You can forgive visitors to Palm Springs for never wanting to explore beyond the city’s lush green basin, an eye-candy oasis of palm-shaded boulevards, velvet green fairways and cheeky mid-century modern hotels.
But look up from the Coachella Valley, and you’ll see an equally enticing ring of rock and rumpled desert, from the forested (and sometimes snow-capped) San Jacinto Mountains to the cactus-studded Mojave. Spring is the ideal time to explore, when seasonal rivers tumble through rocky washes, unlikely blooms sprout from sandy soils and the desert warmth feels welcoming, not withering.
From your hotel, you’re within easy striking distance of the following hikes (and at least a dozen others). After a day taking in the area’s natural beauty, a dip in the pool and an al fresco dinner will be icing on the cake.
MOUNT SAN JACINTO STATE PARK
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks you dramatically up the steep walls of Chino Canyon, slowly spinning so everyone gets the same dizzying views of shattered rock and disappearing desert floor. In 10 minutes, you’ll exit through the tram’s upper station—an architectural gem, of course—into an entirely different temperature and ecosystem. (In spring, there may be snow, so definitely bring a jacket.)
Up here at 8,516 feet, it’s all granite boulders and the spicy-sweet scent of Jeffrey pine, an alpine forest perched high above the Sonoran Desert. You’ve arrived at Mount San Jacinto State Park, where trails spin off into thousands of acres of wilderness. Start with the easy one-and-a-half-mile Desert View Trail, which meanders under an airy grove of pines. Signs lead hikers to gaps in the granite ridge that frame views of wrinkled distant desert. The Round Valley Trail is another good choice, a 4-mile path that branches off to a Kelly-green mountain meadow that erupts in blooming shooting star and monkey flowers. Enjoy, but don’t miss the last tram down—it’s the only way back into town.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
While more people have undoubtedly seen a Joshua tree on a U2 album cover than in real life, this intriguing botanical oddity (a member of the agave family, with spiky yucca leaves and branched saguaro-like arms) does indeed thrive in the vast Mojave north of Palm Springs. You can easily loop through Joshua Tree National Park in a day, stopping for several hikes and taking in its dramatic desert views.
Just east of the Joshua Tree Visitor Center on Rte. 62, the 49 Palms Oasis Trail winds up through gentle hills, past barrel cactus bright as rhubarb and foot-long chuckwalla lizards sunning on slabs of granite. In a mile or so, a true desert oasis appears: a clump of mature fan palms erupting from a crease in the dry desertscape, a scene straight out of a Road Runner cartoon.
South of the visitor center, the park road bisects a valley of Joshua trees. Near the Quail Springs picnic area, the Boy Scout Trail winds north past gigantic granite formations known as the Wonderland of Rocks, a famous climbing area. The mile-long Hidden Valley Trail threads among the rocky folds, where tiny silhouettes of climbers sometimes appear atop pillars of granite. Continue on toward Hwy. 10, where two of the continent’s great deserts—the Mojave and the Sonoran—blend together in a basin of blooming ocotillo, fuzzy cholla and scrubby creosote.
TAHQUITZ CANYON & SOUTH LYKKEN TRAIN
Short and sweet describes this hike, tucked right at the west end of downtown Palm Springs. The trail climbs 1 mile alongside Tahquitz Creek before dead-ending in a box canyon, where a plume of water shoots 60 feet over a rocky seam and into a tranquil pool. For a more strenuous hike, switchback up the nearby South Lykken Trail, which begins at the end of Mesquite Avenue. You’ll quickly rise above the city to a precipitous ridge, where you can peer down into Tahquitz Canyon and its gushing falls.
These popular canyons took a beating from fire and flash floods in 2013, but they’re once again open and accessible, thanks to restoration work by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The canyons comprise dozens of miles of hiking trails; the 3-mile Victor/Palm Canyon loop hits the highlights. Head south on the Palm Canyon trail as it parallels Palm Canyon Creek, a lovely, lush area shaded by palms that are home to a variety of songbirds. Turn left on the East Fork Trail, then left again on the Victor Trail, climbing out of the canyon and onto a rocky ridge studded with cacti. Stay on the Victor Trail to return to your starting point—or to resupply your water and choose your next hike.
Legendary comedian Bob Hope was long a fixture in Palm Springs, and his modernist mansion sits like a UFO high on the city’s southeast side. The Araby Trail skirts the Hope estate, climbing up 800 feet from East Palm Canyon Drive. You’ll enjoy the same panoramic vistas of the Coachella Valley that Bob and Dolores Hope did, not to mention voyeuristic views of their 23,000-square-foot, $50-million home, known best for its undulating copper roof. In less than 3 miles, the Araby Trail intersects with the Berns Trail. It leads west and links into a network of trails winding through the Santa Rosa foothills, against the backdrop of the high San Jacintos beyond.