There are few places in the world where you can have it both ways: suntans and snow angels, palms and pines. Southern California is one of them. Here you can take your cue from the popular hot/cold spa-therapy trend and alternate between extreme temperatures to reenergize your system. Follow this itinerary to enjoy the dry heat of Palm Springs, a desert oasis with a bold winter sun, and then crank up the cool in the brisker climes of Mount San Jacinto, Joshua Tree, and Big Bear Lake, all within an hour or two’s drive.
Base Yourself: Palm Springs
Folded into the inland crescent of Southern California, the greater Palm Springs area has long been a haven for the well-heeled, where a modern Angeleno vibe meets Old Hollywood glamour. Days are best spent by the pool or on the town. A dry breeze wafts through the streets of Palm Springs, which are a veritable museum of midcentury modern architecture. Step inside the Palm Springs Art Museum (101 Museum Dr.; 760-322-4800; adults, $12; children 17 and under, free) to see rotating exhibitions highlighting works by the likes of Andy Warhol or to sip tea at the museum’s new Persimmon Bistro (760-322-4895; tea for two, $10*) overlooking the Meyerman Sculpture Garden.
The heat lends itself to the slow life: You can browse Village Fest (N. Palm Canyon Dr. between E. Andreas Rd. and E. Tahquitz Canyon Way), a Thursday street fair with food, art, and entertainment, or have brunch at the mostly outdoor Farm (6 La Plaza; 760-322-2724; breakfast for two, $32), where shady vines and cocktails keep patrons from overheating. The menu is Provençal without pretense, and the savory crêpe stuffed with smoked salmon, spinach, and crème fraîche and topped with a sunny egg is a must.
At the spa at Two Bunch Palms (67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs; 800-472-4334), waters bubble up from a 600-year-old natural hot spring into the main hot tub encircled by thick-trunked palms that rustle in the wind. If you want to spoil yourself, the Day of Wellness 60 package ($315) includes access to the mineral pools, a 60-minute desert-inspired treatment, lunch at Essense, the spa’s serene on-site restaurant, and plenty of time to bask in the sun.
The Pools of Palm Springs
There are a whopping 40,000 pools or so within city limits. Ease into the next leg of your vacation by visiting one of these three splashy scenes.
Wild Weekend: See and be seen dancing at Ace Hotel Palm Springs and Swim Club (701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-9900; day passes, from $20), where DJ sets and pool parties are the norm.
Ladies Trip: Gather your girlfriends and go to Arrive (1551 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-507-1650; admission, free; pool parties, $15 a person). An ice cream parlor rounds out the pool and adjacent bar, and DJs occasionally perform on Sundays well after sunset.
Romantic Getaway: Intimate and sweet, the casita-style pool at La Serena Villas (339 S. Belardo Rd.; 844-932-8044; treatments, from $135) is open to spa guests—all the more reason to book that couple’s massage.
As night falls, consider eating at the new Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey (1556 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-537-1022; dinner for two, $64). Chef and owner Engin Onural, one of the world’s top sushi chefs, strives for a simple sort of excellence. While the service here rivals the most upscale of white-cloth restaurants, the atmosphere is casual and calming, thanks in part to Scandinavian touches and oceanic imagery. The spicy-tuna tostada, hamachi crudo, and yellowtail sashimi with fried garlic are standouts—and for your final course, nothing but the Akashi Umeshu Japanese dessert whiskey will do.
Tramway to Heaven: Mount San Jacinto
A dramatic backdrop to the city’s yearlong pool parties, the San Jacinto Mountain Range cradles Palm Springs to the west, and there lies your first real plunge into the cool. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1 Tram Way; 888-515-8726; round-trip tram rides, $26; children 3–10, $17), 15 minutes from downtown, is the world’s largest rotating tram car and deposits you 8,500 feet up Mount San Jacinto, the range’s tallest peak, at the Mountain Station recreation area. You’ll have grand 360-degree views during the tram’s two-and-a-half-mile journey.
At this height, you’re immersed in a wintry forest, where snow sporadically dusts the 50-plus miles of trails between November and May. A sloping concrete path leads from Mountain Station to the Long Valley ranger station and Winter Adventure Center, where you can access trails for hiking at the former (day-hike permits, free) and rentals for cross-country skiing (rentals, $21 a day) and snowshoeing (rentals, $18 a day) at the latter. For spectacular forest overlooks, toe the Desert View Trail, a moderate but supremely scenic one-and-a-half-mile loop.
Consider wrapping up in time to be back at Mountain Station an hour before sunset for dinner at Peaks Restaurant (1 Tram Way; 760-325-4537; dinner for two, $64; reservations recommended). A feast for the eyes and appetite, the cliffside restaurant overlooks the vast Coachella Valley, from which the chefs collect greens, vegetables, and the ever-popular Palm Springs Medjool date—yours for the tasting in an indulgent martini as both you and the sun cap off the day.
