Be it by land, air or Salton Sea, the Palm Springs area in Southern California is the perfect foil for cold-weather chills
Nearly everyone eventually succumbs to the winter blues. When the sun doesn’t shine for weeks, the temperature only varies from cold to colder, drizzly fog soaks everything and everyone outside, and the weather report doesn’t hold promise of change anytime soon, my wife, Gayle, and I are ready for an escape. Invariably we begin daydreaming about a road trip in our motorhome to someplace warm, with plenty of sunshine, maybe even palm trees, and sand to dig our toes into; a place where we can relax in swimsuits and sandals, perhaps sipping a cool, tropical drink on a beach or around a pool. This time, we sought a destination within a single day’s drive of our home, where we could take maximum advantage of the limited away time. While checking maps and weather reports, one part of Southern California drew our interest. The Coachella Valley area, and Palm Springs in particular, seemed to offer just what was needed to send our blues packing.
After doing some research online and making a few phone calls, we were able to set up a two-week stay at the Palm Springs RV Resort. What a wonderful destination it turned out to be. Everything was first-class – from the very modern facilities, plentiful amenities, myriad organized activities, to cheerful and professional staff. Centrally located to dozens of prime attractions for all ages, it was also within a 45-minute drive of every activity we had planned.
Upon leaving our home in Northern California early in the morning, it was 35 degrees Fahrenheit and socked with dripping, wet fog. When we arrived at the resort, shortly before the sun set behind nearby mountains, the temperature was 77 degrees, with beautiful, clear skies. Virtually everyone we saw as we looked for a place to set up was dressed in swimsuits or shorts, many leisurely strolling on the paved internal roads or sitting around with drinks in hand. The smell of barbecues made our tummies growl. Statuesque palm trees were liberally scattered throughout the resort.
All of the spaces on one side of the RV resort are drive-through, but have only 30-amp electrical service. The other side is for back-ins, but with the option of 30- or 50-amp electrical service. By the time we got there, only three of the latter were left to choose from; but any of them would have accommodated our 35-foot motorhome and dinghy vehicle. All of the unusually spacious sites were landscaped with sand and grass, which invited taking off our shoes during setup.
It is definitely a good idea to make reservations well in advance if possible because this park is typically full throughout the winter. Of course it never hurts to call and see if there have been cancellations.
The next morning we began a walkabout to check everything out. Entertaining but elusive roadrunners strutted their stuff while hunting for food. Horseshoe pits, pickleball and shuffleboard courts were all in such good shape that they looked brand-new. Just outside is a wonderfully appointed family lodge, with a large patio, pool and spa, surrounded by landscaping and nicely manicured lawns. In addition to a large barbecue area, there are plentiful shaded tables, chaise lounges and even cabanas. Just outside the park’s southwest side are several hundred acres of sand and scrub brush that invite exploration by four-legged companions.
On the other side of the park entrance is a big recreation center and library. We were amazed at the number and quality of recreational and entertainment opportunities scheduled, for daytime and evenings, seven days a week. Some examples included pickleball, shuffleboard and horseshoe matches, Zumba, water aerobics, water volleyball, and Wii bowling; also, card games like Texas Hold ’Em; and special presentations, including “Introduction to Photoshop” and “Stitchin’ Time.” Our first Saturday night included live professional entertainment. Monday night jam sessions drew outstanding musicians from around the park. On Tuesday evenings it was karaoke; and there were plenty of other fun activities beyond those mentioned.
To get a better idea of how our points of interest were juxtaposed in and around the desert valley, we chose to first get above it all by riding in the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (to a breathtaking 8,516-foot elevation at the Mountain Station). These are the world’s largest rotating tramcars. During the impressive 10-minute, 2½-mile ascent, riders start at the base, in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, and end at the top in an alpine forest. The tram is a major means of accessing the 14,000 acres of park wilderness, including 54 miles of hiking trails, primitive campgrounds and an adventure center for winter activities (during snow season). Amenities at the top include a cafÃ©, fine restaurant and cocktail lounge, as well as a natural history museum, theater, gift shop and strategically located viewing areas.
We could see the entire distance, from the hundreds of windmills around Cathedral City, past Palm Springs and Desert Palms, all the way to the Salton Sea. Even the San Andreas Fault can be seen from there. No matter where you are at the top, inside or outside the structure, views are spectacular. There are lots of telescopes, but binoculars offer more versatility. We spent several hours at the top, concluding the stay with fine dining after watching the sun set over nearby peaks. The temperature at the top can be 40 degrees cooler than the valley floor, so dress accordingly. Handicapped parking is available, as is wheelchair access to and onto the tramcars.
