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There’s plenty to do in Palm Springs — the town’s Hollywood-influenced glamour makes for great people watching, boutique shopping and swanky happy hours. But if you’re looking to broaden your horizons, you can also travel to the desert, mountains or ocean in two hours or less. Pack some snacks and strap in the kids, and enjoy these 10 fun and family-friendly day trips from Palm Springs.
If you want to trade a dip in the pool for a splash in the ocean, head to Laguna Beach for a day on the water. Walk the beautiful sandy beaches or explore sea caves and tide pools scattered along miles of coves. The more adventurous in your family can take to the water — there are several good snorkeling and dive spots — or sign up for a surfing lesson. If you prefer to see marine life while on dry land, visit the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Once you’ve had your fill of the beach, check out the public artworks on display throughout the town, which has its roots as an art colony.
Drive time: About 2 hours
A world away from the glitz of Palm Springs, Julian is an adorably authentic mining-era town that seems to belong in another time. There’s no club scene here, but you’ll find quaint antique and craft shops, and lots of tasty apples. Yup, apples — the town is known for its many local varieties, and if you visit in the fall, you can stop by an orchard and pick a few. Year-round, stroll down the historic main street or let the kids pan for gold at the Eagle Mining Company. Situated in the Laguna Mountains, Julian has more distinct seasons than a typical Southern California town, so it’s one of the day trips from Palm Springs you can enjoy at any time of year.
Drive time: About 2 hours
Unlike Julian, Pioneertown is not exactly authentic, but it has a quirky historic charm of its own. Established in 1946 at the heyday of the Western film era, it was envisioned as a “living movie set” — part filming location, part vacation destination, part full-time residence. The grander plans for the town never came to be, and the demand for Westerns faded, but the town remains a unique destination for families looking for something a little different. You’ll find a selection of Western-themed shops selling leather goods, art and pottery, and can dine at the local barbecue joint. Photo ops abound, and you might even see a gunfight on “Mane” Street if you visit on a summer weekend.
Drive time: 40 minutes
A resort town tucked away in the San Bernardino Mountains, Lake Arrowhead provides a welcome respite from the desert heat. You can pursue almost any outdoor activity here, or explore the shops, dining and seasonal events in the picturesque village. Although the lake and beaches are private, hop aboard the Arrowhead Queen for an up-close tour from the water. And for a full day of excitement, check out Skypark at Santa’s Village. The village will delight children with Santa-themed activities, ice skating and holiday experiences (crafting with Santa’s elves — could you ask for more?), and the adventure park offers thrilling bike trails, climbing walls, zip lines and more.
Drive time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Big Bear Lake
Another mountain lake in the San Bernardinos, Big Bear also offers a welcome escape from the heat of the Coachella Valley. Big Bear is larger than Lake Arrowhead — both the town and the lake — making it a more popular and thus more crowded place to visit. Its big advantage over Lake Arrowhead is water access: The lake and shoreline are public, so you can enjoy a full day of water play, making it a desirable choice for family day trips from Palm Springs. The marinas rent kayaks, pontoon boats, SUPs and fishing boats, or you can charter a boat for water skiing or wakeboarding. Waterfront parks and beaches are also a great place for a picnic. Other notable kid-friendly activities include a trip to the Big Bear Alpine Zoo, which is dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation, and the Magic Mountain Recreation Area featuring the Alpine Slide and Soaring Eagle seated zip line.
Drive time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Tahquitz and Indian Canyons
The Coachella Valley has been inhabited by indiginous people for millennia, and the Cahuilla remain an active presence in the region, working to preserve their culture and provide opportunities for visitors to gain an indiginous perspective on the area. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns the land occupied by the Tahquitz and Indian Canyons, both culturally and ecologically significant sites, and offers admission to the public. Choose from among a variety of trails ranging from easy to strenuous, depending on your family’s stamina and motivation, and explore the gorgeous desert landscape or the Tahquitz Falls. Because the sites are located just outside of town, you won’t even be in the car long enough to hear, “Are we there yet?”
Drive time: 10 minutes from downtown
Joshua Tree National Park
If you ask someone to list the top day trips from Palm Springs, a visit to Joshua Tree will probably be number one, and for good reason — this iconic national park is a unique and stunning mecca for anyone who appreciates the natural world. Spanning two deserts with different ecosystems, the Colorado and the Mojave, visitors will see fascinating contrasts between the low and high desert regions. The quirky namesake trees, massive granite cliffs and boulders, and flowering cactus gardens are among the notable and sometimes surreal features of this vast landscape. Take your pick of hikes, enjoy a scenic drive, marvel at the panoramic views or even take a rock climbing lesson.
Drive time: About 1 hour to the west entrance
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego offers a distinctly different type of desert environment — here you’ll see dramatic rock formations, colorful badlands, twisting canyons, natural springs and oases. You may even spot the park’s namesake bighorn sheep (borrego means sheep in Spanish). Many of the dirt roads within the park are rough and recommended for high-clearance 4WD vehicles; or, let someone else do the driving, and sign up for a jeep tour of the park. If you’d rather explore on foot, you can hike to your heart’s content. And don’t miss the incredible outdoor art installation, not far from the visitor center on Borrego Springs Road — 130 enormous metal sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda that emerge from the desert landscape.
Drive time: About 1 hour and 30 minutes to the visitor center
The Amboy Crater, a National Natural Landmark, is a geological and geometric marvel — an almost perfectly symmetrical volcanic cinder cone. If your kids aren’t excited by the math and science references, just tell them it’s a massive crater caused by a volcanic eruption, and it’s surrounded by lava lakes and basalt flows, and frequented by cute desert lizards. This cone is a distinctive “bump” on the landscape, and if you hike to the rim, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Mojave. It’s just about three miles roundtrip, but best undertaken in the cooler months — there’s no shade, and summer temps top 100.
Drive time: About 2 hours
Coachella Valley Preserve
Not far from town, the Coachella Valley Preserve was established to protect the native (and threatened) Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, and while you may not see the elusive reptile, you’ll enjoy the beautiful boardwalk trail at Thousand Palms Oasis. Be on the lookout for birds and other wildlife, and take note of the many interesting native plants. There are additional trails to explore, and the preserve makes for one of the easier and more serene day trips from Palm Springs if you only have a few hours to spare.
Drive time: 25 minutes
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