A short drive to the desert of Palm Springs is so close, yet a world away with swimming pools, desert rocks, cacti and sunsets and loads of things for kids to do. And some of the newer hotels are catering to families with bigger rooms, water facilities and family-friendly dining options. In other words—it’s the perfect family mini get-away!
photo: Jon S. via Yelp
Palm Springs Playing
For an up-close look at some real desert critters, The Living Desert is like a zoo/botanical garden, laid out geographically. You can tour exhibits like a replica of a Northeast African village, complete with an African goods market. The kids will loves seeing camels and hyenas, and other not-often-seen creatures. There’s also a model train exhibit, a discovery center, a cactus slide, a gold panning trough, a sand dune play area and more. You might want to arrive early, when it’s still cool out and 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’s too hot to stay outside, head in at this creative museum where absolutely everything is hands on and in the air conditioning. The Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage is filled with ever changing exhibits and packed with activities and play spaces for kids of all ages (perhaps it’s best for kids 2-8, but babies have fun taking it all in and even teens and grown ups enjoy the puzzles and games).
The twisty tree shapes, Cholla cactus forests, and blobby boulders in Joshua Tree make wonderful Dr. Suess-style memories for your kiddos. For a quick day trip, stick to exhibitions along the main roads, and the one-mile loop trail through Hidden Valley is a good introduction for little ones. Start your adventure at the West entrance, then work your way along the road exiting the park at the South. The most scenic sections will be located close to the road at the beginning of the trip.
If you don’t want an additional drive to Joshua Tree, you can hike right in the heart of Palm Springs. The Indian Canyon Trails are a series of hiking paths through the mountains that give you spectacular vistas, a chance to meet some big horned sheep and even (yay to the recent rains!) wander by a waterfall. There is a fee to enter the hiking trails, which you pay at the ranger station, and you can arrange your visit to coincide with a ranger-led hike. Don’t forget your water! They won’t let you hike without it. Trails range from easy enough for toddlers to challenging for grown ups.
If your baby divers have had enough sunny splash time, try a midday break with a change of scenery and climate. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway will soar 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 ensures spectacular views no matter where you’re seated.
Once at the top, 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 detailed aerial tram guide for the tricks of a perfect trip.) Even when it’s not snowy, it’s cooler at the top, and fun for kids to explore the hiking and walking trails, and take in the spectacular views.
photo: Matt Keiffer via flickr
If you’ve got a mini “Top Gun” fan in your house, take them to the Palm Springs Air Museum, where they can ooooh and awww over flyable WWII aircraft. You can walk through a B17G “Flying Fortress” bomber, watch flight demos, and talk to a volunteer, some of whom served in WWII themselves. And kids under 5 are admitted free.
Ruth Hardy Park and Playground also offers a great place to take a break with kids both big and small. Check out the two large play areas, one of which is designed for toddlers, as well the crowd-pleasing water spouting turtles. There are also public tennis and basketball courts, so pack your rackets and b-balls.
photo: Christine A. via Yelp
Step back in time and check out the World’s Biggest Dinosaur Museum, a unique roadside attraction located along I-10 in Cabazon. For a $9-$10 entrance fee, the giant robotic dinosaurs will delight the kids (don’t worry, they’re more kitschy than terrifying). Your little ones will love climbing into the mouth of a huge model T-Rex, riding the animatronic Brontosaurus, and then searching through the sand at the Dino Dig to win a prize. It’s one of those only in CA adventures!
Cool Off in the Desert
Of course your hotel has a pool, but unless you’re staying at the Rancho Las Palmas (see below), your young adventurer may need more than just a lap pool. Palm Desert Aquatic Center is open year round and for just $3.75 for kids and $6 for adults, non-residents can get a day pass to splash and play at the 8 acres of 3 pools, slides, diving boards and a splash playground. There’s a toddler pool, ice cream window and enough to keep you busy for a full afternoon.
Oh, you’ve really got a water bug? Spend the whole day at Wet ‘n’ Wild (which used to be Splash City) in Palm Springs. While there’s not as much here for the timid or the tiny, kids who love big drops and splashes (mainly 6 & up) will have a blast with the giant slides, wave pool (Riptide Reef) and simulated surf machine. There are dive in movies, too, which can make for a fun evening outing. Tickets are pricey ($24.99-$39.99), so make sure you have a whole hot day to devote to this, and call to make sure your favorite attractions are open.
Sometimes in the desert, it’s even to hot to be at the pool. That’s when you cool down at Desert Ice Castle in Cathedral City, an ice skating rink in an old Coca Cola Bottling plant. Yes, it’s vintage (read: old). And it could use an update. But if you’re hot and want a different desert adventure, an old school skating session for not-a-lot-of-bucks ($7 for 2 hours, plus $3 skate rental) will chill everyone out for an afternoon of gliding fun.
Eats in the Heat
Desert dining offers lots of options for all taste buds. Big breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, both kosher and non (bacon, anyone?), can be found at both Sherman’s Deli locations. Try the hot corned beef (it’s famous for a reason).
