When I think of Palm Springs, I immediately picture funky boutique hotels, hot temperatures, weird roadside attractions, and the ultimate weekend escape.
Located in the California desert just a few hours from Los Angeles or San Diego, Palm Springs is the perfect weekend getaway destination. While temperatures soar in the summer, this desert oasis is home to hot springs, golf courses and spas, incredible mid-century modern homes and unique boutique hotels.
The town is small and relatively walkable, but we recommend bringing your car for a true desert road trip experience. There are plenty of activities to enjoy here, including shopping in charming boutiques and dining at delicious restaurants. However, some of the most interesting sights are within a couple hours driving distance.
Today, we’re highlighting some of our favorite boutique hotels in Palm Springs and some of the best roadside stops and excursions in the surrounding area. If you're looking for a taste of true Americana and desert life, this list is for you.
Where to Stay
When you aren’t out exploring the desert, you’ll want to relax poolside at one of these unique boutique hotels. There are a lot of luxury accommodations in the area, but if you’re looking for something a bit different from the rest of the pack, we recommend one of these contemporary options.
This chic hotel features decor by renowned designer Jonathan Adler. There are four types of accommodations here, including the Gene Autrey Residence, private villas, estate rooms, and patio/Lanai rooms. The entire complex spans 13-acres and features 3 pools, a bistro, lounge, tennis courts, and a fitness center.
Built in the 1950s, this restored boutique hotel has a modern, yet rustic, style. The lodge has only 20 rooms, featuring wood beam ceilings, concrete floors, private patios, and plush bedding. Rooms are void of televisions and phones, allowing you to truly disconnect during your stay. If you enjoy fine art, you’ll be happy to discover works around the property from artists such as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and more.
Originally built in 1960, the Monkey Tree was lovingly restored in 2015. Rooms vary in size from 300 to 725 square feet, which are incredibly spacious for the area. The largest rooms also include large private patios to soak in the California sun. The hotel is also home to a Scandinavian spa which includes a sauna, whirlpool, and cold plunge. The retro design and the saltwater pool may draw you in, but the complimentary breakfast, happy hour sangria, and warm hospitality will make you feel at home.
Where to go
When you're not relaxing by the pool, I highly encourage you to get in your car and head out to these unique roadside spots and attractions. From wonderful views to some downright weird kitschy landmarks, these are some of the best pit stops within a couple hours of Palm Springs.
Considered the world’s largest rotating tram car, this tram travels one and a half miles up (10-minute ride) to Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Once you reach the top, you’ll find hiking trails, observation decks, a natural history museum, two documentary theaters, and more. On a hot day in the desert, this can be a great way to escape the heat as the temperatures cool about 30 degrees once you’ve reached the top.
If you’ve seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, you most certainly remember the Cabazon Dinosaurs. These life-sized dinosaurs (a Tyrannosaurus Rex and an Apatosaurus to be precise) were created back in the 1960s by a former sculptor for Knott's Berry Farm (Claude K. Bell) as a roadside attraction leading to his restaurant. The attraction has since been turned into a creationist museum. You can still climb to the top of the T-Rex, but you have to pay about $10 to do so. Your ticket will include access to the museum and a bunch of other kitschy dinosaur sculptures.
Date palms are ever present in the Coachella Valley and have a fascinating history. If you’re in Indio, be sure to stop by Shields Date Garden to stock up on every kind of date product available Helpful tip: If you buy too much, you can freeze them for up to 6 months - thank me later.
If you haven’t tried a date shake, I highly recommend grabbing one at their cafe and taking a seat in their theater to learn about the history of the farm from their short 15-minute film “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” It sounds way more provocative than it actually is, but you’ll learn a lot about the complicated process of pollinating the female date palms by hand.
Salvation Mountain was hand built by local resident Leonard Knight who passed away back in 2014. It is a momentous work made from adobe clay and donated paint. Covered in Bible quotes and colorful images, this is a quintessential landmark that must be seen on any road trip or stay in this area.
Climb up the mountain and walk around to truly experience the spectacle. Whether or not you’re there for the spiritual awakening that Knight intended, he was always happy to see visitors enjoying his work. His messages of love are still going strong after his death.
Salvation Mountain is about an hour and a half drive from Palm Springs.
East Jesus is a quick jump from Salvation Mountain. Located in “Slab City,” East Jesus is part of a community of unique inhabitants including artists, musicians, but most of all survivalists. Residents of Slab City live without power, running water, and in extreme temperatures all year long. The collective works together to create unique artwork using up-cycled goods.
You’ll find all sorts of “garbage” turned into art here. From art cars to sculptures, you’ll find all sorts of installations designed to challenge you. It isn’t meant to be pretty, and sometimes can be disturbing, so come here with an open mind and be ready to embrace the desert life.
If you’ve been to (or heard of) Burning Man, this is truly how the community lives every day of their lives, not just for a one week escape. Residents are technically squatters on government land and are currently trying to purchase the land for themselves in order to preserve their work and way of life.
If you REALLY love bananas, the International Banana Museum in Mecca is certainly a place you should stop. It holds a Guinness Book World Record for its collection of banana merchandise. If something was made in the shape of a banana, it can more than likely be found here. Stop by for driving break and don’t forget to pack your banana costume.
The Salton Sea has a complicated history. What was once a weekend escape destination for Hollywood royalty in the 1950s it is now more or less abandoned. Why? The increasing salinity of this man-made lake has created an inhospitable environment for local wildlife. What appears to be white sand around the lake isn’t actually sand at all...rather, the bones of millions of dead tilapia and barnacles. The fluctuating salinity of the water and algal blooms causes massive fish kills every year but makes for some very interesting photographs.
Sculptures of Anza Borrego
About an hour and a half from Palm Springs is the community of Borrego Springs. Visiting this area in the spring is magical if you’re a fan of wildflowers and drought resistant plant life. I’ll go into some more details about this area later, but if you’re looking for some great photo-ops you’ll want to check out the massive metal sculptures by Ricardo Breceda.
Breceda has over 130 different sculptures littered throughout the Anza Borrego desert. While his subject matter varies from piece to piece, you’ll see a variety of animal sculptures both from reality and fantasy. One of the most famous sculptures is the serpent. The community is small, with very few streets, so if you drive through here, you’ll have no problem spotting dozens within a few minutes.
While in Borrego Springs, I recommend you lace up your hiking boots and head out on a few hiking trails. One of the best trails is the Borrego Palm Canyon trail. The trail begins just north of the visitors center (which has a small museum worth checking out for a history of the area). This 3.25-mile loop is a great way of viewing the California desert cacti and wildlife.
On my last hike through here, I spent about an hour watching a herd of bighorn sheep (Borrego means bighorn sheep in Spanish) come down from a mountain to play and drink from the stream along the hiking trail. I couldn’t believe how close I was to the action.
The end of the trail ends in a palm tree oasis. It sounds a bit better than it is in reality, but the shady rest area is definitely welcome after the trail narrows and becomes a little rockier and rugged.
Another quick trail from the same trailhead is the Panoramic Overlook Trail. This is a shorter hike than the Borrego Palm Canyon trail, but once you reach the end you'll enjoy a panoramic view of the San Ysidro mountains.
If you have the time, be sure to pack a picnic and check out another great trail: Slot Canyon in the Anza Borrego Desert. Here you will find a little piece of Antelope Canyon here in California.
There are also plenty of hiking spots and attractions closer to Palm Springs, so be sure to visit their tourism website Visit Palm Springs for more information.
What are your favorite roadside stops in the California desert?
Do you have a funky boutique hotel recommendation that you just can't get enough of?