snapshot of Mid-century Modern architecture. Buildings lay flat in the desert like a sunning lizard, and their large windows and stark lines create an open construction that appears frozen in the most optimistic aspects of the 1950s. Add in the stunning facade of the San Jacinto mountains and the warm colors of the dry desert sunset, and you’ll find an aesthetic in Palm Springs that makes it very difficult to leave.
While there are a number of excellent resorts in the area, the best way to see it is by renting a house or villa—and there are many. The easiest method of getting around is by renting a car, which will give access not only to other parts of a city with poor public transportation, but also the fringe regions of Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea.
Who It’s Right For
Palm Springs features a mix of old-world elegance and modern opportunity for fun (leftovers from the Hollywood era). Essentially, there’s no wrong type of person for Palm Springs, though people young and old may find the area best in short bursts rather than entire weeks.
When To Go
The best weather sweeps through the Coachella Valley in the winter, when the average temperature is a balmy 70° . However, as a resort city oriented specifically towards those escaping the cold, Palm Springs can become congested with snowbirds, many of whom have been known to cause major problems for residents. As such, the best time to visit is the early spring and late fall, when the area hits the perfect balance of crowds and climate (note, however, that the Santa Ana winds roll through the valley in the fall—their effect is largely exaggerated by the locals, but it does get windy).
In April, the city of Indio plays host to two major music festivals—Coachella (which takes place over two weekends) and Stagecoach (which takes place the weekend after Coachella). Hotels and home rentals for this period are snapped up nearly a full year in advance, and as many as 300,000 visitors flood the cities (as a comparison, the permanent population of the entire area is about 350,000). This crowd can be unbearable (though it is mostly concentrated in the south end of the valley), but it does come with the added benefit of invigorating the surrounding locales, with events and special offers to be found everywhere.
Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) handles the air traffic for the area, with direct flights to and from major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Denver. The Coachella Valley lies about two-and-a-half hours away from both Los Angeles and San Diego, and roughly four hours from Phoenix. While the drives can be long and monotonous, there’s nothing quite like cruising down the open asphalt with the Santa Ana wind in your hair, letting your hand float out the window while your favorite song plays on the radio and the sunrise turns the desert pink.
Ideal Length of Stay
The Coachella Valley as a whole is best experienced in short bursts of 2-3 days at a time, so a long weekend is the perfect amount of time to relax without going stir crazy in the desert.