We spent about ten days exploring the desert near Palm Springs, California, dividing our time between exploring the city of Palm Springs, checking out Joshua Tree National Park, and hiking in various state and local parks in the California desert. When not running around trying to take it all in, we were soaking in the mineral hot springs located in our RV park.
Palm Springs Art Museum
Yes, we went to an art museum. I know ya’ll think it’s just beer and screwing off around here, but sometimes it’s beer and art and screwing off. So there.
Thursday evenings from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., the Palm Springs Art Museum offers free admission and, conveniently, that same night, from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., the city of Palm Springs hosts a street festival right outside the museum. So it was pretty hard to justify blowing off the art museum when we were going to be stuffing our faces at the street festival right outside.
The museum was really pretty nice. It’s not huge, but it has a nice collection of interesting pieces… including a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly – who even I know….
this super cool rug/wall hanging combo…
a White Walker horse from Game of Thrones…
and a photography exhibit that showcases famous athletes in the nude…
prompting you to conclude that not only are you a terrible photographer but you are also terribly out of shape.
There were also some of the typical weird art pieces…
The good old “giant stack-o-dinner plates”:
This piece, which Kevin referred to as a “Stargate” (which, as I understand it, has something to do with MacGyver):
This piece which I referred to as “F*%k you.”:
And these bags of garbage in the middle of the floor. And yes, these bags of garbage were an actual exhibit. I guess. I don’t know.
This is why we go to bars and drink beer. Beer, we get. This? We got nothin….
Palm Springs Street Festival
Speaking of things we actually get, the street festival was lots of fun. It is held every Thursday night throughout the year and is very well attended.
The city blocks off several streets and local vendors set out their wares – painters, jewelry makers, craftsmen, farmers, bread makers, macaron manufacturers, etc.
Then there are local restaurants that set up booths cooking everything from paella…
The tamale guy was our favorite….
In the meantime, there are musicians who entertain the crowds and, on the first night we went (we went two weeks in a row because: tamales), there was a performance showcase for the Palm Springs Dance Festival. This was an event which included performers ranging from local dance schools to high school dance teams to professionals visiting from Martha Graham Dance Company in New York.
We took in a couple of performances and then continued to meander the streets.
Joshua Tree National Park
The biggest item on our to-do list while in the area was Joshua Tree National Park. People rave about this park and we’d been hearing about it for years, so it was at the top of our list. JTNP boasts two different types of desert (Mojave and Colorado) which meet in the middle of the park, so, if you’re paying attention as you drive around the park, you’ll notice that the entire landscape changes dramatically.
In the northwest section of the park, there are fields of the park’s namesake Joshua Trees:
As you keep driving toward the south and east, you begin encountering these massive piles of boulders interspersed with the Joshua Trees…
There are a couple notable sites and viewing points that are also worth visiting – including skull rock…
and Keys View – the highest viewpoint in the park. From here, on a clear day, you can see all the way across the Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs and the Salton Sea.
But that’s not a given. The haze you see in this photo:
That’s mostly pollution.
Anyway, as you keep driving south through the park, you’ll suddenly realize the landscape is completely different. In the course of just a few miles, the boulders and Joshua Trees are gone, replaced with a more typical desert landscape.
There’s also an entire garden of cholla cacti. If you’re not familiar with these lovely plants, they are commonly referred to as “jumping cactus” because they are very loosely attached to the stalks of the plant and it takes almost no contact between you and it for the needles to embed themselves in your skin (ie: it appears as if the cactus “jumps” on you as you walk by.) More problematic, the needles have microscopic reverse barbs (think: fishing hook), so once they stick into your skin, you basically have to rip them out. Bottom line: if you see one, stay far away.
Or, accept the Park’s invitation to wander through an entire garden full of them.
Sometimes I think NPS just does stuff to mess with tourists… like placing this picnic table directly beneath a giant boulder precariously balanced a hundred feet above:
Really? You guys couldn’t find a single other place to put this picnic table other than right below this boulder? And this whole park is located less than 50 miles from the San Andreas Fault? I mean, if I were you, I’d be pretty tired of tourists too, but this seems a bit extreme, no?
Anyway, our initial plan was to visit the park for a day to get a feel for it, then come back a couple days later to tent camp. One of the problems with having a big motorhome like ours is that it’s very difficult for us to get campsites in the national park system. Most of the campgrounds in the big parks were built many years ago when RVs were much smaller, so they simply cannot accommodate RVs like ours. For this reason, many RVers downsize from bigger RVs to smaller ones over time, and it’s something we considered when we bought Barney, but, in the end, we decided we were willing to be slightly inconvenienced some of the time in order to have more space the rest of the time. Plus, we figured we had a good alternative solution: tent camping! We figured if we wanted to spend more time at a particular park that couldn’t accommodate our home, we would just leave the RV at a commercial campground and grab a tent site for a night or two.