If the desert heat leaves you feeling roasted, go with it! Get some roasted meat at the award winning Smoke Tree BBQ & Grill in Palm Springs or Palm Desert. It’s the perfect place for brisket, beer and BBQ; and if you’ve got non meat-eaters, the Mac n Cheese is stellar. (But it’s even better with the optional bacon.) The family platters to go are an awesome option for some twilight poolside dining back at your hotel or airbnb…
A simple burger might be the best bet for picky eaters, so try Tyler’s Burger stand. It’s popular, so be prepared for lines at lunch time. Grab a seat on the patio and enjoy some people watching as you munch your tasty burger and fries. (Take note: it’s cash only, and they’re closed most Sundays).
photo: Greg Y. via Yelp
Cheeky’s is a great place to stop for brunch before you head back to the City of Angels. The menu changes weekly to adjust to whatever is freshest and in season, and they strive to use locally grown, organic ingredients. Thirsty Moms & Pops might like to try the unusual brunch cocktails, like a vodka green tea limeade or the pluot mimosa. Oh, and they even have a “Master Cleanse” beverage, which might cancel out those salty caramel waffles.
Elmer’s in Palm Springs is as old school and authentic as it gets for a fantastic breakfast. It’s a must stop for families, where the coffee is hot and strong, pancakes are fluffy (the kids Cub Cake is too cute!) and eggs are creamy. Lines are out the door and lollipops are handed out with a smile for all. It’ll bring you back to your childhood in an instant and make instant memories for your own offspring. Two tips: come early as the breakfast lines get insane (or eat breakfast later as it’s served all day) and get the German Pancake. There’s a reason everyone raves about them.
If it’s not too hot to dine al fresco, check out the patio at La Casuelas in downtown Palm Springs. Order up 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. (You may want to check out their sister restaurants in Palm Desert and La Quinta, if that’s more convenient.)
photo: Ann Larie Valentine via Creative Commons
The Best Dessert in the Desert
If the sunshine has you hankering to feed your sweet tooth, do it the healthy way at Shield’s Date Garden in Indio. Try one of their famous date shakes at the café (sweetened with dates, not processed sugar) and home-made bread and date butter too. Yes, it’s touristy and kind of crowded, but it’s also kind of a must.
If you don’t make it all the way to Indio, Brandidi Toffee is an in-town treat, with the original factory (that will give tours to kids) in Rancho Mirage and a sweets shop in downtown Palm Springs that 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.
photo: Yatmandu via Creative Commons
Palm Springs Staying
Palm Springs isn’t just for college co-eds 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 Mommies and Daddies who may need some well-earned R&R. It’s the best of both worlds. These are our favorite spots that cater to the whole fam. (Room rates are highly variable depending on occupancy and season; make sure to call ahead.)
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, and even has activities to enhance your pet’s stay as well.
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 a taste from home, check out the River complex across the street. It has familiar 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.
The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa
Come for the mountain views or the fantastic golf courses, or just to unwind with your family. Enjoy the 3 pools, including a 60-foot water slide, play some tennis (they offer kids lessons), rent a bike or de-stress with a relaxing spa treatment while the kids are looked after. The Westin Kids Club Discovery Room offers daily drop-off activities for kids aged 4-12 like build-your-bear, pottery and arts & crafts, so you can explore the resort knowing your kids are having a blast too. They even have a dedicated Director of Fun (we need one of them at home!). Plus, it’s close to the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, in case you fancy a trip off site.
Stylish and chic, this hotel will make you feel like a million bucks. Rent a poolside float and feel your worries drift away. If you fancy a cocktail break without the wild ones, take advantage of the Kids Club, which offers two 3-hour time slots daily, and gives your kids a chance to catch up on their favorite Wii or Xbox games while you catch up on those sun rays. Once you’re bronzed, pick up the kids and take them on a trolley ride (departing from the hotel) and check out the Indian Canyon Trails for some picturesque beauty. Or rent a bike and pedal around the local neighborhood. Oh yeah, the Riviera is pet friendly too, if you need to bring the family pooch along.
Desert Springs JW Marriott in Palm Desert
This is a stunning, sprawling resort with fantastic amenities, including a decadent spa and two championship 18-hold golf courses. This 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.
photo: ScottieT812 via Creative Commons
If you’re looking for something ultra hip, try the ACE Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs. It’s 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.
If you’d prefer a home away from home, check out this “Villa Del Sol” vacation rental, a 4 bedroom, 2 bath house with all the amenities you need to feel extra comfy. Fully walled and gated, you can relax knowing the kiddos are safe while they run around. Enjoy the saline pool and gorgeous palm tree views. (Other airbnb and vrbo rentals are great too, ensuring complete privacy and that you can find exactly what you need for your family!)
Now go have a dynamite time in the desert! Enjoy your weekend get-away and let us know what your favorite go-to spots are in Palm Springs.