As I turned my head to the right, I caught a glimpse of palm trees. On the left, Mt. It was early February and I wouldn’t be swimming outdoors in my home state of Oregon. But enjoying mild winters is just one reason the Southern California desert town attracts people from cooler climates. Known for its golf courses and mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs has plenty to do for the eco-conscious and outdoorsy.

Greater Palm Springs includes nine cities – Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, and Coachella. The borders are sometimes blurred, and tourists usually move between attractions in at least a few of these cities during their stay.

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The combination of desert and mountains makes Greater Palm Springs so beautiful. The Little San Bernardino Mountains are to the north of Palm Springs, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west, and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south. In the middle is the desert. Greater Palm Springs offers more than 100 trails to choose from.

How to choose from 100 routes? In our case we were traveling with our 13 year old dog. He was a star athlete in his youth, and now he has arthritis. So we need dog friendly trails that are not too difficult. We chose to visit Mission Creek Preserve. Try running by Wildlands Conservancy. The reserve allows hiking, backpacking and picnics, and prohibits hunting, shooting and off-road vehicles. Exactly the way we like it.

We walked 1.7 miles to the Stone House picnic area. It was a soft sandy trail, wide enough to keep a dog on a leash away from the cacti, and rattlesnakes could be seen flying if they suddenly glided in front of us. We enjoyed magnificent mountain views and saw many desert plants.

It’s a bit early for wildflowers, and it may have been too dry this year anyway, but the cacti are charming and beautiful whether they are in bloom or not. The reserve has 17 miles of trails and picturesque stone picnic shelters. It’s windy in the desert, so these structures must have prevented many sandwiches from being blown into the sand.

A friend also recommended the dog-friendly Whitewater Sanctuary. It boasts a desert oasis with views of the desert canyons and the San Jacinto Mountains. A visit to Greater Palm Springs recommends these ten as the most beautiful hikes in the area.

We stayed at one of the Sun Garden Hotel, a group of bungalows built around a swimming pool for the crew of the 1951 film of the same name. Aside from the charm of wondering if Elizabeth Taylor had ever slept in our room, we loved its setting on the Tarquez River. There isn’t much water, but the wide riverbed has walking trails on either side and is our favorite in-town hike. This is also the main meet and greet location for local and tourist dogs.

Various desert plants

visit the cactus

The Moorten Arboretum and Cactus Pavilion probably has more stickers per inch than any other garden you’ve visited. Founder Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten met his wife Patricia in Palm Springs in 1938. Their shared love of succulents has led to running a garden and landscape design business, creating backyard gardens for stars like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and selecting foliage for Disneyland’s Frontierland.

Today, Chester and Patricia’s son Clark Multen runs the garden, which welcomes around 200 guests a day. He grew up with cacti. “I was born with stickers on my butt,” he said on the garden’s website.

The garden is compact, with plants separated by arid biomes, such as the Mojave Desert and the South African succulent Karoo. You’ll also see some fossils, crystals, the remains of a gold mine and a few desert tortoises. The cactarium allows dogs on leash, but be especially careful with cactus spines.

ride a bicycle

For an unforgettable desert experience, join Big Wheel Tours’ Earthquake Canyon Express bike tour. The coach will take you to a quiet starting point deep in the desert. From there, you’ll cruise along a paved road through the San Andreas fault zone and wine-growing country. Not much traffic and no uphill, just a gradual descent of 20 miles, 1600 feet.

For a few hours, you will drive along the coast, feeling the desert breeze and gazing at the huge cactus landscape. The tour travels through the transition area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. You’ll see canyons, mountains and the Salton Sea. Finally, you can refuel with a date shake. Big Wheel also offers a combined bike/hiking tour, with a ten-mile ride followed by a desert hike.

Four wind turbines sitting on dirt area

Windmills up close

Ever wanted to see a giant wind turbine up close? Palm Springs Windmill Tours offers self-drive and VIP charter tours of Southern California’s first commercial wind farm. At 12 sites around the hotel, you’ll learn about the successes and failures of wind energy and get close to 400-foot wind turbines. The tour takes about 90 minutes, and you’re sure to get a little smarter.

