Disclosure: I was hosted by Visit Palm Springs for this trip in return for writing about our adventures. All opinions are my own.
Palm Springs is one of those places our family never gets tired of visiting. Palm trees swaying in the calm desert breezes, warm weather all year around, and the laid-back vibe all make us exhale as we arrive into town. Ever since our girls were babies, we’ve made the road trip out to the Coachella Valley for a little rest and relaxation. In fact, we’ve probably been there more than two dozen times in the past 15 years or so. As the girls have grown, they still love finding new reasons to go back as well as visiting family favorites we seem to hit on each trip.
Living in San Diego, it’s an easy 2.5 hour drive to reach Palm Springs (except when you leave on a Friday at 5 pm, but we all know better than to do that don’t we?). Whether you live within driving distance or plan to fly into the convenient airport, your family will have a blast exploring all the many family-friendly activities in Palm Springs.
From our family to yours, we’re sharing a list of our all-time favorite family-friendly activities in Palm Springs.
Family-Friendly Activities in Palm Springs
Maybe it’s the beauty of those purple mountains as they meet the warm sandy desert and flowering cacti. Maybe it’s the kitschy retro fun of all the mid-century architecture and ‘60s furnishings you spy wherever you visit. Or maybe it’s the more than 110 golf courses dotted around the Coachella Valley area and rubbing shoulders with Serena Williams and Roger Federer at the BNP Paribas Tennis Open.
But mostly, it’s the fact that there is so much to do there. Any way you cut it, this is a great family vacation spot. From our rooms at the Palm Springs Hyatt, we could zip over to any one of these spots in less than 20 minutes by car.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Kids love taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up the sheer mountainside to its perch at 8,500 feet, going from palms to pines in less than 15 minutes. The entire gondola rotates counter-clockwise about three times as it rises over the rocky cliffs, so everybody gets to snap selfies from all the best angles without jostling other guests. At the top, you get a blast of real-life air conditioning in the cool mountain air amid pines and squirrels, and some ridiculous postcard views of the desert floor beneath you. Sometimes there is still fresh snow even while people are sunning by the pool down below.
There’s a lodge at the top if you want to grab a snack (or a beer) and skip the great outdoors, but most families take the easy walkway into the canyon to enjoy nature, chase the squirrels and sometimes even start a snowball fight.
Helpful hint: Bring a sweatshirt – heck, bring two. There’s a 30-40° drop in temperature at the top, and many are caught by uncomfortable surprise.
The Living Desert
The Living Desert is like a zoo but better, because it feels more natural and open to the big blue sky. Spanning more than 360 acres, The Living Desert celebrates the animals and plants that have adjusted to the harsh environments of the hot desert. They even use the rocky mountainsides as animal habitats, where goats and wolves and wildcats can roam in their enclosures more freely.
On a recent visit, we gathered at the cheetah enclosure where daily, at precisely 11:15 am, zookeepers encourage the three cheetah sisters to run at lightening speed from one end of the enclosure to another. It was spectacular to watch, and even our hard-to-impress 16 year-old was agog. In another area, you can buy a ticket to feed the giraffes little crackers that they seem to love very much.
Hint: Get there early before the giraffes get full and the weather gets too hot, and head directly for this opportunity. There will be less crowds and the giraffes will appreciate your treats all the more.
Red Jeep Tours
When sitting by a pool sipping umbrella drinks starts getting monotonous, check out Desert Adventures’ Red Jeep Tours for a little outdoor action. We experienced the San Andreas Fault tour, and it was pretty exciting to be driven out into the badlands directly on top of earthquake territory. Our guide Karen was supremely knowledgeable about the area and its history, and made learning about geology fun for the kids and adults both.
We got to visit a real desert palm oasis, fed by a natural spring and surrounded by thriving green palm trees in their natural habitat. From there we drove into the high desert right across the Fault, which is not a crack in the earth but instead what looks like a sandy winding road with jagged rock on either side. The kids loved hiking through the slot canyon between narrow crevices, and were fascinated by the local owls that live in holes high in the rock faces.
Hint: It’s hot and they bring water for you, but remember your sunscreen and wear a hat. My follicle challenges made the hat even more necessary in that desert sun.
Celebrity Home Tours
Palm Springs has always been a hot spot for Hollywood celebs, and back in the ‘30s and ‘40s it was jumping. It was nice to sit on an air-conditioned bus with a bunch of nice old ladies, gliding past the once-glamorous homes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds and even Liberace. The most current star’s home we viewed from the street was that of Leonardo diCaprio.
Most of the Hollywood lore and jokes shared by our Palm Springs Celebrity Tours guide were lost on the kids, but the adults lapped it up. However, we did stop for a local refreshment famous in the Palm Springs area for decades – the date shake. Locally grown medjool dates are made into delicious milkshakes that taste like caramel ice cream. Everyone was quite happy with this tour stop. Delicious!
Hint: Sit near the front, at a window seat on the left side of the bus for better views and photo opps.
There are such a great variety of restaurants in Palm Springs, and we’ve found some family-friendly favorites that welcome kids of all ages.
- Cheeky’s – The kids can gorge on a crispy buttermilk waffle or cheesy scrambled eggs while the adults devour the Bacon Flight with five different flavors of bacon such as maple brown sugar or jalapeno. If you are feeling adventurous, try the chocolate waffle with banana, nutella and chopped bacon, or the chilaquiles with homemade chorizo, tomatillo, and queso fresco.
- For dinner, amble down Palm Canyon Drive to Lulu California Bistro (reservations recommended). Macaroni and cheese, tomato soup or burgers please the kids, while the parents can enjoy more sophisticated fare like baked ziti, prime rib, and a variety of fresh fish. The décor is wacky modern, and they play old movies on the walls throughout the two-story dining room.
- We also loved our meal at Watercress Vietnamese Restaurant, which features fresh ingredients and interesting Asian flavors. Our girls loved the noodle dishes and crispy fried spring rolls, which they slurped up while we sampled the inventive bar menu. The Vietnamese Mule was refreshing on a warm night, including Hanger 1 Kaffir Lime vodka with infusions of honey, lemongrass and lime juice. The Chili Lemongrass Pork Chop and the Braised Pork Belly were both out of this world.
Really, no matter the age or interest, Palm Springs has something for everybody. I didn’t even mention hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, cooling down at the Wet ‘n Wild Water Park, a sweet 18 holes at Indian Canyons Golf Course, or the incredible shopping at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets and Cabazon Outlets Center (some say it’s the best combo in the world).