Palm Springs is so pretty it could have been invented for Instagram. There’s a Mad Men wink at every turn thanks to its midcentury architecture, hot springs and vintage boutiques. However, because of the city’s reputation as an adult playground, it’s often shunned by families – which is a shame because it offers wonderful nature to explore, exciting museums and fun dining options.
To avoid the searing desert heat, the perfect time to visit is during November, December and January. It’s only 2 ½ hours drive from L.A. and, as I learned along with my husband and 11-year-old son, this an enchanting, walkable destination that offers good value and good times.
We stayed at the Palm Mountain Resort and Spa, which hits the family sweet spot. Just a block from the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, it put us within walking distance of the drugstore and Starbucks, as well as quirky boutiques, galleries and restaurants. (For convenience the hotel also has a 24-hour snack shop.)
We arrived on a Thursday, in time to enjoy the laid-back Villagefest Thursday night market a block away. Walking there was stress-free and we ate Mediterranean from a food truck as we listened to the street musicians.
On our first morning, on a mom mission to educate, we visited the Palm Springs Air Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of World War II aircraft. My son was obsessed with the child-sized control tower, while my husband made for the flight simulators. For a splurge, book a ride on one of their warbirds. However, there are so many wonderful old-timey aircraft to see on the ground that you won’t feel deprived if you don’t get up in the air.
Just 10 miles away in Rancho Mirage is the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert. It offers camps and creativity workshops, but we explored the Annenberg gallery, which is about building brain power while having fun solving different tasks. Kids can build a race car, whizz around their trike track and meet Smiley and Abigail, their resident tortoises.
Ravenous, we ate a Mexican feast at La Casuelas Nuevas just a 5-minute drive away. The restaurant was hosting tons of families on its large patio and was huge fun. You can’t go wrong with mariachis and margaritas.
The next day we enjoyed breakfast at the Broken Yolk Cafe, which is a chain but a favorite hangout and only a 10-minute walk for us.
Fueled by eggs, bacon and pancakes we drove to the nearby Chino Canyon Indian reservations. Located on Agua Caliente tribal land, the Chino Canyons are a must-see, mostly due to the one-mile loop with views of the Andreas Canyon, which inspired some of the hand-drawn scenery in The Lion King. Access was easy, the trails are flat and we appreciated the undisturbed natural beauty of the canyon.
If you’re ready for further nature immersion, Joshua Tree National Park is an hour’s drive away. It’s not just for U2 fans. There are stroller-friendly trails and hikes for all ages. Take sunscreen, snacks and water because, while there are three visitor centers outside the park, there are no shops or concessions inside. Admission is $25 a car and your pass is good for seven consecutive days.
Our son loves swimming, so when we were back at the resort he took full advantage of the recently renovated pool. Every Friday, they host Dive In Movies poolside, screening a favorite family film for free and providing drinks and popcorn. If your kid wants to watch a movie on an inflatable, this is the place for you!
The shared fire pit outside our hotel room was the best place to get the vacation feels, and the spa was equally divine. I enjoyed a full-body massage because, let’s face it, if Mom is happy then everyone is happy.
We also found time to climb aboard the world’s largest tramcar and experience the unique Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The 10-minute journey takes you 2,643 feet up to Mount San Jacinto State Park. During winter you may see snow, and there are two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, gift shop, cocktail bar and more than 50 miles of hiking trails at the top.
That night we ate outdoors at Tommy Bahama restaurant in the El Paseo shopping district. The patio offers a spectacular mountain backdrop and we dined on sliders and fries while toe-tapping to a live band. It’s a bar, but the late afternoon/early evening crowd is family friendly. We were one of many and felt super welcome.
If you can get a sitter, seek out The Kimpton Rowan Hotel and its High Bar, the only rooftop bar in downtown Palm Springs. It’s a wonderful spot to take in the sunset as you sip on delicious mimosas.
And don’t neglect the nature above your head. The skies are so clear that it’s worth booking a star-gazing tour. Using state-of-the-art telescopes, you can learn all about the cosmos surrounded by nothing but desert.
Before we left Palm Springs we toured the Sunnylands Center and Gardens, which is part of the Annenberg Estate and free to visit. The gardens are gorgeous; there 70 species of plants, sculptures and reflecting pools. We grabbed a snack in the sunny cafe before heading back to Los Angeles.
Palm Springs is so easily overlooked by Angelenos with little ones, but it’s an easy getaway. The town itself is perfectly compact and we loved being able to walk to many different places. The air museum was a fantastic highlight and the surrounding nature is extraordinary. We left with a happy (palm) spring in our step.
Margot Black is a storyteller with more than 15 years of experience, and an L.A.-based traveler, wife and mom.