Eager to explore some desert destinations around Palm Springs? Take some time out from the golf course and venture into the surrounding Coachella Valley. From incredible state parks to charming desert towns, you’ll find plenty of adventure as you embark on the best day trips from Palm Springs, California!
Head into the world-renowned Joshua Tree National Park to see nature at its best. Ramble around the Temecula Valley Wine Country and sample some of the region’s finest tipple. Get your cowboy on with a visit to the Wild West hamlet of Pioneertown. Or hit the beach in the sunny seaside city of San Diego.
Ready to hit the road on your California vacation? Here are some top-rated Palm Springs side trips that are a must when exploring the Coachella Valley.
Top-rated Palm Springs side trips
Joshua Tree National Park
Nicknamed ‘J-Tree’ by locals, Joshua Tree National Park is a weirdly wonderful place in the heart of California where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. With amazing flora, including the twisted, bristled Joshua trees, after which the park’s named, to explore, you’ll want to spend a few hours discovering the delights of this landscape.
If you love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, a getaway to Joshua Tree National Park, just an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, is a must. Located in the Southern California desert, the national park is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise with more than 4,500 established rock-climbing routes, natural springs, and human-made reservoirs.
You’ll find countless hiking trails for skill levels and plenty of boulder outcroppings for adrenaline-infused rock climbing. Learn about the park’s colorful history and unique fauna and flora on free ranger-led walks and talks. If you’re around after dark, look up and admire the dazzling star display above.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Situated in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, about two hours from Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a vast oasis of striking natural landscapes. The park is named after 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed the desert in 1774, and ‘borrego,’ the Spanish word for the region’s native bighorn sheep.
This wild and remote desertscape features other-worldly terrain, from twisting slot canyons and cool palm oases to cactus-studded hillocks. The absolute stillness and breathtaking beauty of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are simply spectacular.
Before venturing into the park, visit the Anza-Borrego visitor center to get information, updates, and maps of the area. Extremely rugged terrain and primitive roads make driving through the park difficult. You may want to consider joining a Jeep tour or renting a 4WD with high clearance to avoid damaging your vehicle.
Admire the magnificent wildflower displays at the springtime flower gardens at Font’s Point. Enjoy a short hike into the leafy oasis of Borrego Palm Canyon.
On your way home, just before the small town of Borrego Springs, check out artist Ricardo Breceda’s 130 enormous metal sculptures of prehistoric animals that once roamed this land.
Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains an hour north of Palm Springs, Idyllwild is a charming California alpine town that features quaint shops, art galleries, restaurants, and cafés. Surrounded by dense forests and rugged mountain slopes, the town is a haven for outdoor adventure.
The alpine forests surrounding Idyllwild are crisscrossed with hiking trails that wind through the shady undergrowth. Hike, mountain bike, or horseback ride through the woodlands, keeping an eye out for a variety of wildlife that calls the forest home.
For easy nature walks through beautiful scenery, visit the Idyllwild Nature Center. An impressive interpretive center explores local Cahuilla history and displays information on the native flora and fauna of the region.
Idyllwild has an eclectic arts and culture scene and a thriving community of local artists displaying their work around town. Wander around The Art Alliance of Idyllwild visitor center and gallery to admire some of their works.
Nestled on the banks of Big Bear Lake in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains, the charming town of Big Bear is an all-season playground for outdoor enthusiasts. It lies just two hours north of Palm Springs.
The spectacular landscapes and untamed wilderness around Big Bear Lake make it a popular filming location for Hollywood producers. But there are also tranquil hideaways where you can lose yourself in the beauty of the mountains.
Enjoy a wealth of outdoor activities throughout the year. Hit the slopes for skiing and snowboarding at the Big Bear Mountain Resort, or have some snow tubing fun at Grizzly Ridge Tube Park.
When the snow melts, the real fun begins. One of the most popular things to do in Big Bear is to hike or mountain bike on the challenging trails that crisscross the mountains. Spend lazy days boating and fishing on the turquoise blue waters of the tranquil Big Bear Lake. Take a mile-long ride to 8,200 feet on Snow Summit’s Scenic Sky Chair.
Picnic beneath the towering pines at Bluff Lake Reserve and marvel at the beautiful scenery. Explore the deluxe boutiques, kitschy gift shops, and stylish home décor stores in the charming Big Bear Lake Village. Take a trolley ride around town and take in a performance at the Pickleville Playhouse.
Taking a day trip to Palm Desert from Palm Springs may seem like taking coals to Newcastle. But if you want a change of scene without losing all the luxe, then it’s a good bet. Just 11 miles and 30 minutes driving distance from Palm Springs, Palm Desert is home to all the usual Coachella Valley delights, from golf courses and country clubs to high-end shopping and luxury spas.
Start exploring the top tourist attractions in Palm Desert by wandering around the lushly agrarian Living Desert Zoo & Gardens and feed a giraffe. Catch a show at the state-of-the-art McCallum Theatre, where you can enjoy touring Broadway acts. Enjoy a game on a world-class golf course.
Spend a few hours shopping and wining and dining in the wonderfully extravagant El Paseo Shopping District. Stroll down the tree-lined boulevard lined with upscale stores and fashionable boutiques, trendy art galleries, and public art pieces. Toast the day with a signature cocktail at a chic café along the strip.
