Although Marilyn, Sinatra, Liberace, Dinah and Sonny have long since departed from California’s Coachella Valley, one famous Palm Springs resident is still around and kickin’: Mother Nature.

Palm Springs may be best known for Rat Packers and retirees, architecture and the AARP, golf courses and grannies. However old-school, this sun-drenched — 354 blissful days of sunshine annually — desert oasis isn’t just for older folks (although the patrons of Melvyns may beg to differ). Increasingly, the town has become a hot spot for hedonistic hipsters, Hollywood’s new guard, and those just looking to slow down and soak in truly stunning natural surroundings.

A Mid-Century Modern night’s dream

Whether hiking the Indian Canyons or horseback riding along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, many visitors to Palm Springs will find themselves communing with Mother Nature a majority of the time … it’s an outdoor recreation kind of town. However, Palm Springs is also a resort town that takes the art of R&R very seriously, so finding the right retro-chic hotel is imperative.

Tucked away on a residential street, The Desert Star Hotel is like staying at a good friend’s house … a good friend who happens to have five tricked-out guest bungalows that surround a saltwater swimming pool. Owners/hosts Walter and Davey have lovingly restored the-once-down-and-out Mid-Century Modern property themselves and outfitted each bungalow with super stylish touches — Case Study beds and Eames chairs, for example — that are sure to delight design enthusiasts. Other eco-features at the Desert Star include CFL bulbs throughout the property, in-room recycling and water-conserving housekeeping practices.

Nearby, 180-room ACE Hotel & Swim Club offers a slightly more raucous scene and is another example of a stellar Mid-Century Modern hotel renovation overhaul. A former Howard Johnson’s property, ACE opted to keep many of the existing, kitsch-tastic elements of the old hotel intact in lieu of demolishing. Vintage furnishings grace many of the guest rooms and recycled/eco-friendly materials played heavily into the revamp. For unique souvenirs, the newly opened Community Shop at ACE features handcrafted goods like Alma Allan’s wood stools made from salvaged trees and Heath Ceramics.

Sustainable sustenance

If you don’t want to nosh too far from where you take your (poolside) nap, grab a bite of reinterpreted “American peasant food” (aka roadside diner fare) made with fresh, local and organic ingredients at King’s Highway , housed in a former Denny’s that’s adjacent to ACE. Thirsty? The Amigo Room at ACE serves an array of potent potables — we recommend the King’s Margarita — made with fresh, house-made ingredients. Another reliable resto serving sustainable comfort food is Cheeky ’s, where the heavily organic menu rotates on a weekly basis depending on what’s fresh. For more on the Palm Springs eco-epicurean scene, check out the Slow Food Desert Cities homepage.


For vintage hounds with an eye for Mid-Century Modern style, Palm Springs offers serious antiquing opportunities. On and off of North Palm Canyon Drive, the downtown “strip,” you’ll find stores like the Palm Canyon Galleria , Dazzles , Retrospect and a la MOD where mod 20th century furniture, decorative accessories and art reign supreme. Imagine the set of Mad Men in a consignment shop and you’ve got a good idea of what’s literally in store during a Palm Springs shopping excursion. For stylish secondhand steals that support a good cause, visit one of five Revivals Resale Marts in the Coachella Valley that support the Desert AIDS Project.

Nature boys and girls

With abundant sunshine, minimal rain and breathtaking scenery, nature lovers won’t have a difficult time acclimating to Palm Springs (neither will naturists considering the amount of clothing-optional accommodations in the area). A top destination is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, a rotating aerial tramway (the largest in the world) that climbs nearly 6,000 feet from the desert climate of Coachella Valley to the alpine wilderness near the top of San Jacinto Peak in eight and a half minutes. Once on the mountain in Mount San Jacinto State Park , visitors can explore a system of hiking trails and other outdoor activities.

If traveling to over 8,000 feet above sea level via tramway seems daunting, spend the day exploring the Indian Canyons , a series of five hike-worthy, biologically diverse canyons on the Aqua Caliente Cahuilla Indian Reservation just outside downtown Palm Springs. If wilderness hikes aren’t your thing, there’s also a lovely artificial ecosystem known as a golf course at Indian Canyons.

Palm Springs also serves as the ideal starting point for trips further afield to destinations such as the Coachella Valley Preserve , Joshua Tree National Park , and the Salton Sea , a large saline lake/environmental restoration project known for its avian biodiversity, dead tilapia, trailer parks and abandoned buildings. It’s a curious and haunting place to visit that’s particularly jarring after spending time in lush, lovely Palm Springs. And some of most spectacular sights in the Coachella Valley can be viewed from your car (no, not Bob Hope’s former home): the San Gorgonia Pass Wind Farm , where thousands of massive wind turbines dot the natural landscape as far as the eye can see. Like the Salton Sea, it’s a disorienting sight but also a hopeful one leading to reflection on the future of renewable energy.

The future of Palm Springs itself is looking bright despite a reputation for being more gray than green. There’s something for everyone — kitsch-obsessed lounge lizards, eco-conscious hipsters, antiquers, hikers, bikers, golfers, horseback riders, nature photographers and people who don’t like to wear clothes — in a town where Mother Nature, like Mid-Century Modern architecture, never goes out of style.

MNN homepage photo: SDbT/iStockphoto

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Destination of the Week: Palm Springs, Calif.
Who knew you could indulge your passion for hiking and Mid-Century Modern design all in the same trip?