March 27, 2012

Palm Springs Break...with Kids!

I don't know about you, but what's with all the school breaks these days?  For instance, my kids got a full week off at Thanksgiving, three weeks off for Christmas break this year, a four-day weekend combining the President's birthdays, and now, two weeks off for Spring break.  Sheesh!  (That's not to even mention the various other Monday holidays, and “staff day” Fridays.)   With the long Winter and Spring breaks, it becomes fairly imperative for me to plan a family getaway, even if it's just for a few days. 

Previously, I detailed our quick two-day trip to San Diego to kick off the new year. (That was during week 3 of Christmas break.)  For Spring break, I have another quick getaway planned.  But since that one is still in the future, I thought I'd share my tips and ideas for another local getaway that we've done on past spring vacations: Palm Springs.

Now, there are plenty of big, sprawling (and expensive) resorts in neighboring  desert towns, such as one featuring a “Splashtopia" pool area. But personally, I like the funky charm of downtown Palm Springs proper. And, I'm also trying to stay on budget – reserving our bigger, longer, pricier family trips for during the summer.  So here goes my little trip report for Palm Springs with kids.  It's a combination of several trips we've done, so my kids appear at various ages. 

Day 1:  I highly recommend trying to your plan your arrival in town for a Thursday afternoon.  This, so that your family can walk around and enjoy the weekly VillageFest that takes place every Thursday evening.  (You don't want to drive in during the middle of this, as a long stretch of busy Palm Canyon Drive is closed to car traffic.) VillageFest is a street festival in the heart of downtown. There are  vendors selling crafts and jewelry, musicians, food booths, and a small farmer's market at one end. The whole vibe is very celebratory, and it's great people watching. My kids enjoy the hustle-bustle, stopping to watch the musician's play and hawk their CDs, and getting snacks.  It will also give you a good introduction to the many shops and restaurants in town.
Village Fest photo from here.
At some point, you'll need to check into your hotel.  I recommend, for price and location, the Palm Mountain Resort.  This is the place I choose to stay when traveling with kids –when we do a couples-only, romantic getaway to the desert, I stay at entirely different types of hotels.  But that's another trip report entirely. The Palm Mountain Resort is a two-and-a-half star hotel in my book: the rooms are spacious, clean and adequate, if somewhat dated.  The great thing about this place is the location, which is in easy-peasy walking distance (yes, even with small kids) of the downtown stores and shops.  I recommend paying slightly more for a balcony/mountain view room. 
Day 2:
You wake up and everyone is hungry.  Walk across the street, through a business parking lot, and you'll enter into the plaza that houses a Ruby's Diner.  Good, affordable breakfasts, and the kids will enjoy watching the electric train that's (usually) running around the perimeter of the ceiling. They also have lots of outdoor patio seating. 

After breakfast, pack your water and snacks and drive south on Palm Canyon Drive for a bit, until you reach the Indian Canyons hiking area.  Spring is the perfect time to do this, as even summer mornings will heat up too quickly for child hikers. And if your kids are like mine, they're not 100% dialed into the concept of “hiking” to begin with, and the heat will produce whining a whole lot earlier in the day.  Also, in spring there will still be plenty of water in the canyons.  There are a several hikes to choose from, and they vary in difficulty – but I don't recall any of the choices being all that strenuous.   We chose to do just one trail, but you could easily manage two. (There's a fee at the entrance, check their informative web site for trails and rates.)

After the hike, the kids will be whiny and begging to go back and play in the hotel pool. And that's what you'll do for the rest of the afternoon.  Hopefully, you can squeeze in some naps and/or quiet time before heading out to dinner. 
If you ate at one of the food stands the night before at VillageFest, then tonight is when you'll want a sit-down meal. We always try to eat once at the iconic Mexican restaurant, Las Casuelas Terraza.  It's popular and gets very busy...hopefully you can snag a patio table, but probably not.  Try to arrive by at least five – early, but you've got kids along, so what the heck.  After dinner, wander along Palm Canyon Drive, window-shopping and people-watching and luxuriating in the balmy desert air.  Buy the kids an ice cream cone, or try a date shake at the fudge shop.  Or, because you're feeling mellow after a big margarita and you're on vacation, check out the excellent indie toy store, Mr. G's for Kids. (Also a good place to pick up those pool toys you forgot to pack.) 

Day 3:
Let's assume you're staying three nights. We live very nearby (less than two hours away), so often we only stay for two.  This would be check-out day already for us, but it's Saturday, and you're in town for another full day.  For breakfast, you can walk across the street again to Ruby's Diner, or you could walk a little bit further, to a side street and the fun that is Pinocchio's.  Now, I've only been here on Sundays for their bottomless champagne brunches, but I imagine the scene is just as lively and happy here on Saturday mornings as well. Do everything you can to eat outside, on the noisy (covered) patio. Service runs a little slower here, but it's worth it.

Now, what to do with the rest of your day? At some point, you're gonna need to spend more time in that pool.  What else? Here's my list of options –

Take the aerial tramway up the side of the mountain. The journey is the whole point on this...once you get to the top, admire the amazing views of the Coachella Valley and the mountains. Maybe hike around a bit in the woods.  Bring a sweater, it'll be chilly.  Then you get to have more fun, coming back down again.  It's a little hairy, and the trams now spin (slowly) to allow a 360-degree view.  Still, be aware in case anyone suffers height/motion sickness.

Go to Knott's Soak City, a sprawling water park.  My kids have been too young on previous trips, and personally I'm a big chicken when it comes to tall, twisty slides. But you might very well think this is a blast!

Take a tour of the wind farm windmills.  I know a couple of people who've done this, and they really enjoyed it. (No link, but there are a few if you do a Google search.)

Visit the children's museum in Rancho Mirage. I have a good children's museum in my own town, but I've read excellent reviews on this one. Perfect if you have little ones who need to be let loose in a “go ahead and touch everything” kind of place.

Personally, I'd take my kids back to the Living Desert, in Palm Desert.  Again, this is a perfect springtime destination, as it's just too hot to stroll around and enjoy this during the summer months. (Remember, by July, the temps climb to well above 100 degrees.)  The Living Desert has wild animals, a new Discovery Center, a really cool model train set-up, and a desert-themed playground.  Perfect for expending lots of energy.    End your day by remaining in Palm Desert and catching dinner at The River, a “shoppertainment” type of outdoor mall with a fake, but lovely, “river” running through. Eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory or The Yard House or one of the other similar franchise choices. 
Part of the cool, outdoor model train display

Giraffes at The Living Desert
Also, on one of our shorter trips, we've left town and crossed north over the 10 freeway to the small town of Morongo, in the high desert.  There we've hiked at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, an area with a small creek and marshlands. There are several easy hikes, on a well-paved “boardwalk” sort of trail.  It's very quiet out here, and a little cooler than Palm Springs in both spring and summer, and a good way to end your day. Just remember to bring adequate water, drinks and snacks along (there are a few small stores in the town of Morongo). 

And that's it! Time to go home.  Stop at Hadley's for another (or your last chance) date shake, and to buy packs of dates, nuts or taffy for the ride home.  I'd love to know if you try any of these out, or if you have other tips for places to take your kids in the area.   Adios! 


  1. My parents took my to Palm Springs too when I was young. I remember looking at the desert sky (which was new to me; I'm from the norcal regions) and thinking it was like a fairytale.

    1. That sounds beautiful, Sarah. Isn't it funny how different the 2 halves of Calif. are?


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