California’s desert playland has plenty of outdoor recreation, plus world-class spa treatments to soothe weary muscles.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — It was dreary, dark December when the travel editor stopped by my desk in the newsroom and asked me where I wanted to go.
“Palm Springs!” I said, with no conscious knowledge of having ever thought about, much less planned a visit to, this popular Southern California getaway.
Did I know that foursomes of guys regularly fly down for golf when it’s rainy and blustery in Seattle? Did I know that women friends plan weekend getaways around the sparkling swimming pools and luxurious spas? Did I even know that Palm Springs was a winter playground for Hollywood stars past and present? Not a clue.
But deep in the heart of every Seattleite is that stirring, midwinter craving for warmth and light. It was 38 degrees and sleeting in Seattle, 68 and sunny in Palm Springs. Clearly the universe felt my pain.
Outdoors and spas
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My assignment was to spend a long weekend exploring the outdoor activities that might beckon the housebound Northwesterner and to complement those with visits to a few of those restorative spas.
We left Sea-Tac on an 8 a.m. flight and were settled in our hotel and ready to run outside by noon.
We decided to skip the rental car and rely on local shuttles and rideshare services. My husband estimated that we saved about $40 over the three-day weekend by not paying for a rental car or hotel parking fees.
An unforeseen advantage was a series of drivers with insider knowledge of the city.
No sooner had we settled into the back seat of an older but spotless Honda Accord, than our Uber driver regaled us with stories of his 1960s youth among the then-famous celebrities. His dad hung out with Chuck Connors (of TV’s “The Rifleman”) and he took a date to hear Johnny Mathis at the Chi Chi Club.
Since it was our first visit, every driver all weekend wanted to make sure we didn’t miss Palm Springs’ most popular attraction, the aerial tram. And so our first adventure was the steep, 11-minute ascent from Sonoran Desert to alpine wilderness aboard a rotating car crammed with about 65 other tourists. The easing of the long, California drought meant the cliffs and peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains were dusted with snow.
The temperature drops about 30 degrees from valley floor to mountain peak, so in addition to our shorts and swimsuits, we had to pack down jackets, snow boots, hats and mittens. Some of our fellow travelers were wildly unprepared for the blowing snow at the top, such as the three sisters from South America who wore sandaled high heels and diaphanous blouses and once at the summit, did not venture outside.
The 14,000-acre Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area features more than 50 miles of hiking trails in summer. In winter, visitors can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis from the Adventure Center, a short walk from the tram station, for as long as the snowpack lasts. There were also lots of families with kids who’d brought their own sleds.
We hiked in snow boots partway along Long Valley over compacted snow and then up the Desert View Trail to what the rangers called “notches,” short but strenuous climbs to overlooks with gorgeous views back down to the Coachella Valley and along the mountain ridgetops, purple in the low winter light.
Long lines start forming for the tram ride back down around 3:30, so we headed out just ahead of the sledding and snowshoeing crowds and had an early dinner back in Palm Springs.
Lowland trails, too
On Saturday morning we set off early for Indian Canyons, one of several hiking areas on land owned by the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla Indians. The 15-mile Palm Canyon Trail starts above the valley floor, at a trading post, and winds quickly down to a native palm oasis.
We introduced ourselves to some of the other tourists and found that they were all from the frozen north — Montana, Chicago and Canada — and were, like us, marveling at the lush, cool grove of palms in the midst of the desert. We even talked to one couple from San Diego, who said they needed a weekend getaway, too.
“We’re having a Seattle winter — three weeks of rain!” they explained.
We hiked about three miles up the canyon, a mostly broad sandy trail past cactus and open desert. But our way was sometimes blocked by sudden vertical rock formations that required scrambling up or skirting around, places that we only then noticed were marked with warning squiggles of red on the map.
By the time we returned along the same route to the trailhead, I was surprisingly achy and looking forward to my first spa.
To the Buddha Room
At the Hotel Riviera, I checked into the Azure Spa. They invite customers to come early, slip into a heavy terry-cloth robe, and linger in the “Buddha Room,” a California-meets-Casbah lounge with tiled niches, palm trees and two soaking tubs, one hotter and one cooler.
After a pre-soak soak, my masseuse led me to a candlelit room where recorded sitar and flute music set the exotic mood. I was scrubbed vigorously from head to calloused heels. My masseuse discreetly bowed out after directing me to a 6-foot tub of very hot water, frothy with bubbles and scattered with red rose petals. Yes, actual rose petals, thick and velvety. Closing my eyes and sinking up to my neck, I could feel all my professional cynicism wafting away with the citrus-scented steam.
There were several other guests toweling off in the dressing room, a group of three young women who went to college together in New York and were reuniting for the weekend, and a young wife, three months pregnant, who’d had a mommy massage. She said her husband had the hot stone massage and reported that it was “amazing.”
It was finally dawning on me that yes, regular hardworking folks seek out spas for rest and restoration. It was the human equivalent of that desert palm grove.
Time for cycling
On Sunday morning, after a lovely brunch at the Escena Golf Course (escenagolf.com/dine), we rented bikes and set off on a 10-mile city loop (bikepsrentals.com). The first neighborhood we came to was Las Palmas, famous for classic midcentury homes owned by former and current celebrities.
“That was Barry Manilow’s first house in the Valley,” a local volunteered, as we paused at an intersection, uncertain of the route. The bike map doesn’t show all the cross streets through Las Palmas, just the general direction. But it’s a small area with little traffic and hard to go very far astray.
Once outside of the neighborhood, the city loop heads east to the airport, south out of town through another postmodern neighborhood, Deepwell, to Murray Canyon Road and then back along South Palm Canyon Drive. Everywhere along the route are great views of the mountains.
Massage for two
With the temperature pushing a sweaty 76, we were happy to take a quick shower at our hotel and set off for a couples massage at the Colony Palms Hotel, a 1938 Spanish-styled building with a tiled roof and secluded courtyard swimming pool (colonypalmshotel.com/spa). The spa had a recent face-lift to brighten the interior and modernize the Moroccan-inspired feel.
Lying on adjacent massage tables, each with our own nearly silent masseuse, we were rubbed and pressed and sculpted with oil and lotion. My husband, who had never had a massage, said he felt his entire exoskeleton — joints, ligaments and muscles — while I had the opposite sensation. As another tape of sitar and flute music played, I lost all sense of my outlines, as well as any sense of urgency or time.
Until, of course, we dressed, reclaimed our suitcases, and headed to the airport for our night flight home. Our weekend of outdoor activities followed by luxurious ease had come to an end. And there was still a lot we hadn’t seen. Hikes to waterfalls, different canyons, not to mention tennis or golf — and maybe some adventures we’d never even considered.
As we waited in the small, open-air Palm Springs airport, I remembered overhearing an older man on the tram ride back down the mountain Friday afternoon who seemed to be shepherding visiting friends.
“Tomorrow, we’ll pick lemons,” he said.
If you go
Alaska Airlines offers direct flights from Seattle in 2½ hours.
- Palm Springs Aerial Tramway features a revolving tram car with 360-degree views as it rises 2½ miles to 8,500 feet above the desert floor. $16.95-$25.95; pstramway.com
- Learn more about trails and access to Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area: parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636
- Find a guide to more than 100 Palm Springs-area golf courses: psgolfcourses.com.
- Learn more about Indian Canyons trails and scenic areas, including ranger-led interpretive hikes, at indian-canyons.com. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians charges admission of $9 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for children 6-12.
Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism: visitpalmsprings.com