Take a journey into the Wild West and head back to the days of cowboys and Indians, horses, and gun fights at Pioneertown. Built to resemble a dusty 1880s town in a classic Western movie, Pioneertown is a charming hamlet that feels as if time has stood still.
Established in 1946, the classic Western town 40 minutes from Palm Springs was designed as a movie set with saloons, parlors, motels, and an old jail. Today, an artistic community has grown around the Old West town, but the original buildings have been beautifully preserved and are a major attraction. Wander along Mane Street and watch a mock gunfight and shoot-‘em-up re-enactments.
RELATED: Best Areas to Stay in Palm Springs
Mane Street is also home to modern-day businesses like quirky art galleries and quaint gift shops. Grab something to eat at the popular Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where you can tuck into classic Santa Maria barbecue and burgers to the tunes of live music.
Coachella Valley Preserve
Get back to nature with a trip through the magnificent Coachella Valley Preserve. Located in the bluffs of the Indio Hills, about 10 miles east of Palm Springs, the preserve is home to several lush oases and some incredible hiking trails.
Start your adventure with a visit to the Preserve’s visitor’s center in Paul Wilhelm Grove at the center of the park. Here you’ll find unique displays of the natural features of the preserves and trail maps.
The star of the oases show is the spectacular Thousand Palm Oasis. Fed by water seeping out of the San Andreas Fault, the lush watering hole spans 880 acres and features palm woodland oases and desert wetlands, and some amazing wildlife. Spend a few hours exploring this desert heaven on more than 25 miles of hiking trails.
Other oases in the Coachella Valley Preserve include Hidden Horseshoe, Indian Palms, and the Willis, all of which can be explored on lovely hiking trails.
It’s a good idea to visit the preserve early in the day to avoid the soaring afternoon temperatures.
Renowned for its magnificent Temecula Valley Wine Country with its patchwork hillside vineyards and pristine golf courses, Temecula is a Southern Californian gem. It’s just an hour and a half from Palm Springs by car, making it an easy addition to your vacation.
The beating heart of the city is the charming Old Town area, where craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants are tucked between beautifully preserved historic buildings. Wooden boardwalks and vintage storefronts harken back to the 19th century, showing off an Old West vibe.
If you’re an oenophile or simply a wine lover, take a drive through the bucolic Temecula Valley Wine Country. Home to more than 50 wineries producing small-catch vintages that are only distributed locally, the valley and its award-winning wines are a hidden secret.
Enjoy hiking through the vineyards or hot-air ballooning over the spectacular terroir. Pop into wineries dotted about the valley to sample some of the region’s finest wines. End your winelands adventure with hyper-local cuisine at one of the laid-back eateries.
Spend a day relaxing and enjoying outdoor recreation at the Salton Sea. Situated on the San Andreas Fault within the Salton Basin, the Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked, highly saline body of water. Formed in the early 1900s when the Colorado River burst its banks, the area, about an hour from Palm Springs, is a popular destination for seaside fun.
The Salton Sea State Recreation Area rests on the northeastern shores of the 35-mile-long sea and offers a variety of activities, from boating and birdwatching to fishing and hiking. The Sea and Desert Visitor Center provides information on the history of the sea, as well as local fauna and flora, and trail maps for hikers.
Cast a line off the fishing jetty at Varner Harbor to catch tilapia and Corvina. Rent a boat and hit the water for a leisurely afternoon, or jump on a jet ski for an adrenaline rush. Bird watching is very good in the area, too, and migrating birds can be seen as early as October.
Tucked between Barstow and Needles, Amboy Crater is a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cinder cone dating back ten thousand years. Formed of ash and cinders, the crater spans 1,500 feet across and is 250 feet high, creating a breathtaking sight.
The best way to see the crater and experience its enormity is to hike to the rim. An easy three-mile round-trip trail leads from the parking lot up to the crater. The trail then connects to a path around the rim where you can soak up some spectacular views from 250 feet above the crater floor.
Located off Historic Route 66 National Trails Highway, about two hours from the city, Amboy Crater is a great spot to visit on a day trip from Palm Springs. There are picnic tables for alfresco-style lunch and a shady ramada for viewing
Bear in mind that the Amboy Crater area can get very hot; be sure to pack plenty of water and check the local weather before your trip.
Feel like a day at the sea? Take a two-hour and 15-minute scenic drive through the Temecula Valley to the sunny city of San Diego. Boasting beautiful beaches, urban parks, and numerous art galleries, museums, and gardens, the SoCal waterfront city offers so much more than just fantastic year-round weather.
Make your first stop at the pristine, emerald-green Balboa Park, where you can explore 17 museums, meet koala bears, and check out the world’s largest instrument.
If koalas weren’t enough, pop into the San Diego Zoo to get your wildlife fix. One of the top-rated things to do in San Diego is to stop for a photo-op outside the magnificent Botanical Building and venture into the Timken Museum to admire a few Old Masters.
Stroll around the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and if you happen to be there on a Sunday, hear the 5,017 pipes come to life. Explore some of the city’s vibrant neighborhoods like the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, and the East Village and feast on global delights at the year-round foodie haven of Liberty Public Market.
You can’t visit San Diego in one day without enjoying some beach time. Head to one of San Diego’s many incredible beaches for some downtime, or rent a surfboard and let off some steam on some of the world’s best waves.