A city in the middle of the desert? Not quite right because contiguous with Palm Springs is sprawl made up by Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage, a total of eight cities collectively known as the Palm Springs Desert Resorts. In 1868 a government survey team discovered mineral water springs at a place only 175 kilometres (110 miles) east of Los Angeles, now the centre of Desert Hot Springs. The Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in the area in 1876, opening it up to tourism and by the early 20th century the dry desert air was attracting visitors with respiratory aliments to boarding houses in Palm Springs. The area became really well known in the 1930s when Hollywood Stars built retreats to allow them to escape from the glare of publicity.
Palm Springs from Aerial Tramway summit
Palm Springs is overlooked by 3,293 metre (10,804 foot) high Mount San Jacinto. In 1963 an aerial tramway opened to take visitors up to an elevation of 2,597 metres (8,516 feet) overlooking Palm Springs. The change in climate is dramatic, when we visited it was warm in Palm Springs but there was snow at the summit station. Click Tab 2 to see Mount San Jacinto State Park from the summit station.
Palm Canyon Drive from Baristo Road
Palm Springs is a low rise city with a distinct modernist style of architecture. In its early days, the city was purely a winter resort and was virtual ghost town in summer, but from the 1970s it became a popular place to retire, keeping the city alive year round. In more recent times, the area has also become popular with the gay & lesbian community. Despite the sprawl of the Desert Resorts, Palm Springs has retained some of its village feel. For example, every Thursday evening Palm Canyon Drive is closed for a VillageFest of stalls offering arts, crafts and food.
Oasis at Palm Canyon, Indian Canyons
The Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians were living in this part of the desert long before Europeans arrived. The desert here is punctuated with springs which provided water for crops and attracted animals for hunting. In the 1860s the US government divided the land into sections and made odd numbered sections available to the Southern Pacific Railroad in order to encourage them to build a line. The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation was set up in 1876 on the even numbered sections, creating an unusual checkerboard pattern. Much of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage is built on land leased by tribal members. At Indian Canyons at the end of Palm Canyon Drive, the tribe has preserved the land in its original state. Palm Canyon is 24 kilometres (15 miles) long and here a stream provides nourishment for Washingtonia Filifera (California Fan palm trees) allowing them to thrive in an otherwise barren area.
The Plaza Theatre goes right back to the days when Palm Springs was the playground of Hollywood Stars. Built in the Spanish style, it was opened in 1936 with the world premiere of the MGM film ‘Camille’. Through the 1940s and 1950s many Hollywood stars appeared here including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Nowadays the the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies are staged here between November and May, a revue in the style of the 1930s and 40s. The performers may range in age from 55 to over 80 but they are incredibly fit.
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Vintage Casita, La Quinta Resort & Club, La Quinta
La Quinta Hotel was built in 1926 and is now the Palm Springs’ oldest resort. The original hotel had 56 guest casitas - self contained cottages built in the Spanish style. La Quinta soon became a retreat for Hollywood stars looking for a quiet retreat away from the glare of publicity. Greta Garbo maintained a private residence here for years, Ginger Rogers was married by a waterfall in the resort and Frank Capra came to the resort to write portions of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’. Now part of the Hilton Group, the La Quinta Resort & Club has grown to around 800 guest rooms, but the old casitas are still there. The resort no longer stands isolated in the desert, the surrounding city of La Quinta was named after it in 1982.
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East Granvia Valmonte looks just like a typical Palm Springs residential street until you get to number 1077. There you find a plot filled with brightly coloured sculptures made from recycled materials. This used to be the home of artist Ken Irwin Sr. As a child, his son Kenny Irwin Jr began to build giant sculptures of robots in the garden. In time, Kenny Jr’s creations filled the garden. The house is still there but you have to look hard to see it. At Christmas the display is augmented with more than a million lights plus some inflatable Santa Clauses and the (former) garden is open to the public in the evenings. This is all very intriguing, particularly because Kenny Irwin Jr is a convert to Islam and hence does not celebrate Christmas. In 2108 we were in Palm Springs just after New Year so we just had to have a look at the Christmas display before it closed. We got there shortly after it opened at 4pm to see it in daylight and lingered until it became dark enough to see the lights. Our conclusions were mixed. Mike felt that it was a ‘must see’ attraction but Jen was less sure, she found some of the sculptures a bit disturbing. However we were both impressed by the huge amount of work that Kenny Irwin Jr has put into creating Robolights. Click tab 2 to see Robolights as darkness fell.
Moorten Botanical Garden & Cactarium
Looking at the barren desert landscape around Palm Springs, a botanical garden is one of the last things that you would expect to find in the city. Moorten Botanical Garden & Cactarium seeks to show the variety of plants that can grow in deserts. Like Robolights above, this was originally the garden of a house. Chester Moorten worked on the railroads, as a lumberjack and down the mines. While working as a miner in the Little San Bernardino Mountains he became fascinated by the indigenous desert plants. Because of his slim frame and fascination with cacti he picked up the nickname ‘Cactus Slim’. He started to grow cacti and sold them in Los Angeles, where he also found work as a movie actor. He arrived in Palm Springs during 1933 and decided to settle there. In 1939 he met Patricia Haliday a horticulture and botany student at USC who shared his love of cacti. They subsequently married and opened a cactus nursery at the corner of Tahquitz Drive and Indian Avenue. His Hollywood contacts enabled Chester to also make a living by landscaping the gardens of the stars. In 1955, the Moortens purchased a 1.2 hectare (3 acre) property built in 1929 for photographer Stephen Willard. They landscaped and planted the gardens, naming it Desert Land Gardens and Cactus Museum. Now known as Moorten Botanical Garden & Cactarium, it is run by their only son Clark Moorten who has inherited his parents’ passion for desert plants. He still lives in the house at the gardens. The gardens are open daily excluding Wednesdays. Click Tab 2 to see the Plants of the Mojave Desert section.