It can be hard to drag yourself away from the pool cabana, the golf course, or your hunt for that pink door while in Palm Springs. But if you manage to escape the magnetic pull of those desert destination highlights, there’s a surprising amount of day-trip diversity within a three-hour radius of your resort. Our picks for the best day trips from Palm Springs include beers and beaches, super blooms and supersized sculptures, dark skies in Joshua Tree National Park, and pine-scented air and fresh powder in not one, but two mountain ranges.
Slightly larger than Rhode Island, this park—where two types of desert ecosystems meet and inky night skies expose the Milky Way—is pure magic. If you have even the slightest interest in the outdoors, make time to hike, take pictures, boulder, or meditate in this special place. If you want company, join a Desert Institute class. Cruise to Joshua Tree, the town, or to Yucca Valley when you get hungry, need a healing sound bath, or want to go shopping.
Getting There: Take CA-62 34 miles to Joshua Tree where the park’s main visitor center is found.
Travel Tip: Pioneertown might look familiar to fans of vintage westerns. Built in 1946 by actor Dick Curtis and famous investors like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers, more than 50 films and TV shows—including "The Cisco Kid" and "The Gene Autry Show"—were shot at the 32,000-acre “all-inclusive location. Pioneertown had saloons, stables, a main street, a bowling alley, a sound stage, and a restaurant in its heyday. Some of the old structures still stand as decoration; Pappy & Harriet’s has been filling bellies with mesquite barbeque and ears with live music since 1982.
Spanning more than 33,000 acres and with 40 wineries, Temecula is the largest viticultural region in Southern California. Start your day in this hilly wine country with a sunrise flight on a hot air balloon before hitting a bunch of tasting rooms–a good portion of which are found along Rancho California and De Portola Roads— for sips of syrah, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, or zinfandel. Or get a different vantage point of vineyards on a horseback ride through the region. After working up a sweat horsing around, pull up a chaise or rent a cabana at The Pool at BOTTAIA where you can sip craft cocktails and munch on bistro nibbles while gazing out at the winery’s block.
Getting There: Temecula is 69 miles from Palm Springs using CA-79, I-215, and I-15.
Travel Tip: Grapes aren’t the only things grown around here. You can also have a tour and tasting at Temecula Olive Oil Company’s ranch, stock up on toiletries made from local lavender at TLC’s shop in Old Town, or stir up llama drama at The Alpaca Hacienda.
Each spring, more than 200 species of wildflowers and blossoming cacti bloom in the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Humans have also contributed sights, starting with the nomadic Kumeyaay who scrawled petroglyphs and pictographs throughout the park as much as 2,000 years ago. At nearby Galleta Meadows, 130 mammoth steel welded sculptures of prehistoric beasts, legendary creatures, and local wildlife by Ricardo Breceda rise from the ground. Borrego Art Institute sponsors the competitive Plein Air Invitational as well as art workshops and gallery shows. The town has a few bistros and shops worth visiting.
Getting There: Use I-10 and CA-86 to Salton City and then Borrego Salton Sea Way for 87 miles.
Travel Tip: If your trip is all about the wildflowers, call the hotline (760-767-4684) to check conditions ahead of time. Just how super the bloom is varies annually and sometime blooms are scarce. When and how many plants show their true colors depends on what combination of rain, sun, temperature, and wind the area received that year. Peak viewing is typically in March.
Once the next big thing in vacation playgrounds, complete with a yacht club, the Salton Sea is California’s largest inland lake. It was accidentally created by recurrent flooding and damaged canals in the early 1900s and is now mostly for the birds ... and bird lovers. The first stop should be the Visitor Center in Mecca where rangers will happily share their favorite spots. One will inevitably be the southern edge’s Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge, which is visited by hundreds of winged species throughout the year. It’s also home to a legion of adorable tiny burrowing owls. The shores are filled with unique volcanic and geological features cased by a magma chamber beneath the sea. Had enough rocks and flocks? The kooky 25,000-item collection at the International Banana Museum might a-peel to you.
Getting There: Mecca is roughly 49 miles from Palm Springs off CA-111 while the refuge is 90 miles away.
Travel Tip: On the drive back, go through Indio, the Date Capital of the World, and Coachella, to take in more than two dozen eclectic street murals that started going up in the '90s. The murals are inspired by the valley’s history, agriculture, and indigenous and Latino cultures. Coachella’s contributions, many of which were developed as part of the Coachella Walls project, tend to be edgier and delve further into social and political issues its residents contend with. A driving-and-walking tour can be supplemented with horchata lattes from Sixth Street Coffee and frozen treats from Paleteria Jiquilpan.
There are plenty of alpine adventures to be had in and around the mountain hamlets of Big Bear and the pristine namesake lake they surround. Sitting at 6,759 feet above sea level, the lake is perfect for swimming, boating, fishing (rainbow trout and bass), canoeing, and parasailing. Conquer winter peaks atop skis, tubes, and snowboards at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts. When the powder melts, turn to hiking, mountain biking (Snow Summit has a lift-served, gravity-fed bike park), golfing, or riding alpine slides/coasters. No matter the time of year, waterside sunset viewing is free and glorious.
Getting There: It’s nestled in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest on CA-18 about 82 miles from the Coachella Valley. CA-330 will get you there, but CA-38 is a longer, more scenic route that is often less congested.
