California’s Desert Playground Allows Visitors to Revel in Nature and Design
The path winds through a deep canyon, surrounded by steep walls alternating with entrances to tight slot canyons, which extend outward from the main passage. When viewed from above, I imagine that this desert landscape would resemble a video game–like maze of twisted, dry gorges, with my tomato-red Jeep immediately standing out against a backdrop of tan, sand, buff, fawn and camel hues. Riding along the fault with Desert Adventures, I learn to visually identify “fault gouge” (fine silt caused by two tectonic plates slowly grinding past each other), and the green belt of vegetation that thrives here as groundwater seeps upward through the softened earth to the surface. It’s all part of a show created by constant seismic motion along the fault line. It’s not often that one thinks of geology on a vacation, but it’s hard not to on a trip to Palm Springs, California. The region was shaped by the notorious San Andreas Fault and lies in a rift zone, sheltered by three mountain ranges. For some, an ideal Palm Springs getaway revolves around golfing at one of its dozen public golf courses, including the Stadium Course at PGA West, one of three courses hosting the PGA’s 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge (the other two courses are private). For others, a few days of poolside pampering at a luxury hotel, such as Well Spa at Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa, is all the incentive it takes to book a flight to this desert oasis. But in response to growing interest in experiential travel, particularly from younger visitors, Palm Springs today seems to offer as many opportunities to explore its natural environment as it does to insulate yourself from it. Hence my Jeep tour to a geographical rift, which offers me and fellow passengers a closer look at seismology than a textbook could ever provide.
On the morning after the Jeep tour, I change vehicles to join a group in an air-conditioned van for an architectural tour with Palm Springs Mod Squad. “Palm Springs was a land of experimentation,” explains Kurt Cyr, the tour company’s founder. Over the course of the 90-minute tour, he explains how the desert inspired designs that were cleaner and less decorative than they were in other parts of the country, to reflect nature. Midcentury modern architecture seemed to fit the austerity of the landscape, and architects treated the city as a laboratory for design and building materials, a trend that the area’s present-day artists and designers are upholding. The landmark buildings we pass include the Palm Springs Official Visitors Center. Designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers, the structure, once a Tramway Gas Station, features a paraboloid roof that, from certain angles, looks like a giant Pringles potato chip. Other stops include the Wexler Steel Houses (designed by Donald Wexler), with floor-to-ceiling glass and split-level roofs; the Palm Springs City Hall, with palm trees that pierce a circular opening in the roof of the portico (designed by Albert Frey); the Kaufmann House (above, designed by Richard Neutra), which branches out like a pinwheel from the central living room; and the Racquet Club Road Estates development (designed by William Krisel for the Alexander Construction Company), where the homes feature clerestory windows and wafer-thin rooflines.
Back to Nature
From the city of Palm Springs, any of the three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park—with its mountains of twisted rock and its namesake trees seemingly pulled from the pages of Dr. Seuss—are about an hour east by car. Even closer, Palm Springs Indian Canyons (above), about 10 miles south of downtown Palm Springs, offer more than 60 miles of trails through scenic terrain in the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Popular trails include an easy path through Andreas Canyon, which passes through a California fan palm oasis; the moderate Murray Canyon Trail, which ends at the Seven Sisters Waterfall; and the Indian Potrero Trail, which leads to the upper region of Palm Canyon, past a series of stone pools to a hidden plateau surrounded by rock formations. After exploring Andreas Canyon, I relax in the shade of a California fan palm. The view of the bright blue desert sky, obscured only by looming fan palms with shaggy skirts, helps me understand why this is one of the most popular trails around.
Eager for another chance to admire the topography, I ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which gets me from the valley floor to Mount San Jacinto State Park in about 10 minutes. From the tram tower, 8,516 feet above sea level, visitors can soak in views of the valley, dine, explore a museum and, depending on weather conditions, hike, snowshoe or ski on more than 50 miles of trails.
–Written by Jill Robinson