The famed desert resort city of Palm Springs in Southern California doesn't exactly have a reputation for budget travel. It's ritzy and glitzy -- a hot, almost relentlessly sunny getaway for the rich and famous. But there are free and cheap activities in the area as well, many focused on nature, history, and the arts. Here are 20 ideas that will keep singles, couples, or families with children entertained on a budget.
Learn about the native Cahuilla people in the Agua Caliente Canyons area of downtown Palm Springs. The museum commemorates Cahuillan history, language, religion, and cultural traditions with rotating exhibitions of art and artifacts. Museum entrance is always free, as are scheduled events such as film screenings, dance performances, and classes on crafts such as basket making. While there, check out the Agua Caliente Indian Canyons, a large scenic nature preserve with hiking trails and picnic areas. Entrance is $9 for adults and $5 for kids age 6 to 12, with discounts for students, military personnel, and seniors.
Big Morongo Canyon Preserve lies in a transitional zone between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts -- a verdant region surrounded by desert hills. The diverse habitat includes a marsh area and elevations ranging from 600 to 3,000 feet, allowing for a wide array of wildlife. Animals in the preserve include bobcats, coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, and many other mammals, as well as desert reptiles and amphibians and more than 250 bird species. Visitors can enter for free (donations appreciated), helping make this one of the area's best things to do with a family. There are many trails to choose from, including one that's wheelchair-accessible.
The city funds a free shuttle called Buzz that offers rides to all from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, with trolleys arriving at designated stops every 15 minutes. There's an app for even more detailed arrival information. Send the city a name and email address before visiting and get a Buzz Perk Card for bargains at restaurants, retailers, and other businesses around the city.
Palm Springs doesn't restrict its luxuries to humans. The Palm Springs Dog Park treats canine companions to 1.6 acres of off-leash space -- including a fenced-off zone for small dogs -- to run and socialize. Enclosed in a safety fence, the dog run features green spaces, trees, picnic tables, dog supplies, and antique fire hydrants.
Palm Springs has famously been home to many notable, wealthy people over the years, including Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Liberace. Make a simple, self-guided tour of neighborhoods such as Las Palmas and the Mesa, starting with a $5.50 map to stars' homes from the Palm Springs Visitors Center.
Every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. and the second Sunday of every month, the Palm Springs Art Museum offers free admission to the flagship location, sculpture garden, and all events. (The satellite Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert is always free.) The interior spans more than 150,000 square feet and features works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, and Ansel Adams. Guided tours are included in the admission price. Every year on Nov. 1, the museum hosts a free Day of the Dead celebration.
McCormick's Classic Car Showroom hosts huge auctions every February and November, but guests can visit the busy consignment showroom year-round for no fee. The showroom features more than 200 privately owned classic and exotic cars, some dating to the 1930s. The McCormick family started the auction showroom more than three decades ago and are considered to be among the most respected collectors of vintage vehicles in the country.
Palm Springs has a walk of fame honoring noteworthy residents with sidewalk stars. Among those honored are entertainment-industry notables, writers, pioneers, humanitarians, former presidents, and recipients of the Medal of Honor. Located on three roads around the city, the Palm Springs Walk of Stars can be good exercise, and the more esoteric and occasionally quirky honorees will give memories and smartphones a workout, as well. After dark, the stars in the desert sky are famously spectacular, so visitors can time a tour to transition from one set of stars to the other.
On Saturdays at the Palm Springs Mall and Wednesdays in Palm Desert (and, for people who enjoy a desert drive, Sundays in Old Town La Quinta, about 35 minutes south), the Certified Farmers Market brings together local vendors of produce, baked goods, plants and flowers, dairy items, and artisanal foods. The market is "certified" in that all the participating farms have been verified as local (within a 100-mile radius) and registered by the county agricultural departments. Many but not all items are also USDA organic.
