Greater Palm Springs: Exploring the Coachella Valley

By: Maxine Sheppard

March 21, 2019

Looking towards the Coachella Valley © Maxine Sheppard

Looking towards the Coachella Valley © Maxine Sheppard

Renowned for its year-round sunshine and star-spattered night skies, the Greater Palm Springs area of Southern California offers a taste of desert culture only two hours east of Los Angeles

oasis of peace

Over the past few decades the Greater Palm Springs region has earned a reputation for health-focused getaways and wellness tourism due to its abundance of natural mineral springs, luxury spa resorts, lush golf courses and adventurous outdoor activities. It’s also home to a thriving music, arts and culinary scene, attracting visitors from across California and beyond.

Surrounded by rugged peaks on three sides, Greater Palm Springs encompasses nine distinct cities in the Coachella Valley, a pancake-flat, 15-mile-wide plain that rolls southeast towards the San Andreas Fault and Salton Sea from the San Bernadino Mountains in the northwest. The city of Palm Springs is the major and most westerly of the nine, joined by Desert Hot Springs to the north, and Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella to the southeast.

So why go now? Spring in the desert is one of the best times to visit. Temperatures range from around 25 to 30°C, making it warm enough to swim, sunbathe and dine outdoors but not too hot to hike or bike during normal daytime hours. It’s also when all the wildflowers come into bloom and turn the barren landscape into a blaze of colour. Bright orange California poppies carpet the lower mountain slopes, juxtaposed with lilac sand verbena, white desert lilies and deep purple indigo bush.

Better yet, visit now and you’ll coincide with the biennial Desert X, a vast contemporary open-air art exhibition that runs until 21 April. The inaugural exhibition was held in 2017 and featured 16 different site-specific installations over a 45-mile stretch of the valley, including artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken’s ranch-style house Mirage made entirely of mirrors.

This year’s outing broadens the setting to a 55-mile run of desert and the exhibits to 18. Highlights include sculptor Kathleen Ryan’s Ghost Palm, a giant desert fan palm made of steel, whose transparent acrylic fronds softly chime in the wind, and Mexican artist Pia Camil’s Lover’s Rainbow, a massive rainbow arch with a twin on the Baja side of the Mexican border, designed to shine a spotlight on immigration issues.

An introduction to Desert X

don't miss

Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is one of the biggest and best known music festivals in the U.S. This year’s event, which runs over the weekends of 12–14 April and 19–21 April is unsurprisingly sold out, but you can put your name down on both waitlists should any passes become re-available. The line-up includes Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Kacey Musgraves and The 1975.

Take a hike. The natural surroundings beg to be explored, and hikes here range from easy to super strenuous. If time is short and fitness levels are non-Olympic, your best best is the Coachella Valley Preserve/Thousand Palms Oasis which lies 14 miles northwest of Indio. Drive towards it along Thousand Palms Canyon Road, and you might be inclined to think, is that it? as a small clutch of palm trees comes into view across the scrub and tumbleweed. Don’t be fooled. This genuine oasis is one of the most magical spots in the entire Coachella Valley, something that doesn’t become apparent until you’re standing squarely in it.

Fanning out from the small log cabin visitor centre are 28 miles of trails, but the first and best known is the two-mile McCallum Trail boardwalk that winds beneath a grove of lofty California fan palms up to 60 feet tall and six feet wide. This type of palm retains its lengthy fronds, which form a kind of grass skirt around the tree’s trunk that needs to be kept trimmed to avoid obstructing the path. Keep your eyes peeled for elusive wildlife like the great horned owl, the yellow bat and the fringe-toed lizard.

An oasis hike that’s guaranteed to get your pulse racing is the nine-mile, round-trip Bear Creek Canyon trail near La Quinta. This much more demanding walk, across scree-filled riverbeds and up steep slopes, provides wonderful views of the valley below. As it’s not quite as accessible as other popular trails, you’re likely to spot more Bighorn sheep than people.

After a day spent hiking, treat yourself to a stay at a hot mineral water spa. The hot geothermal waters beneath Desert Hot Springs have made this one of the best spa destinations in the West, with a range of venues to suit all budgets. For a central location and a colourful vibe, book a night or two at Aqua Soleil Hotel and Mineral Water Spa, which draws the healing waters from the ground via its own on-site well. Some suites have their own private jetted pools.

Other picks include the gorgeous El Morocco Inn & Spa, with its cosy rooms, Moroccan-style yoga tent and mineral water-filled pool. Both hotels offer day passes if you’re short on time. Or make a beeline for the diminutive, cannabis-friendly Desert Hot Springs Inn boutique resort with just six rooms, which offers massages using CBD (cannabidiol) infused oils.

Few things are as wondrous as an untainted night sky. The Rancho Mirage Observatory has five different telescopes throughout its facility – four on the deck and one inside the 360-degree dome – through which you can marvel at other planets and galaxies in the company of a full-time astronomer guide. Check the website for details of upcoming stargazing parties, family stargazing sessions and daytime observatory tours, where you’ll get a chance to see the surface of the sun through a solar telescope.

California fan palms at Coachella Valley Preserve © Maxine Sheppard

Read more about the desert in our feature on sound bathing at the Integratron, and stay tuned for all the best places to play, stay, eat and drink in the city of Palm Springs.

Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.