Palm Springs Weekend

Mark Bizzell

Driving along Bob Hope Drive, Gene Autry Trail or Frank Sinatra Drive in the California desert city of Palm Springs and the surrounding area, you understand why Hollywood legends once called this place home.  Situated along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, this oasis seems out of a Hollywood studio backlot.  Lush, green golf courses and homes landscaped with pink and red bougainvillea contrast the looming mountains of rocks and boulders, sans any vegetation. 


While many of North America’s resorts provide visitors with natural bodies of water – Myrtle Beach, pristine Lake Tahoe or the whitewater of Canada’s Magpie River - in Palm Springs the only water most travelers see is in the hundreds of swimming pools that dot the landscape.  Located 130 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Palm Springs has a kitschy, swinging mid-20th century vibe that is reflected in its architecture, entertainment and way of life.

Palm Springs’ history dates back to the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, who have lived in this area known as the Coachella Valley for three centuries.  However, archeological evidence has proven a human presence in the valley for thousands of years.  In addition to the 10,700 acres of reservation land located within the city limits, the tribe owns casinos and a cultural museum.  As the largest collective landowner in the city, the tribe leases the land to homeowners whose houses sit upon their reservation land.


Rumor has it that the early Hollywood movie studios had a “Two-Hour Rule” for its actors, stipulating the stars be nearby in case of re-shoots.  Thus, this desert playground was born beginning in the 1920s.  Of all the celebrities with ties to Palm Springs, none captures the imagination more than the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe.  Still called Norma Jean Baker in 1949, Monroe was discovered at age 22 lounging poolside at Charlie Farrell’s Racquet Club by a William Morris agent.  Visitors can now see sculptor Seward Johnson’s 26-foot tall “Marilyn Forever” statue located downtown, which will be here until August before it continues its tour of the county.


In addition to the Hollywood allure, Palm Springs has 34 country club golf courses and the area has almost 150 in total.  Major tournaments are played here, including the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Tournament, still referred to as the Dinah Shore tournament by locals as it included her name from 1972 to 2000. 

But there is more to do than just sunning and golf.  The world’s largest rotating aerial tram takes visitors 8,500 feet above the desert floor to the top of the mountain located above Chino Canyon on the northern edge of Palm Springs.  Opened in 1963, the tram lifts riders out of the desert to the chilly summit, as much as 30 degrees cooler, where hiking trails and restaurants provide spectacular views.


Palm Springs also has the best concentration of mid-century modern homes and buildings anywhere in the United States.  Aside from architect Richard Neutra’s Bauhaus style, homes in Desert Modernism, Art Moderne, Spanish Eclectic, Googie and Tiki styles abound.  Palm Spring Modernism Week, held in February, is an 11-day celebration of mid-century modern design, architecture and culture.

For indoor activity that beats the heat, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is a Broadway-caliber show entering its 23rd season at the 1930s movie palace Plaza Theater, featuring performers from ages 54 to 83 and music, dance, and comedy of mid-century America.  And when the sun goes down each Thursday night on Palm Canyon Drive, which runs through the heart of downtown, the thoroughfare is closed off and becomes Villagefest.  A street fair held for two decades, Villagefest features local artists, food and entertainment.


The area was a big spring break destination for college kids beginning in the 1950s and immortalized in the film “Palm Springs Weekend” in 1963 starring Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue.  All that changed when celebrity Sonny Bono was elected mayor in the 1980s.   He led the city council to ban spring breakers from the main drag and instead focused on making the resort city more family friendly.  Today the city draws seniors, families and the LGBT community. 

Once a seasonal destination, the area now draws visitors year round, even in the summer when temperatures can top 120 degrees.  Although many “snow birds” – retirees from the northern U.S. and Canada -- still flock here in the winter, the area has many permanent residents over the age of 65.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 26 percent of residents are over 65 compared to just 11.5 percent statewide.  The cost of living here is less than the expensive beach cities along the California coast, and senior communities and world-class hospitals are numerous.


 But the real pull is the magic of the desert.  The warm nights and majestic mountains create an aura of paradise in Southern California unlike anywhere else in the world.  In a conceivably inhospitable environment, this desert dwelling provides a relaxing ambience for the weekend visitor where life is sunnier, warmer and slower.


Highbrow Magazine


Photos: Shag (Josh Agle); Photophanatic1 (Flickr); FredMike Rudy (Flickr); millen217 (Flickr); outoffocus (Flickr); Patrick Pelster (Flickr); Cover Photo: Escenada Golf Club.

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