Forget Coachella: Why Palm Springs is a great option for families

Here’s a number that should make any parent planning a spring break trip smile: zero.

Zero, as in the number of rainy days the sunny desert haven of Palm Springs, California, and the surrounding Coachella Valley traditionally receive every year in March and April.

The nearly perfect forecast (think: bluebird skies and temperatures in the mid-80s) each day is why the greater Palm Springs area has turned into my never-fail family-friendly spring break vacation destination. Even though it may be better associated with the Rat Pack than rug rats, the desert hot spot has been a favorite locale for my family since my teenager was a toddler. I’ve found that it offers outdoor activities that enthrall at every age and stage, including animal interactions at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, easy hikes at Indian Canyons and heart-pumping adventures in natural wonderlands.

Here are my top picks for family-friendly things to do outdoors, plus suggestions for where to beat the heat indoors, where to satisfy growling tummies and which hotels and resorts are made for a Palm Springs escape with kids.

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Where to go with toddlers

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

For an introduction to everything that makes the California desert great, it’s hard to beat this sprawling zoo filled with desert-adapted animals. It’s popular with kids of all ages, but toddlers and preschoolers will especially enjoy the petting zoo, where they can meet and pet African livestock, including Nigerian dwarf goats. An even more interactive and exciting activity for little ones is the zoo’s giraffe experience, which lets kiddos hand-feed these towering creatures. When your kids get tired of seeing the rhinos in the savannah area and the kangaroos in the Australia-themed section, they can ogle the miniature train set and ride the carousel featuring endangered species. Aim to arrive early in the morning, as it can get hot walking around the zoo in the midday sun.

Indian Canyons

Palm Canyon in Indian Canyons near Palm Springs. (Photo by constantgardner/Getty Images)

Finding this oasis just a few minutes from downtown Palm Springs feels a bit like uncovering hidden treasure. It’s a calming spot with lush fan palms, ample shade and a gurgling stream, making it a perfect destination for even little kids to hike. There are several canyons and trails to explore, but with tykes in tow, you’ll want to head to Andreas Canyon. This loop trail, which crosses the stream and provides impressive views of the surrounding desert, is just half a mile long. Download a junior ranger program guide before your hike to keep the kids engaged while learning more about the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians who call this area their ancestral home.

Where to go with elementary-age children and older kids

Red Jeep tour of the San Andreas Fault

I know, taking your kids to the San Andreas Fault may sound a bit like bringing them on a field trip to the edge of a giant, dangerous pit. I initially had the same thought.

However, of the multiple trips and adventures I’ve taken to Palm Springs, ones that include this experience are some of the most memorable. Not to mention, signing up for a Red Jeep tour of this natural wonder is an incredibly safe adventure, as you can book a private Jeep with just four people.

First, you’ll rumble over the highway with the wind in your hair as you head to the farthest reaches of manicured suburban desert. Then, the Jeep bounces off the road into a palm oasis while your guide provides insights about the area and the Cahuilla Indians. After a bit of driving, you reach the fault, which is not a hole in the ground but rather a series of breathtaking slot canyons and cliffs created by tectonic plates. Although kids 3 and up can participate, you’ll need to bring a car seat for children younger than 8. It’s worth the minor inconvenience, though, since the bumpy, open-air nature of the ride easily keeps elementary-age kids and those a few years older entertained.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo by swissmediavision/Getty Images)

Do your kids love Dr. Seuss? How about the Lorax? If they do, then they’ll be enthralled by the Seussian Joshua Tree, the namesake of this unusual national park. Easy to drive through, this park offers a rugged landscape that wows, even from the comfort of a car. Make stops for short hikes to explore the desert landscape, see the Cholla Cactus Garden and admire soaring Arch Rock. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife like bighorn sheep, jack rabbits and various kinds of birds. Stop at the ranger station for a free junior ranger guide; it not only keeps the kids busy looking for bugs, birds, plants and reptiles, but when they complete it, they can return to the station to be certified as a junior ranger and receive a plastic keepsake badge.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Soar up, up and away to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains on this tramway, the world’s longest rotating tramcar. While this experience isn’t for kids (or adults) who are afraid of heights, it’s a can’t-miss activity for those who don’t mind hanging above the ground. You and your kids can peer out the glass windows and take in the 360-degree views of the ground below as you head 8,000 feet above sea level. Once at the top, you’ll find a cooler climate and possibly some snow on the ground, especially in spring. I have yet to meet a kid who didn’t think it was cool to swim outdoors in the morning and then have a snowball fight in the afternoon. Don’t forget to save time for a hike on one of several trails and a bite to eat at the restaurant or snack bar.

Where to go with kids of all ages

Eldorado Polo Club

My first and only exposure to polo before visiting Palm Springs came from the movie “Pretty Woman,” so I long imagined an outing to a polo match as a posh affair that involved dressing up and no kids. It turns out that this couldn’t be further from the truth at the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio. Every Sunday from January until the end of March, fans and families visit the club to tailgate and soak up some sunshine while watching horses bolt down the field during matches. At halftime, you and the kids can go out onto the field to stomp down the divots, a time-honored tradition – and yes, you can even purchase a glass of Champagne to sip for a Julia Roberts moment. Pets are welcome, too. At just $20 per car, it’s a super affordable way to spend a lazy Sunday with every member of the family.

Where to go indoors

Palm Springs Air Museum. (Photo by constantgardner/Getty Images)

Spring break in the Palm Springs area is almost guaranteed to be sunny and nearly cloudless every day, but if you need an indoor break, there are a few options. Kids who have an interest in aviation, especially early fighter planes, will enjoy seeing all of the planes at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Meanwhile, tweens and teens who appreciate modern art will love checking out the works of art on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Where to eat

I’m happy to report that there are numerous casual, budget-friendly dining spots in the desert that offer delicious options made for both kids and adults. If you’re in Palm Springs on a Thursday, head to the weekly VillageFest street fair for quick eats like crepes and waffles, pupusas and tamales, hot dogs and corn on the cob to enjoy alfresco. For a burger break in the heart of downtown, visit Tyler’s Burgers, a Palm Springs institution that also serves up frosty shakes, crispy fries and onion rings. Las Casuelas Terraza is our go-to for Cal-Mex favorites like tacos, burritos and cheesy quesadillas. Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza in Palm Desert is another personal favorite, as it specializes in pizzas and a messy sundae dripping in hot fudge.

Where to stay

There are points hotels as far as the eye can see in the greater Palm Springs area, plus a few truly standout options for those traveling with kids. My family loves the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa, which boasts an on-site water park with dual racing waterslides, a lazy river and a splash park, plus seven pools. Additionally, there’s the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, where you’ll have access to everything from five pools and gondola rides to a massive game room and family activities like scavenger hunts. There’s also Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, which features a water park worth planning a trip around, as it offers a lazy river, waterslides and even a sandy beach area.

Featured photo by Pgiam/Getty Images.

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