Another way to get the lay of the land is to take a ride in a hot air balloon. We wanted a bird’s-eye view of the unique landscape, including the appearance of various textures – afforded by huge plots of date palms, grape vineyards, citrus orchards, row crops and new housing, contrasted with low- and high-desert terrain. Hundreds of windmills, and the shadows they cast on the desert below, can sometimes be seen off in the distance. Most operators offer flights both in early morning and afternoon. One advantage we found to the afternoon flight is that if the conditions allow, the pilot can create the impression of multiple sunsets during a single ride just by going higher and lower as the sun goes down behind the mountains located on the west side of the valley floor.
We chose to fly with Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, which has a fleet of nine balloons that vary in size, from one that carries only three passengers, to one that transports 24. Our flight was awesome, about an hour long, with champagne and orange juice served after landing. It was definitely a wonderful experience and the meeting location was only a mile away from the RV resort.
Visiting the Salton Sea was next on our to-do list. About 35 minutes away, just beyond the town of Mecca, we deemed it well worth the trip. The surface of this body of water is an astounding 227 feet below sea level! Located right over the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea offers something for everyone. For example, along the northeastern shore is one of the most important winter stops for birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway. Tens of thousands begin arriving around October. By January or February, huge flocks of up to 400 species have taken advantage of all that this body of water offers. Visitors can also learn about the Native Americans, known as Cahuilla, who once thrived here. Kayaking, sunbathing, fishing, hiking through nearby Painted Canyon or on the Ironwood Nature Trail, swimming (with extra buoyancy in the salty water), kite-flying, exploring bat caves, testing the waters in nearby hot springs and many more fun things await.
Exploring the unusual and spectacular desert canyons located on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation was a priority too. Of particular interest to me was Palm Canyon, with its 15 miles of trails and spectacular scenery. We wanted to experience part of it by horseback, but also via the much more versatile option of hiking. After doing research online and reviewing commercial fliers about trail rides in the Palm Springs area, our favorite by far was Smoke Tree Stables. This large, well-run operation offers a variety of one- and two-hour package deals. But more importantly to us was that the owner, Stacey Johnson, was willing to tailor rides for individuals and groups. Also, since her stables are located just below the mouth of Palm Canyon, there is only a short ride across relatively flat desert terrain before entering much more scenic terrain.
Totally awesome is how I would describe Palm Canyon. There is so much to see and do there that we didn’t even make it to nearby Tahquitz, Andreas and Murray canyons. During our exploration, it was easy to step back in time and see how much the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians depended on these canyons for survival. They created the means for irrigating crops, then grew things like melons, squash, beans and corn. The streams brought game, which provided meat. Rock art, rock mortars, house pits, dams, ditches, trails and places where their food was prepared can still be found in the canyons. The tribe invites visitors to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. Normally you can wear shorts, lightweight shirt, sunglasses, hat and closed-toed shoes for doing that. But bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Unless traveling in a small motorhome, don’t try driving there.
Last, but not least, on our must-do list, was a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. It was the farthest of our day trips, but still only took about 45 minutes from the resort to the south entrance. Plan on spending a full day, as there are an amazing number of things to see and do. After all, the park is larger than the state of Rhode Island. About 585,000 acres have been designated as wilderness area. The park straddles both San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Parts of two deserts are included in its boundaries: the Mojave and lower Colorado. The Little San Bernardino Mountains run through the southwestern edge. Bring plenty of water and a picnic lunch. But most importantly, bring a healthy curiosity about its diverse and sometimes unique geology, flora and fauna. The Mojave (which is at a higher elevation, and therefore cooler) is home to most of the park’s namesake Joshua trees, which can be found both in sparse numbers and thick clusters. Some live for well over 500 years, back to when Native Americans still roamed freely throughout the area. For those interested in photographing wildflowers, Joshua trees and other desert flora, they generally blossom from February to April. The many unusual rock formations also invite photography. Other activities include rock climbing, hiking, biking, birding, and just plain old exploring for fun. Motorhomes are allowed, and there are several campgrounds within the park. It is best to check online for details, including restrictions. However, using a dinghy affords more versatility and opportunities.
After two weeks of balmy bliss in Palm Springs, we were ready to head back home to see our kids and grandkids. But we hope to return with them in the near future, perhaps for another respite from the winter blues. Our every expectation was exceeded. I’m absolutely sure that Palm Springs will be high on our list for future winter getaways!
For More Information
Indian Canyons, Agua Caliente Indian Reservation
760-323-6018 | www.indian-canyons.com
Joshua Tree National Park
760-367-5500 | www.nps.gov/jotr
Magical Adventure Balloon Rides
619-865-1187 | www.hotairfun.com
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
760-325-1391 | www.pstramway.com
Palm Springs RV Resort
760-345-2236 | www.rvonthego.com/california/palm-springs-rv-resort
Salton Sea State Recreation Area
760-393-3059 | www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639
Smoke Tree Stables
760-327-1372 | www.smoketreestables.com