Upon arriving in Los Angeles, I told a friend that I was staying in Palm Springs for five days. He said there was nothing there but retirees and gay men. Surprised, but undeterred—the time share was already reserved—I asked for the quickest route from Southern California’s mild shores to the mountainous desert. A girl friend raved about the natural beauty of the area and told us all about the hiking and camping in Joshua Tree National Park. What neither one of them mentioned though, was Palm Springs’ rich, Hollywood history.
In the 1920s, Palm Springs became the playground of the Hollywood elite and it’s evident in the city’s naming conventions including the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway, and streets named for Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope among many others. Anyone who’s a fan of film and old Hollywood will definitely appreciate the city’s illustrious past and inventive mid-century modern architecture.
The two-hour drive from Los Angeles was scenic to say the least. Visiting from pancake-flat Dallas, my family and I were awestruck at the mountains and came to the conclusion that “America the Beautiful” was probably written about the state of California instead. In the five days we were there, I can honestly say we were never at a loss for anything to do. To add interest to the mix, I wasn’t traveling with toddlers—my mother, 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter were in-tow for this desert adventure. As any parent knows, entertaining kids during the “I’m bored” years is far from easy. Fortunately, mom’s well-researched itinerary kept us active, entertained and in touch with the beauty of the SOCAL desert.
In touch with nature
In 1935, electrical engineer Francis F. Crocker dreamt up the idea of a mechanical marvel that would whisk him into the snow-capped peaks of Mt. San Jacinto. By 1950, private funds were raised for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and engineers began the undertaking of designing and building a system to ascend the face of the Chino Canyon to an impressive 8,515 foot elevation.
Nearly crippled with acrophobia, yet in awe of the challenge ahead, we boarded the circular, Swiss-madetramcars and watched the vehicles in the parking lot grow smaller. The tramcars completed two 360 degree revolutions before we reached the aerial station that housed restaurants, a gift shop, and served as the starting point for hiking trails. A small taxidermy exhibit gave us an idea of the wildlife that inhabited Mt. San Jacinto State Park and though much of it consisted of small, rodent-like animals there were some pretty large and menacing birds in the mix. Signage warned of wild pigs, foxes, and mountain lions—needless to say I wondered why exactly people chose to camp out there but it was evidently a highly popular activity. Even if you don’t do wilderness, like me, the vistas are both inspiring and humbling at the same time. My kids, both ex-scouts, were giddy the whole time.
Making it rain in the desert
My shopping instincts sprang to life as we approached the truly massive Desert Hills Premium Outlets. Brand names including Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Burberry, Versace, Jimmy Choo and a host of others brought prices within striking distance. And though it still would have been easy to blow two month’s salary in the blink of an eye, I’d be able to stretch my dollars significantly. I spent more time looking but my daughter scored a few outfits at the Charlotte Russe store and my son was happy with a pair of very cool aviator shades. Comfortable shoes are a must when you consider the undertaking involved with exploring one of the country’s biggest outlet malls. After two hours in the desert sun we were absolutely slain and headed back to the car. We thought we conquered it all, but once we were back on the 10 we saw that a separate property, the Cabazon Outlets, were next door to where we’d just been, offering even more stores than the dozens we’d seen. We yielded and vowed to return later in the week.
A few days later, we also ventured to the posh suburb of Rancho Mirage, home of the Frank Sinatra Compound, to explore the shops at the River at Rancho Mirage. My son was pleased with the decision to see “The Amazing Spiderman” in 3D and we stopped for ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s as the sun set.
Gambling and casinos
Scared money don’t make none, and while both me and my mother can be considered “scared money,” we still took to the Fantasy Springs Resort and Casino for some family bowling. We were told to cut through the casino for the most direct route to the lanes. Of course the kids had never seen a casino before and I held my son’s hand as if he were a toddler to speed him along as he gazed in amazement at all of the lights and games. To our surprise, the on-property bowling alley looked like it was a regular hangout for local teens and families. Also, in true casino style they had a concert calendar packed with recognizable names. Even the posters looked exciting. There were a number of other casinos in the area but the nicest ones we encountered were the Morongo, Agua Caliente and Fantasy Springs. Had my grandmother taken the trip with us, I suspect we would have spent a lot of time rotating between the three.
What people often forget to do on vacation is relax. Our last family trip was at Universal Studios Orlando and we rose early every day, vying for access to attractions and shows. This time around, we embraced the leisurely pace of the desert. After walking my son to the activity center, I’d go jogging through our Palm Desert resort and spend a few hours lounging by the pool. When I put my shades and headphones on, it was even easy to tune out the other kids running and playing nearby. Having the luxury to move at your own pace once in a while is a vacation in itself, and with Los Angeles just two hours away it made perfect sense to me why the Hollywood elite often made a second home in Palm Springs.