Don't miss the Air Museum while in Palm Springs. This living history museum preserves and displays aircraft from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, many of which are still flyable. Guests can board actual bomber jets, and there's an on-site flight simulator. Many of the docents are Air Force veterans. Adults pay $16 for admission, with lower rates for kids, teens, seniors, and military personnel.
Located in the eastern Palm Springs area, Coachella earns the nickname City of Eternal Sunshine and features a preserve spanning more than 20,000 acres. Although it's perhaps most famous for its annual music festival, the preserve also has copious nature trails, dunes, mesas, and springs for exploration. Entrance to see the desert wilderness and wildlife is free, with donations welcome.
With claims of 350 days of sunshine each year, Palm Springs is home to many appealing outdoor spaces. Ruth Hardy Park, Deluth Park, and Sunrise Park are especially worth finding. The city's public parks are pleasant for picnics and barbecuing, have playgrounds for kids, and even offer free tennis court time.
Palm Canyon Drive is the main strip in the city for shops and restaurants, and that makes it worth strolling to window shop and people watch. From designer clothing to antiques to souvenirs to handmade chocolates, there's something for everyone on this stretch, which is peppered with lower-priced options. Many of the restaurants have outdoor seating right off the palm-tree-lined street. Reviews on TripAdvisor are overwhelmingly positive.
The architecture and design throughout Palm Springs deserves a driving tour. Desert Modernism, a midcentury modern aesthetic, drew inspiration from the dramatic desert landscape and climate, and that unique retro look appears on all sorts of buildings. Look for simple but elegant indoor/outdoor spaces, glass, and clean lines. The Palm Springs Visitors Center offers maps for self-guided tours. The neighborhoods of Racquet Club Estates and Twin Palms are especially full of great examples of midcentury modern design.
There's nothing for sale at Ruddy's General Store except a glimpse into a time before Walmart. It's a museum with some 6,000 items on display in the authentic furniture and format of an old-fashioned general store, many of the products never opened after their manufacture in the 1930s and early 1940s. This jam-packed, one-room time capsule costs only $1 to visit, and children under 11 can gawk for free, making it especially family-friendly.
The Backstreet Art District in Coachella Valley houses galleries and artist studios from a diverse collection of artists working in many different media. Guests can stroll through on their own or attend free guided Art Walks on the first Wednesday of every month. Two well-known stops are the Elena Bulatova Studio and the Artize Gallery.
Palm Springs' weather, flat roads, and ample bicycle paths make it ideal for sightseeing on two wheels. At Bike Palm Springs Rentals, picking up a standard bike for half a day starts at $23, with lower prices for kids. The smarter buy is to commit to a healthy full week of biking, which lowers the cost to $17 a day for adults. The business offers free helmets, locks, maps, and tour routes.
Thursdays from 7 to 10 p.m. (and starting an hour earlier from October to May), Palm Canyon Drive between Baristo and Amado roads transforms into an old-time street fair called VillageFest. Complete with entertainers, artisans and artists, and a farmers market, it's free and open to the public (and their dogs). Many downtown stores in the area participate in Businesses Open Late Thursdays, or BOLT, to coincide with the event.
Visitors can ride large, rotating tram cars 2.5 miles to an elevation of more than 8,500 feet, affording amazing views of the San Jacinto mountains. Nearly 4,700 visitor reviews at TripAdvisor average out to 4.5 out of 5 stars -- not just for the 10-minute ride ($25 for adults and $17 for kids ages 3 to 12) but because visitors can choose how long to stay atop the mountain. Go early to avoid crowds and bring lunches and jackets and sweaters -- the temperature can drop 30 degrees within minutes. Stay to hike and play in the snow, depending on the season, and to watch a spectacular sunset over the desert.
The Moortens, a family of desert plant specialists, have operated this botanical garden since the 1930s. The garden displays rare flora in its "cactarium," where visitors can also admire fossils, crystals, pioneer relics, and desert plants from all over the world. The family's Mediterranean-style home, named "Cactus Castle," is on the grounds. Admission to the botanical garden is just $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 5 to 15.