Travelogue: Palm Springs (with kids)

Last week, we road tripped our way across the state to spend four nights in Palm Springs—a plan hatched after the kids and I learned that Aron would be attending a Urology conference at a super kid-friendly hotel there. We tagged along, spending most of our time in the pool while he went to meetings, making the most of any free time together.

I’ve been to Palm Springs many times before—mostly when I’d go with my parents from Los Angeles (I had my first “date” there), but most recently on a girls’ weekend and a press trip. Aron and I brought Hudson once, around the holidays, but that was long ago. This is all to say that Palm Springs with kids was a new experience. Here’s how it went…

It’s a long drive from Davis to Palm Springs—about 8 hours in full. We left just after school and timed it just right for dinner at Bravo Farms (the best stop for kids on I-5 between San Francisco and LA), and passed the drive with new podcasts. (Thank you for all of the recommendations!) The kids fell asleep just after sun-down and Aron and I carried them into the hotel just before midnight.

Aron’s conference was at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage. It’s a sprawling place, with rooms set around a golf course and a large pool complex called “Splashtopia.” That part is nearly 2-acres, with water slides, a lazy river, and a little sandy beach.

So after saying goodbye to Aron at breakfast, the kids and I donned our wristbands and grabbed some inner tubes.

On our first day, we had the place practically to ourselves. I was thrilled whenever I’d spot other kids Hudson’s age that I could nudge him to go play with while I kept close to Skyler in the (very swift) lazy river. Eventually he met some older boys, who introduced him to Pop Rocks and played tag with him, and he was off! The area with the splash pad and river is monitored by life guards, and I appreciated the extra measure of security.

I thought about venturing out for lunch—there’s an outdoor shopping area across the street (with spots like the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s), but instead opted to order from the pool staff who came around.

While we were at the pool, I read that it was going to be a Harvest Moon. We wouldn’t have much time to explore, but it seemed a great reason to drive out to Joshua Tree for a view.

Joshua Tree National Park is about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs—though getting to the sights within the park will take more like 90 minutes. We arrived just an hour or so before sunset and quickly went in search of giant boulders and twisted Joshua Trees. The meeting of two great deserts, the low Colorado and the high Mojave, the preserve is a 794,000-acres of geological and floral sights. The minute we got there I was already sorry we hadn’t allotted more time.

The Cholla Cactus Garden trail and climbing around Jumbo Rocks were highlights of the evening.

Hudson was especially in his element. I think he could have stayed all night.

We found ourselves back near the cactus garden to watch the Harvest Moon—the full moon closest to the autumn equinox when the moon is directly opposite the sun. Technically, it was 1800 degrees at 11:40am, but sunset would be the time when the moon glowed red. It was beautiful!

(Little did we know that, shortly, we’d be watching the moon glow again from all of the terrible, heartbreaking fires ravaging the state—when I looked back at this hazy photo, it had an eery familiarity.)

On our way back we watched a giant owl swoop across the road, jackrabbits dart out of view, and dozens of mice scampering out of holes.

Day two brought more pool time for the three of us. In the afternoon, the kids did crafts and tried Dippin’ Dots.

Before dinner that night, we drove out to Palm Desert. As we drove through the canyons—which are so incredible in the late afternoon—I told the kids about some people’s interest in mid-century architecture, and how this part of the desert is famous for it. I told them that I always liked to look for the spaceship-like home of Bob Hope and the other large houses that seems precariously perched on rocks. To my surprise, they were really into it and we easily passed the time looking out the windows.

We started by walking around the grounds at the La Quinta resort. I recall staying there as a kid and being impressed with the way every group of buildings (casitas) had its own little pool. I’ve heard the resort is very good for families, with a children’s playground at the main pool, and daily kids’ camps, but we didn’t check that out.

The resort’s hacienda-style dates back to 1926 when Hollywood starts like Garbo and Gable used to escape here, and it’s really lovely.

For dinner, we went to the Tommy Bahama restaurant on the El Paseo shopping street. We wouldn’t normally have thought to eat at the store, but a friend had raved about their seasonal cocktails. Indeed, we loved our drinks—and everything else we had (Aron and I shared a selection of appetizers). But perhaps the best part of all were the great views from the dining room on the second floor.

