Tips for saving on lodging, and free or inexpensive things to while in Palm Springs.
It’s an amazing time of year to visit Palm Springs, what with all that clean desert air and sunshine. If you want to get away, but not spend a fortune, here are my best tips for free and cheap things to do.
Visit Sunnylands Center & Gardens
The estate and gardens of the late ambassador and publisher Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, are now a retreat center open to the public 8:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Thursdays–Sundays for free.
You can see sculpture from the collection, stroll 1.25 miles of paths on 9 acres of gardens, and watch a short film on the history of Sunnylands. There’s also a cafe with mountain views. Check for regular and free garden walks, bird walks and yoga classes. You can visit the interior of the acclaimed midcentury modern house only if you purchase a $45 tour ticket.
Location: 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage. Learn more at sunnylands.org.
Take a hike
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If you think you don’t like the desert, maybe you’ve never really seen it. Rushing past in a car is no way to experience the beauty of the delicate, wild desert landscapes. You have to get out and walk it.
You can pay $9 to hike the famed “Indian Canyons” in Palm Springs, if you like spending money, but that’s only a taste of the hiking available in the region. Stop by the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument visitors center, 4 miles south of Highway 111 at 51500 Highway 74 in Palm Desert, to find out about many more hiking trails throughout the region.
Also at the visitors center, find the headquarters of Friends of the Desert Mountains, a group offering free guided hikes. Find more info at desertmountains.org.
The Palm Springs Art Museum is free to visit from 4–9 p.m. Thursday nights. And it’s also free every second Sunday of the month. If you go from 5–9 p.m. Fridays, admission is only $5. Regular adult admission is $12.50.
Note that the branch of the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert has free admission all the time.
Main museum: 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs; Palm Desert branch is at 72-567 Highway 111. Visit psmuseum.org for more info.
Hit a street fair
Every Thursday evening from 6–10 p.m., you can browse at the Villagefest outdoor street fair downtown. Palm Canyon Drive is closed between Indian Canyon Drive to the east and Belardo Road, and some 180 vendors set up their booths for evening shopping, food and entertainment. Hours are seasonal.
See the San Andreas Fault
At the Coachella Valley Preserve’s Thousand Palms Oasis, a crack in the San Andreas earthquake fault line creates year-round springs and nurtures a desert wash that supports California fan palms, willows, cattails and other plants.
There’s no admission fee (though donations are requested) at this 880-acre nature preserve or its rustic visitors center on the north end of the Coachella Valley in Indio Hills. There are 28 miles of hiking trails to explore along with the fault. Check the schedule of free guided hikes.
29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Road, Thousand Palms. Learn more at coachellavalleypreserve.org.
Starting in March, you can call the Theodore Payne Foundation wildflower hotline at 818-768-1802 to see what’s blooming, or visit theodorepayne.org. Note that desert wildflowers are small and delicate. You need to get out of the car and walk to appreciate them.
If you’re going to be in the area March 4, you can check out the free Coachella Valley Wildflower Festival from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission and parking are free. There will be activities for kids, guided hikes, music, artists, vendors and more. Location: Monument Visitor Center, 51500 Highway 74, Palm Desert. Visit desertmountains.org/wildflower for more info.
Eat atop Mount San Jacinto
If you’re interested in taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to 8,500 feet, make sure to get the dine-and-ride combination. For $36, you get a tram ride up and back plus a salad, entree and two sides from the Pines Café, starting at 4:30 p.m. The ride up and down alone is $26, so that’s a deal.
There can be snow on the mountain, so dress appropriately and wear suitable footwear. There are easy hikes once you get to the top or, in season, you can rent snowshoes. 1 Tram Way, Palm Springs; pstramway.com.
Learn about native history
Head over to the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in the Village Green Heritage Center in downtown Palm Springs to learn about the lives of the Cahuilla Indians, who were the first known human inhabitants of this area.
At this writing, the museum had an exhibit on Cahuilla woven baskets. And free tickets will be distributed for the Native FilmFest to be held March 2–4; watch the website for more details. 219 S. Palm Canyon Drive; accmuseum.org.
Palm Springs isn’t cheap if you’re looking at hotels. But you can save considerably by staying Sundays–Thursdays, compared with the weekend rates. If you book a unit with a kitchenette, you’ll save even more. Check the usual suspects — Hotwire.com, Travelzoo.com, Groupon.com and such — for discount hotel stays, but keep in mind that a luxurious upscale resort is still going to sock you for high-priced food, parking and the like, even if its rack rates are discounted. Just factor that into your budget, as well as the evil, dreaded resort fees.
Go in the summer
If you can stand the heat, go to Palm Springs in the summer. Prices drop by 40 percent or more, and it’s an excellent time to splurge on a fancy property that normally would be out of your price range. Sleep during the heat of the afternoon, and plan on spending a lot of time in the pool. I recommend giving yourself some wiggle room, too — if the forecast is for 113 degrees, maybe you want to wait until the next week when it drops to a chilly 108.
You can find deals and bargains on the town’s official website, visitpalmsprings.com. Choose the “Hot Deals” link at the top of the page.