Palm Springs is a sun-baked oasis in the Southern California desert, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. In the late 19th century, the town grew up around a Southern Pacific Railroad line. A sanitarium, mineral springs and a resort hotel eventually drew scions of the Hearst and Vanderbilt families. 'Wealth and fashion, as such, are not much attracted to our village,' wrote J. Smeaton Chase, in a charming book about the city published in 1920. But only a few years later, wealth had arrived in force, transforming his “unspoiled” enclave into a fashionable and glamorous resort.
During the 1930s, at the height of the Hollywood studio system, numerous movie stars decamped to balmy Palm Springs to relax; it was within two hours of Los Angeles, and photographers were successfully discouraged from pestering celebrities there. The city served as a winter playground for luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich and Bob Hope. These stars and other individuals of means built vacation homes and resorts, designed by noted architects such as Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and E. Stewart Williams. Their airy, light-filled Mid-Century Modern creations took full advantage of the pleasant climate and mountain views.
Vacationers originally focused on tennis, but today the region bursts at the seams with golf courses, kept green in the desert with water from a vast aquifer. The city is an outpost for second homes of residents of the metropolitan sprawl nearer the coast (Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties), and the population nearly doubles during winter as they migrate eastward. Along with shopping and dining, sun-soaked recreation is the focus here, and the improbably green golf courses and sky-blue swimming pools attract throngs of visitors.
Modern Architecture Tour
We highly recommend booking a private tour of Palm Springs’ modern architecture with the personable Michael Stern of the Modern Tour. He took us into strikingly designed private homes normally closed to the public and encouraged us to look at more-familiar city landmarks, such as the visitors center and art museum, in a new light, pointing out elegant details we would otherwise have missed.
Fans of midcentury-modern design will love to stroll Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District. Heading out from the Palm Canyon Theatre on North Palm Canyon Drive, you will find boutiques and galleries with furniture, art, books and clothing, as well as coffee shops and restaurants. Memorable shops from our most recent visit were Christopher Anthony Ltd., Just Fabulous and Trina Turk.
Up to the Snow
In 1935, an overheated electrical engineer named Francis F. Crocker dreamed of a way to reach the cool, snowy heights of San Jacinto Peak, and in 1963, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was completed. Unusual rotating floors in the tram cars ensure that riders can see memorable views in every direction during the 10-minute journey up. If you have proper boots, it’s possible to take a refreshing hike through the woods, though most people seem content to enjoy the views and keep to the paved path near the visitor center.
Hiking Joshua Tree
It takes only about an hour to reach the northwest entrance of the immense (1,234 square miles) Joshua Tree National Park from The Willows, and the trip is well worth the effort. The trees for which the park is named have a Seussian appearance, with thick, furry branches terminating in green puffs of spiky leaves. In the northwest of the park, they are scattered among dramatic rock formations, and elsewhere, as near the entrance of the Hidden Valley hiking trail, they form vast groves on expansive plains. The one-mile Hidden Valley loop is one of the park’s most scenic hikes, though it does require some agility to climb occasional stair-like sections of rock. I also recommend making the detour to Keys View, which presents panoramas of the entire Coachella Valley.