We tucked the kids in and were happy they fell asleep easily. Moana was playing right outside by the pool, but somehow they were able to ignore it!

On our third day, Aron joined us briefly for a hike before the sun got too strong.

Just on the edge of Palm Springs one can drive into the the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, the former community center of the native Cahuilla people. The hiking trails include Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon, and Palm Canyon, though we only visited the latter. There’s a ranger at the Trading Post near the entrance who can give you trail recommendations.

It was such a surprising terrain: Streams, natural palm oases (shade!), and dramatic rock formations. I think the kids’ favorite part was finding coyote scat, filled with “coyote candy,” the sweet little pods that dangle like bunches of grapes from the palms. We only hiked about a mile in and out, but it was just enough to get a whole new perspective on the region.

The canyons are very close to the Ace Hotel, so we stopped for brunch (and some tired cuddles) after. I was especially excited to have another of those frozen watermelon margaritas.

And to take some family photos in the photobooth. It’s become a favorite tradition.

When we got back that day—Saturday—the pool scene was completely different than during the week. It was packed! It was a challenge to find a chair or even an empty spot in the lazy river. It was still a lot of fun, but it was a bit more stressful watching the kids by myself. I kept Skyler in her puddle jumper around the clock and held on tight in the water. On the plus side, there were so many kids for them to play with. Hudson joined in on a major waterway construction at the sandy “beach.”

I’d always wanted to try Workshop Kitchen + Bar and wasn’t sure if we could swing it with the kids. Luckily, I read Raluca’s Palm Springs guide and got just the encouragement I needed to book us one of their first tables that night—5:30pm. We snagged a booth and were immediately relieved when our waiter proved to have a talent for charming children. Seriously: they were in love. The cocktails were delicious and the so was the fare: Octopus carpaccio, Romanesco with goat cheese, a study in duck… and wood-fired pizzas for the kids. It would definitely be best for a date night, but if you must bring the kids it is an option!

For dessert, we went with something a bit more low key: Great Shakes. Their menu at this little family-run spot is awesome, and they make everything in-house—from the ice cream to the sauces (salted caramel, fudge and butterscotch), as well as toppings like whipped cream, marshmallows, pie crust, and even baked mini-donuts that adorn each straw. Hudson had S’mores, Skyler the mint oreo, and Aron and I shared an Elvis with peanut butter, banana, and chocolate.

And of course, on the way out of town, besides marveling at the enormous windfarm along the road, we stopped in Cabazon at the World’s Biggest Dinosaur Museum.

There was more we could have done yet. Other top suggestions we got for visiting Palm Springs with kids included:

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: A 12.5 minute ride in a rotating tram as you climb two-and-a-half miles to Mountain Station in Mount San Jacinto State Park.

The Living Desert: A zoo focused on animals from deserts in North America and Africa, including giraffes, warthogs, jaguars and bighorn sheep. It also features various cacti and other plants native to the desert, and has over 1,000-acres of preserved land with nature trails open seasonally to the public.

The Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert: hands-on activities for lots of entertainment.

What else am I missing?

On the way home, we decided to pass the majority of the day in East Los Angeles so we could do the majority of the drive in the evening. We stopped in Glendale for Shake Shack and discovered a Grove-replica called the Americana shops. If you haven’t been to the Grove, it’s a pedestrianized mall that replicates a public park… only in this very commercial way. Aron and I used to go all the time when we lived in Los Angeles (we could walk across the street to it), so it has a nostalgia factor, but it’s really good at making you feel good. There’s music playing, the kids can run free (when it’s not too crowded)…

We could have probably made this our only stop off the freeway and gotten home at a much more reasonable hour, but why be reasonable when you can pack it in and get home at midnight? [Forehead slap.]

So we finished the whirlwind road trip south with an afternoon at the LA Zoo with these two little flamingos, er, monkeys.

Let me know if you’ve taken your kids to Palm Springs or Palm Desert. Where did you stay and what did you do? Any other tips to share for next time? 

P.S. Crossing California on the 101.  And our first trip to Palm Springs with Hudson (here’s an adorable video of his first time to Joshua Tree).

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