High Desert Chill: Joshua Tree
Only an hour’s drive from Palm Springs, the Joshua Tree area does things differently. Its alien landscape, whippy winds, and eponymous trees jutting against the horizon at jagged angles announce your arrival.
Stop in town for souvenirs at Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe & EcoMarket (61695 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Suite A, Joshua Tree; 760-366-8333), where you can create your own lotion using essential oils and learn about the holistic benefits of smelling so good. In Joshua Tree you’ll also find Crossroads Cafe (61715 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree; 760-366-5414; breakfast for two, $20), a rustic hot spot with wood paneling and screened-in patios, where the morning fare calls to locals, climbers, and concertgoers alike with strong coffee and large plates of down-home breakfasts.
The air is snappier here, thinner, and once you enter Joshua Tree National Park (74485 National Park Dr., Twentynine Palms; 760-367-5500; seven-day permits, $30 a vehicle), there’s no fresh water or cell service, so plan accordingly. The visitors’ centers have maps for the Jumbo Rocks Campground, where massive boulders begging to be climbed resemble a giant’s playground, and for the mile-long Hidden Valley nature loop, where sawtooth rocks meet desert flora at a site rumored to have been used by cattle thieves.
As the sun casts its final wink and temperatures drop, leave the park behind for an outlaw-style dinner and a show down the road in Pioneertown. Built as a film and TV set in the 1940s by a group of Hollywood investors, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Pioneertown’s facades and cowboy kitsch eventually became a real town. Pappy & Harriet’s (53688 Pioneertown Rd.; 760-365-5956; dinner for two, $60) pays homage to its past lives as a cowboy cantina and a biker bar with stick-to-your-ribs grub. The restaurant has earned a cult following for hosting intimate but rollicking live music shows that feature big headliners and rising stars.
Polar Thrills: Big Bear Lake
For your final dose of frost, rise with the sun and drive two hours to the San Bernardino Mountains and the powdery slopes of Big Bear Mountain Resort (844-462-2327), with its two properties, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, both in the town of Big Bear Lake. Bear Mountain (43101 Goldmine Dr.; lift tickets, from $49) has an 8,805-foot-high peak and, with the region’s only half-pipe, it’s the snowboard capital of Southern California. Daredevils of all experience levels take to jibs and jumps in its top-rated terrain parks.
Nearby Snow Summit (880 Summit Blvd.; tickets valid at both Bear Mountain and Snow Summit for same-day use) peaks at 8,200 feet and has a more family-friendly atmosphere. A newly built Adventure Academy helps kids learn the ropes of the slopes; another Adventure Academy is set to open on Bear Mountain this winter.
Big Bear Lake’s town center is called the Village and has galleries and boutiques brimming with bucolic mountain charm. Dining options lean toward hearty American fare, such as the loaded tot skillets and hefty steaks at Oakside Restaurant & Bar (40701 Village Dr.; 909-866-5555; dinner for two, $50). Alternately, the expansive menu (with great lunch specials) at Himalayan Restaurant (672 Pine Knot Ave., Suite 2; 909-878-3068; lunch for two, $20) highlights the flavors of Nepal, Tibet, and northern India—giving you one last chance to add a little spice to your cool day of play.
RCI® affiliated resorts near Palm Springs include:
Guests get a quiet reprieve in spacious and well-appointed two-bedroom units outside of Palm Springs. 82954 Stewart St., Indio
Member Review: “Central to everything yet away from it all.”
Both adults and kids can suit their fancy between the lazy river, hot tub, game room, and golf course on-site. 42-151 Worldmark Way, Indio
Member Review: Not yet rated
Just steps away from the dining, shopping, and entertainment in downtown Palm Springs. 34567 Cathedral Canyon Dr., Cathedral City
Member Review: “Beautifully kept property.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Other vacation options in Palm Springs include:
Vacation Palm Springs
A variety of rental options ranging from three-bedroom condos to midcentury homes with more than seven rooms. 1276 N. Palm Canyon Way, Suite 101; 866-944-8182; vacationpalmsprings.com; doubles from $300 a night
Fragrant bougainvillea drapes the Moorish architecture of this 1924 artists’ hideaway with two pools. Expect afternoon tea service with locally grown dates. 257 S. Patencio Rd.; 760-864-6411; korakia.com; doubles from $259 a night, including breakfast
Actor Don Castle and his wife, Zetta, built this Old Hollywood property in the 1950s. It has been restored as a pastoral but modern haven with fire pits and a communal barn, where breakfast is served in the morning and cold beer and cocktails into the evening. 1330 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-2300; sparrowslodge.com; doubles from $229 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Winter 2018