By Jim Farber
Every day, thousands of visitors stroll up and down Palm Springs' main street — Palm Canyon Drive. They delve into and out of its succession of eateries, watering holes and eye-catching gift shops.
Sadly, for so many of them, Palm Canyon Drive will represent the entirety of their Palm Springs experience. They will never discover the natural wonders, rich architectural history and ancient Native American heritage that Palm Springs has to offer, including the shady wonderland from which Palm Canyon Drive derives its name. And it can all be done on foot.
Thousands of years before Hollywood stars discovered Palm Springs as an ideal getaway, streams tumbled down from the mountains and provided the perfect environment for vast groves of date palms to flourish. These desert oases provided everything the early Native Americans of the region desired: ample food and water, building materials for shelter, medicinal plants, fields for cultivation and an abundance of game for hunting. They became known as the Cahuilla Indians and the Aqua Caliente band, their name derived from the thermal hot springs that abound in the Coachella Valley.
In 1876 and 1877 the government signed a treaty that deeded the Agua Caliente people 31,500 acres for their homeland. Of that, about 6,700 acres remain within the Palm Springs city limits. The other sections span out across the desert and mountains in a checkerboard pattern that includes the tribally maintained Indian Palm Canyons.
Located within a few miles of downtown, Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon, Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon (with its towering 60-foot waterfall) are open to the public. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, $5 for children (6-12) or $11 if you arrive on horseback. They are in every way a natural and archeological wonder.
Each of the canyons has its own character, with 15-mile-long Palm Canyon as the most popular. All four offer an abundance of walking trails and picnic areas set beneath shady groves of overhanging palm fronds and flowing creeks framed by rocky canyon walls.
But the beauty of the Palm Canyons is only a part of the story. There is history here that dates back thousands of years. And the best way to learn about it is to take one of the tribal ranger-guided walks. You'll see ancient grinding holes and rock art and learn how the abundant plant life was used as medicine. You'll also gain an appreciation for the role Native Americans played and continue to play — a history that is all too often overlooked in the telling of the Palm Springs story.
Even as you wander down Palm Canyon Drive it's impossible not to notice the abundance of midcentury modern architecture that surrounds you. That's because Palm Springs offers one of the best-preserved accumulations of post-World War II architecture in the U.S. From bank buildings to movie star residences, tennis clubs and planned communities, in Palm Springs midcentury modernism is king.
If historic architecture appeals to you, consider taking one of several walking tours offered year-round by the Palm Springs Historical Society. Bus tours are fine, but there's something special about wandering from house to house, street to street and garden to garden on foot. You'll learn about architects such as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Albert Frey, William Francis Cody and William Krisel who defined the look of Palm Springs. And you'll get to enjoy the juicy gossip surrounding the movie stars' homes.
An excellent choice for a not-too-strenuous experience is the Historical Society's Tour No. 4: Celebrity Haven. Setting off from the Architecture and Design Center on Palm Canyon Drive you will be taken through the adjacent neighborhood, known as the Historic Tennis Club District. The area abounds in period architecture and former homes to the stars (you may even get to explore Gloria Swanson's house). There's Casa Cody, one of Palm Springs' oldest casita-style hotels, and the Racquet Club, a masterpiece of modernism designed by Frey.
Whisking visitors from the desert floor to its summit station at 8,516 feet on the slopes of Mount San Jacinto, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is a unique tourist attraction. Its first gondolas made the ascent in 1963. Now the suspended gondolas slowly revolve to offer passengers a 360-degree, ever-changing seasonal view of steep mountain crags and the vast expanse of the Coachella Valley below.
Of those who take the tram, most will content themselves with the panoramic nature of the view, the items in the gift shop and a special dining experience offered in the summit's restaurant. But for the truly adventurous the end of the ride offers a wilderness jumping-off point. There are a variety of walking trails, but the most ambitious hikers will make the 10.5-mile trek to the top of Mount San Jacinto at 10,833 feet. If you leave early and hike hard you can get back to the tram, ride down and be back at your hotel in time for a hot soak and a delicious dinner. The tram operates year-round, so you can also consider snowshoeing. It's a great way to experience wilderness.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.visitgreaterpalmsprings.com
The Indian Palm Springs Canyons: www.indian-canyons.com/indian_canyons
Palm Springs Historical Society Walking Tours: www.pshistoricalsociety.org/collections/walking-tours
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: www.pstramway.com
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A hike on the Bob Hope Trail in Palm Springs, California, will yield excellent views of the entertainer's home. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.