Palm Springs on a Budget

Celebrity playground or golfer’s paradise? Gay resort or hideaway for the filthy rich? Since the Roaring Twenties, the sunny, well-watered oasis of Palm Springs, about a hundred miles due east of Los Angeles in the Colorado Desert of southeastern California, has been widely known for all of the above, with oodles of glamorous eateries and posh resorts catering to a well-heeled clientele.

What’s not nearly as well known is that the town of Palm Springs itself (as opposed to neighbors like Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage) attracts plenty of working-class Americans with some of the country’s best resort bargains and prices generally well below destinations such as Provincetown, Key West, and Miami Beach. Rates are lowest in summer, of course, thanks to temps of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (being dry heat, though, it can still be perfectly fine for those into a not-too-active holiday). But even in peak season (generally January through May), when daytime temps hover around a delicious 70 to 80 degrees, you can score spiffy double rooms as low as $70, and every other eatery along chic Palm Canyon Drive will fill your plate for $20 or less. One tip: if possible, plan your visit during the week, as year-round weekend hordes from LA, San Diego, and elsewhere send room rates north.

Palm Oasis at Agua Caliente Indian Reservation by Michael Kirsh – Unsplash

So what’s there to do here besides shooting the links, hanging out by the pool, or watching the cactus grow? Apart from that spectacularly dry and sunny weather year-round (the prime reason folks started coming all those years ago), you can drive in a single afternoon from snow-capped mountains to sandy wilderness to lush green oases… and back to the “historic district” (meaning early- to mid-twentieth-century) with its clean-cut Mexican-village look.

For an awesome view over the valley, jump on the Aerial Tramway‘s rotating tram car; tickets are $29.95 per adult, with discounts for kids and seniors and annual passes available. Enjoy views of pristine wilderness during its 8,000-foot climb up the side of Mount San Jacinto. Once at the Mountain Station, enjoy two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, two documentary theaters, a gift shop and over 50 miles of hiking trails.

Stop by the dramatic Indian Canyons reserve ($12 adult admission) for canyon trails as well as ranger-led interpretive hikes. For classic Western vistas, head to Andreas Canyon, where water springs up from the sand surrounding native palms (where do you think Palm Springs got its name?).

For many a visitor the great outdoors means one of the 100-or-so local golf courses. Most are predictably pricey, ranging from $50 to $250 in season (less otherwise) for one round including a cart; you can save up to 50% off, however, by buying unsold next-day tee times through Stand-by Golf.

Marilyn Monroe statue outside the Palm Springs Art Museum by Susi Kleiman – Unsplash

Head to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens ($8.50, kids $4.25), a natural habitat where eagles, mountain lions, and other native fauna flourish.

Back downtown, check out the Palm Springs Desert Museum ($16 for an adult ticket) with one of the western United States’ most impressive collections of natural history and western and modern art. The museum also hosts free admission on Thursday nights from 5-8pm, though reservations are required and limited. For an additional ticket ($5), visitors can also explore the Architecture and Design Center. The sculpture garden is free.

While tickets are a little pricier at The Palm Springs Air Museum ($22 for adults), admission is free for kids under 12 and active service members (plus their immediate family). The living history museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of static and flyable aircraft from WWII through the War on Terror.

Also not to miss, 2023 will see the opening of the brand new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, a captivating look at to the culture of the Cahuilla Indians—who to this day own (and lease out) much of the area. The new cultural plaza will feature a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, as well as a spa that celebrates the sacred Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring, gardens and an Oasis Trail.

Pioneertown was established in 1946 when Dick Curtis shared his dream for a “Living Breathing Movie Set.” Seventeen investors contributed to the development of this functioning 1880s-themed town to serve as a filming location, vacation destination, and permanent residence for people working in the entertainment industry, ranchers, and desert lovers. As the golden age of Western films came to an end, so did the abundant production work in town; still, the community has always remained committed to keeping Pioneertown alive.

Today, Mane Street in Pioneertown still retains its charm and Old West image. Pioneertown is open and free to the public 365 days a year. Visitors are welcome to come enjoy the sites any day of the week but weekends are when the town really comes to life. Camp sites are available for campers and horses at the Pioneertown Corrals on a first come first serve basis, but visitors can also check out the Pioneertown Motel.

Mountains near Palm Springs by Venti Views – Unsplash

If you don’t mind more motel-like surroundings, head to the pleasant, three-story Vagabond Inn. There’s admittedly not much in the way of landscaping or shade around the pool and hot tub, but you can cool off in a little poolside coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch goodies at low prices. Even during peak spring and summer dates, rates start around $85 per night.

The Motel 6 (at 660 S. Palm Canyon Drive) boasts a great location walkable to downtown, a heated pool and hot tub, and sleek rooms with pickled wood and the standard amenities. Rates are available around $70 per night.

Named after a cactus that looks like a dried-up twig, the even prettier Ocotillo Lodge rents out condos in the lodge as well as nearby private houses. The condos are low-slung 1950s-style casitas, each with full kitchen, huge bath, separate bedroom, and even a large-ish patio. Prices start at $153 per night.

Restaurants are also a remarkable bargain, with scads of stylish eateries up and down Palm Canyon Drive vying for your dollar. Most have shaded sidewalk tables, under pergolas and vines, cooled in summer by fine misting systems and creating a fancy resort feel that would not be out of place on the Riviera-only here you’ll pay a third of the price and you don’t even have to speak French. For Mexican, Las Casuelas Original serves up everything from nachos and fresh guacamoles, to salads, frijoles, enchiladas, and much more—and all for a great price, even the steak platters are under $30.

For a funky musical experience, the Village Pub (266 S. Palm Canyon Dr.) has both live bands and a multinational menu, as well as budget-friendly brunch options, an assortment of appetizers and shareable plates, sandwiches and more.

After dining, stroll along Palm Canyon Drive’s chic shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s a downtown blissfully free of billboards, junky shops, and burger joints—truly a boon in a world of crassly overdeveloped resorts.

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