I never thought I’d visit Palm Springs. I imagined it to be too hot and, well, too cliché. And the campground offered by our Thousand Trails camping membership we knew to be a large-rig parking lot—an environment in which we struggle to be comfortable.
But then long-lost friends* who were planning to spend the month of November in Palm Springs invited us to visit, and that opportunity fit well with our first Artie road trip. We explored what the area has to offer, often in the company of good friends, while living in a parking lot, albeit a palm-tree lined one complete with a pool, pickleball courts, and recreation lodges.
Joshua Tree National Park
Our friends, Mike and Karen, picked us up and we drove about an hour to the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center, and then into the park. Mike and Karen had been here before, but with so many areas to explore we were able to visit some they had not yet been to. Though the park is named for the plentiful Joshua trees, I think we all were far more impressed by the rock formations.
We also found and poked around some of the campsites in the park. Another time, we would plan to camp in the park at least one night among the imposing rocks, their shadows, and amazing night sky photography opportunities.
Salton Sea, Salvation Mountain, Slab City, East Jesus
On another full day trip, again chauffeured by our generous friends, we headed south for some strange encounters.
Our first stop was a quick look at the Salton Sea, a large (approximately 24 x 56 km) below-sea level saltwater rift lake. Much of the shoreline, at least where we visited, crunched underfoot as we walked on millions of tiny barnacle-like shells. The rest of the shore was dried, curled mud.
About 1 ¼ hours from where we were staying is the brightly coloured adobe, straw, and log sculpture called Salvation Mountain. It is one man’s decades-long religious project. For us, it was a quirky middle-of-the-desert playground to explore.
Down the road from Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an off-grid ex-military piece of the Sonora Desert where thousands of snowbirds (and an estimated 150 year-round folks) hang out for the winter months.
At the end of Slab City is a crazy place called East Jesus. It feels like a sculpture gallery in a junkyard. Started by one person in 2007, new junk and new sculptures are continually being added. Some of us were a little unsure about going after Mike shared a link to the East Jesus Survival Guide. But Mike was driving and, though he took a dubious route in their rental sedan that would be better suited to an off-road vehicle (turn back! turn back!), we arrived safely and enjoyed poking around the strange and eclectic creations.
We never did visit Palm Springs downtown in the daytime, but the four of us sauntered down the blocked-off streets during one of the weekly Thursday-night street festivals. We began with a happy-hour drink and light meal at Sammy G’s Tuscan Grill (I recommend the gnocchi). A typical street fair, the event is filled with artisan booths and food kiosks and is spotted with musical and other entertainment.
Many of the palm trees in this area are date palms and, not surprisingly, dates are a popular local product. We visited Shields Date Garden on Karen’s recommendation since they offered samples of at least a dozen types of dates and I was really interested to taste a variety and learn which ones I preferred. Their samples are a full date, and you can try as many as you like. It wasn’t long before we had consumed more than our fill. We purchased a combo pack of the freshest and tastiest dates I had ever had.
Shields offers date shakes—a Coachella Valley specialty—as well, but, after checking out recommendations, we decided to go try the best date shake in the area, which was to be found at the Windmill Market. Expecting to arrive at a large produce market, we were taken aback when our GPS landed us beside a huge windfarm (oh, that kind of windmill!) in the desert, and outside of a tiny flat white shop.
This couldn’t possibly be the home of the best date shake in Palm Springs, could it? Their sign insisted that it was, so we ventured in through the door to find a bustling counter and a line of customers ordering date shakes, tacos, and other fare. We ordered a small shake and a couple of snacks. The server asked if we’d like to eat out back and we found a delightful garden filled with tables and chairs shaded by lemon trees.
And the date shake? Well, it tasted like a vanilla shake with mushed-but-still-chunky dates blended into it. It was OK but, even for this date lover, not particularly exciting.
Coachella Valley Preserve
We had admired Mike’s photos from when they visited this preserve before we arrived in Palm Springs. It was very close to our campground, so Ken and I stopped in one day on our way back from somewhere. Thinking it was just a walk into palm trees, we didn’t take water bottles, wear sunscreen, or change from our sandals to closed shoes. After enjoying the shade of the palms, the path to a pond led us out into the sunshine with no reprieve for a couple of kilometres. After plodding along in the sand for a bit, we decided to be smart, turn around, and return when we were better prepared. Sadly, we didn’t make it back to finish the hike.
PGA West in La Quinta
Time spent visiting Mike and Karen’s temporary abode was quite the contrast to our parking lot life at the edge of the desert. You don’t have to be golfers to be entertained by the view or the shenanigans on the fairway. Their 3-bedroom home in a gated and beautifully landscaped community alongside one of the 120 golf courses in the area showed us a different side of the Palm Springs life.
Recommended by everyone as a must-visit are the Indian Canyons for a variety of hikes through varied desert environs. There are three canyons grouped under this moniker. Taking a suggestion from Mike and Karen’s past sojourns, Ken and I headed for Palm Canyon, driving Artie through Split Rock and laughing about how other larger RVs wouldn’t have been able to do this. As we parked, a warden told us we should have gone to the RV and large vehicle parking before the Split Rock, and that we would have to be very careful heading out. Not sure how we missed the signs, but thankfully Artie handled both entry and egress just fine.
Water, proper footwear, sunscreen, and lunch with us, we headed out on the trail.
The hike was lovely until I tripped over a rock and slammed myself and my camera into the gravelly trail. After that, I didn’t feel much like continuing so we turned back and found a table under the palms to enjoy our lunch, clean my leg and pamper my wounded pride. My daughter-in-law said that I must include this photo (perhaps she wasn’t serious?) and my sister said I should stick with the story that I was attacked by a cougar.
We had originally headed out on our last day to re-visit the Coachella Valley Preserve. This time, though, we were told that our van was too big for their no-bigger-than-20-feet parking lot and there was no other place nearby to park. So we adjusted our day’s plan and headed about an hour south, this time on the west side of the Salton Sea to visit Borrego Springs, a town whose tourism industry is based on a legacy of large commissioned steel sculptures. At the info center, we were provided with a map and told to drive right onto the lands wherever we found sculptures, take our photos and then follow the tracks and map to the next ones. We spent a few hours doing this, cutting our trip short to drive away from the desert before dark (dusk arrived early at around 4:30 at the time we visited).
On the drive east from Borrego Springs, we took the time in the waning light to snap a few pictures of the canyons. We could see campers and RVs dotted around the landscape. On the drive into Borrego Springs, we’d observed that this area was a popular spot for offroad vehicles of all kinds.
*Good friends from our late teens and early twenties, we lost touch after the first few years of parenting until we reconnected once at a mutual friend’s much-too-early funeral over 10 years ago. It took another decade until Facebook lurking helped get us together for lunch last August in La Conner, Washington (along with another set of long-lost friends). Keeping in touch through Facebook since we are all world travellers, we found an opportunity to cross paths in Palm Springs. It was amazing, after so many years, to be able to go on outings together and enjoy each others company (including a hard-fought games night) as if no time had passed at all.
- Joshua Tree National Park: Entry fee is $30 per carload for a 7-day pass, or free with a national park pass.
- Indian Canyons: Entry fee is $9 per adult, $7 senior (62 and over, I believe—Ken asked for one of each but the clerk rang us both in as seniors).
- Pueblo Viejo: Karen and Mike knew about the happy hour and Tuesday/Thursday fajita specials at this restaurant. We arrived at 4:40 and it was packed with a 30-minute wait. Once we were seated, service was very fast. The food (shrimp, chicken and beef fajitas for two, $24.95) and margaritas were excellent.