Palm Springs, the historic desert town, just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, is worth its weight in swimming pools, desert rocks, cacti and sunsets. And while it may have originally been a celebrity and retirement-age getaway, between the family-friendly Airbnbs and resort hotels all over town, this retreat is now a paradise for those with young kids in tow.
photo: Andie Huber
Palm Springs Activities
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens: For an up-close look at some real desert critters, this zoo plus botanical garden focuses on wildlife from North America and Africa. You can tour exhibits like a replica of a Northeast African village and get personal with some Nigerian dwarf goats.
The kids will also love seeing and riding the camels! And they’ll love seeing the hyenas, and other not-often-seen creatures. Catch some knowledgeable animal chats, feed the giraffes, ride the endangered animal carousel, and explore the vast array of trails that loop through the Sonoran Desert (FYI: the trails are closed in the summer). And finally, plan to spend at least 30 minutes checking out one of the best outdoor G-scale model train exhibits we’ve ever seen.
Good to Know: Arrive early, when it’s still cool out, you’re likely to catch more animals in action (they prefer to lounge around when the sun’s high in the sky) except for nocturnal animals like the big cats, who tend to come out closer to sunset. When it gets hot, head to the air-conditioned Discovery Center.
Heading here over the holidays? The zoo lights up (literally) with their Holiday Festival that runs from Nov. 23 and runs on selected nights through Dec. 24 from 6–9 p.m. Expect thousands of lights, displays, some live music, games, hot chocolate and more. Cost: Adults $12, Children $10, Children (under 3) Free
47900 Portola Ave.
Palm Desert, CA
Winter: Oct. 1 to May 31
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admission at 4 p.m.)
Summer: Jun. 1 to Sept. 30
Hours: 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (last admission at 1 p.m.)
47900 Portola Ave.
Palm Desert, CA
Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert: Too hot to stay outside? Then head indoors to this creative museum where absolutely everything is hands-on and in the (much-appreciated) air conditioning. This museum is filled with ever-changing exhibits, packed with activities and play spaces for kids of all ages.
Good to Know: Every third Wed. the museum runs a special STEM event called $5 after 5 which means the museum stays open till 8 p.m and admission is only $5. Every third Sat. the museum has creative classes like duct tape fashion and Days of Los Muertos cooking. Check out the events listed on their website, there is always something interesting happening here.
Hours: 10 a.m to 5 p.m.
71-701 Gerald Ford Dr.
Rancho Mirage, CA
photo: Shelley H. via Yelp
Joshua Tree National Park: The twisty tree shapes, Cholla cactus forests, and blobby boulders in Joshua Tree make wonderful Dr. Suess-style memories for your kids. For a quick day trip, stick to the exhibitions along the main roads. Don’t want to hike it alone? Join one of their guided hike tours.
Good to Know: There are a couple entrances into the park, but if you are looking for the easiest hike with the kids (.25 mile loop), head to the southernmost entry point near Cottonwood Visitor Center. Check the weather, bring hats, sunblock and more water and food and snacks then you’ll think you’ll need.
Check the calendar before you go and catch a “Ranger Chat” for an in-depth expert view of what happens in this national park.
Joshua Tree Visitor Center
6554 Park Blvd.
Joshua Tree, CA
Indian Canyons: If you don’t want to drive to Joshua Tree (it’s an hour drive from downtown), you can hike right in the heart of Palm Springs. The Indian Canyon Trails encompasses 60 miles of hiking paths through the mountains that range from easy enough for toddlers to challenging trails for grown-ups. Expect to see spectacular vistas, maybe some big horned sheep and even, if we’ve had some rain, a waterfall.
Good to Know: There is a fee to enter the hiking trails, which you pay for at the ranger station (visit Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians counter at the Palm Springs Visitor Center located in the old Albert Frey gas station when you first enter town). You can also arrange your visit to coincide with a ranger-led hike. Don’t forget your water! They won’t let you hike without it.
Hours: Fri.-Sun. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (last car in at 4 p.m.)
2901 North Palm Canyon
photo: Don Graham via flickr
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: Even pool-obsessed kids can sometimes have enough sunny splash time. Try a favorite, midday break with a change of scenery and climate. This tramway, built in the 60s, will take you and yours 2.5 miles above the desert floor into the San Jacinto mountains and the snowy wilderness awaiting at the top. Kids will love the rotating tram, which guarantees spectacular views no matter where you’re seated. There are dining options at the top so don’t worry if your brood gets hungry.