Travel Tip: In the 1940s, Dick and Mac McDonald opened the burger joint that would become the blueprint for today’s chain of 36,000 fast-food franchises in more than 100 countries. An unofficial museum full of memorabilia operates on the San Bernardino site of that first McDonald’s on old Route 66.
Love can move mountains. In the case of this mammoth and colorful example of outsider art, it built one too. For more than three decades, Korean War vet Leonard Knight spread the gospel via a cross-topped 50-foot peak he constructed out of adobe, straw bales, found objects, and donated paint while living in a truck without running water with cats for company. Covered in prayers, “God Is Love” messaging, and hearts, the vibrant hill, cave-like rooms, and makeshift museum of Salvation Mountain are regulars on Instagram and have appeared in Sean Penn’s "Into The Wild." Disciples have kept it up since Knight's death in 2014.
Getting There: The trip takes about an hour and a half by car. The spirited site is outside Niland in the Imperial Valley.
Travel Tip: It’s surrounded by Slab City, an off-the-grid community named for the concrete remnants of the abandoned military base. The skate park, stage, library, and other art installations—like the circular murals drawn on old cement water tanks or East Jesus Sculpture Park—can be worth a few extra hours. But stay frosty as some residents are suspicious of visitors or have questionable relationships with the law.
Every sojourn to San Diego should incorporate the four Bs: brews, beaches, Balboa Park, and Baja-style fish tacos. The city has more than 160 breweries while food trucks, mom-and-pop shops, and fine-dining establishments serve up beer-battered fried fish in corn tortillas. The county’s got 70 miles of coastline and there’s a stretch of sand for every type of beachgoer whether they want to play volleyball sans suits, learn to surf, watch seals play, fish, or ride a roller coaster. Balboa Park is a one-stop-shop with the world-famous San Diego Zoo, 16 gardens, a Tony-winning theater, museums of all types, historic artist studios, a tennis club, hiking trails, and a golf course.
Getting There: Two-and-a-half hours and 126 miles (mostly on I-215 and I-15) are all that stands between you and the good-time quartet.
Travel Tip: If you are cuckoo for cosplay and comics, July’s annual Comic-Con should move to the top of the bucket list. But if nerd nirvana sounds more like the 10th circle of Hell, avoid town at all costs during the convention. Prices go up, everything has line, and places are rented out for private events.
The Oak Glen foothills offer bucolic splendor by the bushel with simple pleasures like hot cider and hayrides, and plenty of u-pick apple ranches including Willowbrook Apple Farm and Los Rios Rancho, where you can load up on winesaps, spitzenbergs, galas, and other heirloom varieties. The season generally runs Labor Day through Thanksgiving.
The fun doesn’t stop with fruit as some farms throw festivals, field dinners, historic reenactments, and workshops while others have pet-able livestock, restaurants, corn mazes, live music, or markets. Some growers add variety to the bounty. Stone Soup Farm has u-pick blackberries and raspberries (August), pumpkins (October), and spring flowers. Stone Pantry Orchard adds pears and pumpkins to the mix while Riley’s cultivates strawberries and mulberries.
Getting There: Roughly 37 miles away, Oak Glen occupies a 5-mile section of the 20-mile Oak Glen Road scenic loop bookended by Beaumont and Yucaipa. Both cities are on the I-10W.
Travel Tip: Reward a hard day's work by popping into Snow-Line Orchard to savor their famous mini cider donuts and try their locally-sourced line of hard apple cider and wines.
Idyllwild is a wooded wonderland that experiences all four seasons, including a colorful fall for leaf peepers, despite being only an hour’s drive from the desert. The small community doesn't offer skiing and therefore is less developed and less crowded than Big Bear. That doesn’t mean it completely lacks options for those with heart-pumping hobbies. Located about a mile above sea level, it’s flanked by picturesque mountains and rock formations (Tahquitz Peak, Lily Rock, Mount Atlas, and Suicide Rock) popular with climbers and hikers. In fact, it was here that the now-standard numerical route difficulty grading system was developed.
Getting There: It’s a 47-mile drive on I-10 W and CA-243.
Travel Tip: Design geeks can hunt for now-collectible knotty pine arts and crafts pieces made by Idyllwild Pinecraft Furniture Company from the 1930s to 1950s. Or do a drive-by of architect Frank Gehry’s first residential project, the still-standing, privately-owned David Cabin.
The sunniest city on Earth enjoys 4,000 hours of sunlight a year according to the World Meteorological Society. That, plus its location alongside the mighty Colorado River, makes Yuma, Arizona a great place to head outdoors. Off-road on the Imperial Sand Dunes; Go birding across acres of restored wetlands, many of which used to be an unsightly dump; Hike, bike, picnic, swim, and kayak through an expansive collection of riverfront trails and urban parks. Fans of the macabre can wander the haunted halls and enter a dark cell (if you dare) at the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison. Or you can learn about the culture and meticulous beadwork of the Cocopah tribe at their museum. Stroll the Main Street shops and historic buildings before settling into a meal that uses the fresh ingredients that make Yuma the Winter Vegetable Capital of the World.
Getting There: To get to Arizona's 11th largest city, head southeast on I-10, CA-86, and I-8. Some of the 168-mile journey straddles the Mexican border.
Travel Tip: Pre-game by watching both the 1957 and 2007 versions of "3:10 To Yuma" or reading the Elmore Leonard short story both were based on.