Must See Things to Do in Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs, California is its own little world.

Although it’s in Southern California, Palm Springs doesn’t feel like anywhere else in SoCal.

Palm Springs can be a cool place to visit. It can also feel like an endless and boring suburban desert filled with way too many golf courses and a startling number of old white people.

I’ve spent plenty of time in Palm Springs. Here are my must-see sights, things to do, and attractions in Palm Springs, California.

Ride Up The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the number one attraction in Palm Springs according to nearly every travel website.

Photo courtesy of @palmspringsaerialtramway on Instagram

There’s a good reason: the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is an impressive attraction. Since 1963, the tramway has taken visitors from the desert to the top of the mountain, rising to an elevation of 8,500 feet.

When I visit SoCal from Canada, the last thing I want to do is see snow. However, you’ll see snow at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in the winter. In fact, it can be 30 to 40 degrees cooler at the top.

After the 10 minute ride to the top, you’ll find plenty of hiking trails to explore. Some people even hike up and take the tram down (or take the tram up and hike down).

Bring a jacket. You’re high up, and it will be cold at the top.

Take a Hike

Palm Springs is surrounded by hiking trails. There are a shocking number of hiking trails in Palm Springs and the surrounding mountains.

For the perfect ratio of effort + view, visit the South Lykken Trail just south of downtown. There’s plenty of parking along the side of the road. It takes about 45 minutes to walk to the first viewpoint. From there, you get a great view over the heart of Palm Springs and surrounding neighborhoods. You can also continue the walking to the top, which gives you an even better view of downtown Palm Springs.

Alternatively, check out the Araby Trail. It takes you by Bob Hope’s house, which is a Palm Springs landmark (it’s the funky looking house on top of a hill).

I also like the Rd Runner Trail, which takes you around one of the fancier neighborhoods in Palm Springs (and dips by The Ritz Carlton).

Want to hike through endless and narrow canyons? Check out the Painted Canyon Trailhead in the Mecca Hills by the Salton Sea. Be careful not to get lost. People die out there.

Or, hike to the Palm Desert Cross along the Hopalong Cassidy Trail. It’s short, steep, and gives you a great view over the city of Palm Desert.  

Me doing my best wandering Instagram vagabond impression

I also like hiking at the Whitewater Canyon Preserve. You can even hike along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in this area. It’s a beautiful and free wilderness preserve just north of Palm Springs.

Hiking in Palm Springs is worth it.

Explore Joshua Tree National Park

Palm Springs is the closest city to Joshua Tree National Park. You should visit.

Located about an hour from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is easy to see in a day trip. You can cover the main sights and still make it home for happy hour.

For a longer trip, you can do a loop from the north entrance of Joshua Tree through to the south entrance (or vice versa).

Alternatively, you can shorten the trip just by going in and out of the north entrance, which is especially fast if you’re stay in the north end of Palm Springs.

Click here to discover must see sights and tings to do in Joshua Tree National Park.

Grab a Date Shake

Date shakes. Some people like em. Others hate em. Personally, I’m a big fan.

Grab a date shake in downtown Palm Springs or anywhere else in the city. As you may have guessed, date shakes are made from dates (like, the fruit).

Dates aren’t the most milkshake-friendly fruit in the world. The dates make the milkshake a little chunky. However, date shakes somehow work.

Alternatively, visit Great Shakes, an ice cream shop in downtown Palm Springs, which lets you build your own ultimate milkshake (including date shakes).

Drive Up to Idyllwild

Looking for cooler temperatures in the middle of summer? Head to the mountains.

Idyllwild is a high-altitude resort town in the middle of scorching southern California.

After a 45 minute drive straight up the mountain, you’ll reach Idyllwild. There are hikes to hike, restaurants to eat at, and shops to peruse.

Click here for my must see sights and things to do in Idyllwild, California.

Look for Celebrities

Palm Springs is a low key celebrity hotspot.

Back in its heyday, Palm Springs was the celebrity hotspot for A-listers from Los Angeles. It was an escape from the city. Frank Sinatra and his buddies tore up the town repeatedly. There’s a reason half of the streets in Palm Springs are named after random celebrities.

I swear I wasn’t stalking him!

The Obamas have stayed in Palm Springs numerous times. My mom swore she saw Channing Tatum hiking past Bob Hope’s house one day.

Walk around downtown or check out El Paseo for the best celebrity spotting opportunities.

If you really want to maximize your chances of seeing a celebrity, visit Palm Springs during the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Plenty of A-listers visit town.

Check Out Elvis’s House

There are a lot of silly tourist attractions in Palm Springs. Elvis’s honeymoon house is silly but worthwhile for Elvis lovers.

Elvis and Priscilla lived in the house in 1966 and 1967. They also stayed here for their honeymoon. Today, it’s a random house in a suburban neighborhood.