If there is snow, you can have a snowball fight, go sledding, snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing before descending back to the balmy poolside oasis of your hotel. (Check out our aerial tram guide for the tricks of a perfect trip). Even when it’s not snowy, it’s a lot cooler at the top, and fun for kids to explore the hiking and walking trails, and take in the jaw-dropping views.
Good to Know: Altitude sickness can occur so pay attention to your body, drink lots of water and if you or your kids are afraid of heights, this may not be the experience for you. It’s not for the faint of heart but totally worth it once you get to the top.
Oct. 1 begins the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway snow-guessing contest! The first ten entries received with the correct date of snowfall will win four Tram admissions plus a special Tram gift memento. To submit an entry, simply write down your best-guess date on a postcard and mail it to: Snow Guessing Contest, 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262.
1 Tram Way
photo: Palm Springs Air Museum
Palm Springs Air Museum: If you have an aviator junkie in your house, take them to the Palm Springs Air Museum where they can ooooh and awww over flyable WWII aircraft, walk through a B17G “Flying Fortress” bomber, watch flight demos, and talk to a volunteer, some of whom served in WWII themselves.
Good to Know: If wandering around on the ground isn’t thrilling enough, you can book a 20-minute flight in one of the historic planes and really pretend you are a fighter pilot!
745 North Gene Autry Trail
photo: Paul S. via Yelp
Cabazon Dinosaur Museum: This roadside attraction is impossible to miss on your way into Palm Springs, but we recommend reserving this stop for when you are on your way out of town, headed back to Los Angeles. Touted as the world’s biggest dinosaur museum, you can check out giant robotic dinosaurs (don’t worry, they’re more kitschy than terrifying) for a fee. Let the little ones climb into the mouth of a huge model T-Rex, ride the animatronic Brontosaurus, and then searching through the sand at the Dino Dig to win a prize.
50770 Seminole Dr.
photo: Wet n’ Wild via Yelp
Palm Desert Aquatic Center: Of course your hotel has a pool, but unless you’re staying at the Rancho Las Palmas (more on that below), your little ones will love exploring various water features at this year-round open park. For a small fee, non-residents can get a day pass to splash and play in 3 pools, waterslides, diving boards, a splash playground and a toddler pool.
73751 Magnesia Falls Dr.
Wet ‘n’ Wild: For kids (6 and up) who need more thrills than a lap pool and splash playgrounds can provide, head to this park where giant slides, a wave pool and simulated surf machine take center stage. There are dive in movies, too, which can make for a fun evening outing.
1500 S. Gene Autry Trail
photo: Elmer’s Restaurant via Yelp
Eats & Sweets in the Heat
Elmer’s: An authentic diner that delivers a fantastic breakfast. The coffee is strong and the pancakes are fluffy (the kid’s Cub Cake is too cute!). Go early since lines can form out the door but lollipops are handed out with a smile for all. If you can stand the wait, get the German Pancake. There’s a reason everyone raves about them.
1030 E. Palm Canyon Dr.
Sherman’s Deli: Big breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, both kosher (and not) can be found at both Sherman’s Deli locations. Try the hot corned beef (it’s famous for a reason). And save room for one of the beautiful desserts in the display case.
401 E Tahquitz Canyon Way
Smoke Tree BBQ & Grill: If the desert heat leaves you hankering for some BBQ, head to this award-winning restaurant. Dive into brisket and beer. If you’ve got non-meat-eaters or just picky kids, the Mac-n-Cheese is stellar. Or grab a family platter for some twilight poolside dining back at your hotel or Airbnb.
1775 E. Palm Canyon Dr #405
Tyler’s Burgers: A simple burger might be the best bet in the middle or at the end of a long day, so try Tyler’s Burger stand. It’s popular, so go well before your crew gets hangry. FYI: It’s cash only, and they’re closed most Sun.
149 S. Canyon Dr.
photo: Lorina D. via Yelp
Cheeky’s: A spot to see and be-seen. The mouth-watering seasonal menu changes weekly as this restaurant strives to use locally grown, organic ingredients. FYI: Expect long waits if you get there late. Open Thurs.-Mon. Closed Tues. and Wed.
622 N. Palm Canyon Dr.
La Casuelas: If it’s not too hot to dine al fresco, check out this spot in downtown Palm Springs. Order a combination platter or one of the house specials like Camarones Diablo or Chimichangas. There are several vegetarian options on the menu and they will also serve up a traditional American-style hamburger if the kids aren’t feeling adventurous.