A swimming pool with separate pool lanes next to chairs

go swimming

If you’re from a cooler climate and love to swim, you’ll be as excited as I was to book a lane at the Palm Springs Swimming Center. COVID restrictions were still in place when I visited. The pool is divided horizontally into multiple lanes to accommodate more swimmers, with fewer lanes at the shallow end and more lanes at the deep end. The water was fine, 82 degrees warm. I especially like the shower in the dressing room – the walls don’t go all the way to the ceiling so you can see the palm trees while you wash your hair. Check the current rules to see if you need to book in advance.

Relax at the spa

Palm Springs is known for its spas. After all, it takes its name from the hot springs scattered across the desert. You can choose from a variety of spa experiences, from upscale indoor treatments to more natural outdoor thermal pools. A local insider told me her favorite is the Azure Palm Springs. In addition to the healing waters, Azure Palm also offers a yoga studio, a juice café and a Himalayan salt room. There’s even a Greater Palm Springs Wellness Pass that lets you earn rewards when you go to the spa.

A pink building with a green hedge in front

Vegetarian Restaurant

It’s an easy area to navigate for vegans, as there are several all-vegan restaurants, and most regular restaurants have above-average vegan IQs. One of our favorite meals is Native Foods, a Southern California chain that opened in Palm Springs in 1994. It emphasizes deliciousness rather than health, offering sandwiches like the Real Nashville Hot, a spicy plant-based fried chicken with salad and pickle chips, which my husband ate. I ordered the cauliflower chickpea shawarma burrito which was good but not as good as the faux chicken sandwich.

Chef Tanya’s Kitchen is an excellent vegetarian restaurant located in Palm Springs and nearby Palm Desert. Chef Tanya is the founder of Native Foods. In 2017, she continued to build her new empire. Originally, her kitchen was a batter and tempeh factory, but it has since evolved into a deli. It serves a range of tempeh burgers and Chupacabra chicken sandwiches, which include fillets of seitan, avocado, cilantro and jalapenos on a torpedo roll. Chef Tanya’s also has a small shop where you can buy homemade vegan food and other vegan products. We stocked up on her desserts. The best are the apple pie and lemon drizzle cake.

Nature’s Health Food & Cafe is a well-stocked health food store with an on-site organic vegetarian restaurant for quick and easy access. In the morning, you can order vegan banana nut pancakes with walnut cream. For lunch and dinner, try the blackened soy chicken quesadillas or the tofu steak plate with vegetables. There is a comfortable, dog-friendly outdoor seating area, or you can bring your food to go.

For a fancier dining experience, vegans love the Persimmon Bistro & Wine Bar, which serves vegan wood-fired pizza, California wines, and craft beers.

Three stone houses set in desert landscape

ecological accommodation

Hotels in Greater Palm Springs face the question of how to maintain attractive grounds and ample guest amenities in the middle of the desert. Embarc Palm Desert has transformed much of its landscape into rock and cactus gardens. The sensor-monitored irrigation system waters the parts that still need water, preventing sprinklers from turning on when temperatures are low or when it rains. Embarc also uses tankless water heaters, motion sensor thermostats and LED lighting.

Two Bunch Palms at Desert Hot Springs is America’s first carbon-neutral resort. Its 70 hotel rooms are powered by solar energy. The resort carefully manages the water that feeds its mineral pools using a sustainable closed water circuit. There is a reservoir where the grey water can be treated with reverse osmosis and returned to the irrigation system. The resort’s restaurant uses locally sourced produce and incorporates locally grown olives and fruit into the menu.

While the environmentally conscious may be skeptical of Palm Springs’ verdant golf courses, local resorts have found high-tech ways to minimize damage. Golf courses at La Quinta Resort and Club have Audubon International Certification, meaning they have been assessed for factors such as water quality management, chemical use and safety, water conservation, and wildlife and habitat management. The resort composts any leftover food into mulch, and filtered water runoff from the composter is reused for irrigation and to refill golf cart batteries.

Teresa Bergen Photography