You can drive by the house to admire the architecture from the outside. However, it’s particularly cool to do a tour. It’s like stepping into the set of Mad Men. It’s filled with quintessential 1960s style. A tour costs $30.

The Elvis house in Palm Springs gives you a feel of what Palm Springs must have been like in the good old days.

Drive a Loop Around the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is one of the most bizarre parts of the United States.

Back in 1900, an engineer came up with a bold plan: he wanted to transform the California desert into a lush, agriculturally-rich oasis.

To do that, he had an even bolder plan: to divert the Colorado River into an empty valley, creating an idyllic mountain lake.

Unfortunately, this was a stupid plan.

The irrigation canals filled with silt. Then, the canals overran their banks during heavy rainfall. Water poured into the Salton basin, which has no natural drainage. The water destroyed the town of Salton and submerged indigenous territory.

Things were good at the Salton Sea for a few decades. The lake had a thriving recreation scene.   

The Salton Sea had its heyday decades ago: the lake was packed with resorts, boaters, and tourists from Los Angeles. Then, things changed. The lake started to dry up. The tourists left.

You know that town in Grand Theft Auto V with all the trailer parks beside the lake? The town where Trevor lives? That town was based on the Salton Sea.

I’m not doing a good job of selling the Salton Sea to you. But that’s the point. It’s a dump in the middle of the desert – but it’s cool as hell to visit.

While driving around the Salton Sea, you’ll discover such local gems as:

  • Slab City, a glorified homeless camp in the middle of the desert
  • Salvation Mountain, a hill covered in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of paint that took some guy 30+ years to make
  • Bombay Beach, a dilapidated lakeside town with unique outdoor art exhibits (and even more unique locals)
  • Ski Inn, a bar at the end of the world visited by Anthony Bourdain in an early episode

Do a loop around the Salton Sea to discover a part of America you’re not supposed to discover.

Check out my road trip itinerary guide for the Salton Sea here.

Go Golfing

I’m not a golfer. But if you are a golfer, then Palm Springs has plenty of great options. It’s even home to a championship golf course: PGA West.

Some of the top-rated golf courses in Palm Springs include:

  • La Quinta Resort & Club at PGA West
  • The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa
  • Indian Wells Golf Resort
  • Classic Club
  • Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort
  • The Golf Club at Terra Lago

Check Out the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament

Each year, Indian Wells (one of five separate cities in the Palm Springs area) hosts a tennis tournament. The Indian Wells US Open boasts some of the biggest names in the sport but has a lower profile than other events.

If you want to see world class tennis without traveling to Wimbledon, then the Indian Wells US Open is one option.

Go to a Music Festival

I’m not going to write anything that hasn’t already been said about the biggest-known festivals in the Palm Springs area:

  • Coachella
  • Stagecoach

Book early. Get a place for you and your friends. Find a pool. I’m sure you’ll have fun.

Other Must See Sights and Things to Do in Palm Springs

Palm Springs isn’t a thriving metro area. It’s a sprawling suburb filled with homes that stay empty for most of the year. However, there are still plenty of things to see and do in Palm Springs, including:

Check Out the Palm Springs Air Museum: See planes from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Discover a massive B-17 bomber. The Palm Springs Air Museum is on the back side of the airport, and it’s worth a visit.

Hike the Indian Canyons: Indian Canyons is a desert oasis home to the world’s largest grove of California fan palms. It’s a 15-mile long canyon you pay to enter. Expect hikes, a 60-foot waterfall, and crowds.

Visit the Coachella Valley Preserve: The Coachella Valley Preserve is a large open space located east of Palm Springs. There are plenty of hiking trails in the preserve. You can even straddle the San Andreas Fault.

Check out The Living Desert: Palm Springs is home to its very own zoo. The Living Desert is a zoo and garden area featuring wildlife from the desert and around the world. You can feed giraffes.

Walk in Presidential Footsteps at Sunnylands: Sunnylands is a mid-century modern (expect to hear that term a lot in Palm Springs) estate built by the guy who created TV Guide (Walter Annenberg). Known as “Camp David of the West Coast,” Sunnylands has hosted several presidents. You can do a free, self-guided tour of the grounds. Or, you can pay to tour the house.  

Final Word

Palm Springs had its heyday decades ago. Today, Palm Springs is becoming increasingly relevant.

Silicon Valley billionaires are building homes in Palm Springs. Like old time celebrities, they see it as a unique retreat from the city.

Meanwhile, festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach keep younger generations coming back year after year.

Palm Springs can be a bit dry – no pun intended (it is a desert, after all). However, it’s a great vacation destination for Canadians in the winter, and there are plenty of must see things to do in and around Palm Springs, California.  

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