222 S Palm Canyon Dr.
Brandidi Toffee: This in-town treat, with the original factory (that will give tours to kids) in Rancho Mirage and a sweets shop in downtown Palm Springs, hands out sweet samples. Not only is it the best toffee you’ll ever taste—no joke—the whole business was started by two teen friends who wanted to make money for a class trip. Great life lesson for kids, unbelievable toffee for everyone: it’s a win-win.
132 S. Palm Canyon Dr.
photo: Andie Huber
Where to Stay
Palm Springs isn’t just for college coeds, bachelor and bachelorette parties and avid golfers—there are plenty of resorts that welcome families, with an array of entertainment for kids. But the best bit is that they also cater to tired parents who may need some well-earned R&R. It’s the best of both worlds. These are some of our favorite spots that cater to the whole family. Room rates are highly variable depending on occupancy and season; make sure to call ahead.)
Renaissance Indian Wells: With the largest pool in the Palm Springs area, this resort has families in mind from young kids to old. The zero-entry pool and sandy beach is awesome for the little ones while the wide expanse of the rest of the pool means the bigger kids have the freedom to swim to their hearts delight. Prepare yourself for great eats at Sirocco Pizza Company, making fireside s’mores treats by the outdoor fire pits, lots of ping pong tournaments and of course, comfy and generously-sized accommodations. Plus there’s a kid’s club for some parental downtime. Check out more reasons to stay at this family-friendly resort.
44-400 Indian Wells Lane
La Quinta Resort & Club: Located just south of Indian Wells, this is one of the biggest and most family-friendly resorts around, with a children’s playground adjacent to the main pool, as well as cabanas and poolside food and beverage service. Adults will love the 41 pools and 53 hot spas, as well as the 5 resort golf courses designed by PGA biggies like Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, and Greg Norman. This secluded resort is not only family-friendly, with a Kids Kamp in the day-time and nightly child-care available, but it’s also pet-friendly with activities to enhance your pet’s stay as well.
49-499 Eisenhower Dr.
Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage: One word: Splashtopia. Sounds awesome, right? And it is. This knock-your-socks-off water feature, nearly 2 acres big, has two 100-foot water slides, a 425-foot lazy river, a Jacuzzi with cliff views and a sandy beach. You can spend all day, every day here, just order food from Splash Grill and you’re good to go. But if little eaters would prefer something more familiar, check out the River complex shopping and dining complex across the street that has restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s. Also, there’s a movie theater in case you want to catch a flick after a day of sun.
41000 Bob Hope Dr.
The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa: Come for the mountain views or the fantastic golf courses, or just to unwind with your family (pets included!). Enjoy 3 pools, including a 75-foot water slide, play some tennis (they offer kids lessons), rent a bike or de-stress with a relaxing spa treatment. The Westin Kids Club Discovery Room (located at The Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas) offers daily drop-off activities for kids aged 4-12 like indoor and outdoor games, storytelling, movies, and arts and crafts so you can explore the resort knowing your kids are having a blast too. Plus, it’s close to the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, in case you fancy a trip off-site.
71333 Dinah Shore Dr.
Desert Springs JW Marriott in Palm Desert: This stunning, sprawling resort with fantastic amenities, including a decadent spa and two championship 18-hold golf courses is the kind of luxurious place that has thought of everything, including how tired your feet must be….why walk when you can float on a gondola to various destinations around the resort? And just minutes from the El Paseo Shopping District, it’s handy when you realize you forgot something essential back in LA. But keep Fido at home, as this is a pet-free resort.
74-855 Country Club Dr.
ACE Hotel & Swim Club: For an ultra hip stay, this resort is both bohemian and kid-friendly, in that artsy relaxed chic sort of way. Bring some marshmallows to roast on the outdoor fireplaces, play with your pooch in the dog park out back, or take the kids for a short bike ride downtown for some vintage clothes shopping and return to rock your retro finds. This is definitely the place to be cool, in more ways than one.
701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.
photo: Modern Territory via Facebook
Modern Territory: If you’d prefer a home stay with a dose of that Palm Springs chic, check out this fully restored home, designed by Architect William Krisel. The desert-bohemian style 3/2 house and studio casita (with it’s own full kitchen and bathroom) has a pool and large, very private yard. You know what that means? Vacation doesn’t have to stop when the kids go to bed (i.e. No more hiding under the covers watching Netflix at 8 p.m with headphones)!
In addition to the pool, the yard features a gas BBQ, outdoor shower, hammock and (of course) lots of sunshine. Basically everything you need for the perfect desert vacation.
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—Elena Wurlitzer-Fenegan & Andie Huber