And that’s what we were planning on doing with Joshua Tree, however, when we were talking to a park ranger during our initial visit and mentioned our plans, he strongly discouraged us from trying it. He indicated the park was expected to be very busy all month because of Spring Break and, more importantly, they’d been having a problem with certain visitors gaming the system – staying past the campground’s nightly stay limits by using different names to reserve sites, moving sites, etc. He said because of these jerkwads (my term, not his) overstaying, the number of campsites for everyone else was severely reduced during busy periods, leaving hopeful campers to show up hours before check-in time to circle the campgrounds like vultures trying to snag a first come/first served site. And, he said, all of this had led to a number of physical fights over campsites.
None of which sounded all that appealing to us.
So, we jettisoned the idea of tent camping and only visited JTNP the one time. We could have gone back just for a day-trip, but being an hour away, and having learned our lesson last summer about driving too much, we just nixed the whole idea.
In the meantime, I have no idea why the park rangers aren’t doing more to stop this abuse of the system, but for whatever reason, they’re not. Add in the fact that there’s already enormous competition for RV spots in a lot of locations across the country, and our national park system as a whole appears to be completely overwhelmed with visitors, and it’s not a great situation.
Palm Springs Tram to Mount San Jacinto State Park
Once we nixed the idea of returning to Joshua Tree, I started looking for other options for outdoor activities in the area. Luckily, the area around Palm Springs has plenty to offer.
The Palm Springs Tram is a gondola that takes visitors from Palm Springs up to the top of Mount San Jacinto, one of the highest peaks in southern California.
It costs $26 per person for the 10 minute trip to the top (the ticket price includes the return trip) and, just like on Mount Lemmon in Tucson, you start in the desert and end in an alpine forest. Unlike Mount Lemmon, which was an easy drive, the gondola ride is a bit more touch and go if you’re not a fan of heights. The car swings a good bit as it goes over the giant support structures and the floor on which guests are standing consistently turns. Good: you get to see an ever changing landscape as the gondola heads up the mountain side. Bad: the friggen floor is moving while you’re pondering the effects of rust on gondola support systems. Also, helpfully, there is no alternative way down the mountain, so if you do get to the top and realize you were not a fan of the trip, your options are to A) go to the bar and get hammered; or B) go to the bar and get hammered. There is no Option C.
Up, and away….
…to the bar.
Once at the top, there are a couple restaurants, lots of viewing areas, and access to 54 miles of trails.
There was even snow!
After taking in some of the views, we headed off on one of the shorter scenic walks and were just blown away. It was spectacular.
Whitewater Preserve and Coachella Preserve
Since we wanted to get out and hike but we weren’t going back to Joshua Tree, I found some alternative hiking spots in the area, both of which we’d recommend.
Whitewater Preserve is free to visit and the launching point for a trail that connects to the Pacific Crest Trail (the west coast version of the Appalachian Trail). We chose to complete the Canyon View Loop which is a moderate 3.5 mile trail that runs through some pretty interesting environments. It was challenging enough to keep things interesting, but nothing too crazy – though I certainly wouldn’t want to hike it in the summer.
Coachella Valley Preserve is really interesting because of the geologic features beneath the park. In the middle of a rather enormous chunk of arid California desert, there is this small preserve full of palm tree groves.
Why? Because beneath the Preserve is the San Andreas Fault which allows warm spring waters to percolate to the surface. The waters support the palm trees, plants, and wildlife in the park.
Walking on the trails was like walking through a jungle…
Unfortunately, it was cloudy the day we visited, but you can imagine what it looks like on a normal day with bright blue skies… a true oasis in the middle of the desert.
Speaking of hot water in the desert, there are a lot of natural hot springs in the area and we happened to stay at a park that was built to take advantage of them. The resort is mostly a retirement community, but they also have RV spaces. While during the daylight hours we were unquestionably bringing down the average age of the place, at night, because we are night owls, we were able to visit the pools when very few people were around.
While the park had some nice amenities, by the time our reservation ended, we were ready for a change of scenery. Luckily, we got just that at a spacious, green, very nice county park in Bonita, California. There, we enjoyed some down time and rested up for the incredible amount of socializing we were about to partake in in sunny San Diego. More on that soon.
Where we stayed:
Desert Hot Springs, California: Sky Valley Resort
Bonita, California: Sweetwater Summit Regional Park