Palm Springs welcomes winter travelers

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Monday December 23, 2019
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A Christmas tree of lights is perched atop Mt. San Jacinto. Photo: Ed Walsh
A Christmas tree of lights is perched atop Mt. San Jacinto. Photo: Ed Walsh

If you want to avoid crowds and save big on airfare, one of the slowest times of the year in Palm Springs is coming up. The week after New Year's tends to be a quiet travel time even in places like Palm Springs that attract snowbirds trying to get away from much colder locales.

The peak time for tourism in Palm Springs starts around Valentine's Day and lasts until early May.

Airline bargains can be found. Sun Country Airlines began its twice-a-week seasonal service to Palm Springs from San Francisco International Airport this month. Although the fares for traveling around the holidays are expensive, if you can hold out until mid-January, airfares were running as low as $49 each way. But as the demand creeps up, so do the prices on Sun Country and the two other airlines offering nonstop flights to Palm Springs from SFO, Alaska and United. A drawback to flying on Sun Country is that service is only two days a week — Thursdays and Sundays. If you book far enough in advance, you can snag a seat on Sun Country for as little as $39 one way but those cheap seats book up fast.

If you travel to Palm Springs in January, you can expect sunny weather most of the time with highs in the low 70s and cold nights in the 40s. And if you like a little snow, you can have the best of both worlds in Palm Springs. Earlier this month I braved near-blizzard conditions on a mountain above Palm Springs to take a photo of an iconic Christmas tree. A few hours earlier I was lying out in the sun by the pool at the Hacienda Warm Sands Resort.

Thanks to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (, you can get a taste of winter weather while enjoying a warm weather vacation — all in the same afternoon. The tram takes just 10 minutes to transverse four seasons to the summit of Mount San Jacinto. A Christmas tree of lights is installed on top of the tram's Mountain Station where the tram docks. While it is not California's tallest Christmas tree, at an elevation of 8,516, it undoubtedly is the highest.

If you would rather enjoy holiday lights without the cold weather, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens ( in nearby Palm Desert offers the spectacular Wild Lights holiday show where you can see and learn about animals while enjoying colorful lights. But if you want to see the show, you have to hurry. The last night is December 28, although there is always next year.

This time of year is also a great opportunity to take in a desert hike and the Palm Springs area has some great options. You don't have to go far to find them. One of the easiest hikes is the Museum Trail, in the heart of downtown Palm Springs. It starts from the parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum and goes up the rocky mountain behind the museum, offering a spectacular view of the city.

A few other great hikes are the Indian Canyons (, a series of three oases that showcase Native American culture and desert ecology. The entrance to the canyons is a short drive from downtown Palm Springs. It doesn't rain much in Palm Springs, but during, or after, a rainstorm, the canyon shows off spectacular waterfalls. Rain or not, water always flows through the canyons, which is why Native Americans settled there. A series of ancient Native American grinding holes can be seen just next to the parking lot at the main entrance. Admission to the Agua Caliente Indian-owned canyons is $9.

Joshua Tree National Park (, about an hour outside Palm Springs, has some of the desert's most spectacular hiking trails. The loop trail is one of the park's most popular. It is an easy walk and goes in a loop so you don't have to take the same path back to where you started. It is at a higher elevation and cooler than Palm Springs. Entrance to the park is $30 per carload.

An exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum features stacked bowls. Photo: Ed Walsh  

The Palm Springs Art Museum ( is showcasing a photo exhibit of LGBT diversity that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It runs through March. The Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center's Edwards Harris Pavilion is in a refurbished bank building in downtown Palm Springs and through December 31 features exhibits dedicated to the 91-year-old San Francisco graphic artist Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Her "Breaking all the Rules" exhibit allows you to break the rules by playing pingpong on the tables set up symmetrically in the exhibit.

One of the biggest draws to Palm Springs for gay men are the city's gay resorts. It has more than a dozen hotels marketed to gay men. All are clothing-optional and with the exception of All Worlds, they all offer a free continental breakfast. Wi-Fi is also free at all the gay resorts. The only gay resorts that charge a resort fee are Santiago, Cathedral City Boys Club, and Hacienda, the latter of which has a non-tipping policy so tips are paid through the extra fee.

For the quality and level of service, many of the gay resorts often rank at the top of TripAdvisor's ratings of all specialty hotels in the city. Sadly, since the closing of Casitas Laquita three years ago, there are no longer any lesbian resorts in Palm Springs.

The Hacienda Warm Sands ( justifiably ranks near the top, or at the top, of lists of the country's best gay resorts. Included in the service is a free gourmet lunch and an upscale expanded continental breakfast. Hacienda's high employee-to-guest ratio makes visitors there feel very pampered.

Hacienda's next-door neighbor, Vista Grande Resort (, is another hotel that deservedly earns high repeat business from clients, who return year after year and sometimes several times a year. The lushly landscaped cruisy resort includes a cavernous steam room and a beautiful waterfall and wading pool. The resort has done a perfect job of refurbishing and upgrading the rooms while maintaining its mid-century modern charm. Amenities include a free continental breakfast and free lunch. The resort also gives guests a free pass during their stay to the WorkOut Gym (, a great gay gym at the north end of town.

Both Hacienda and Vista Grande are in the Warm Sands neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown Palm Springs. The area is home to the fabulous gay resorts InnDulge (, Desert Paradise (, the neighborhood's first gay resort, El Mirasol Villas (, and the neighborhood's largest resort All Worlds, which is the only one of the resorts in Warm Sands that is open for day passes (

Another cluster of three gay resorts can be found on East San Lorenzo Road, east of Warm Sands. The resorts are all first rate: Triangle Inn (, Tortuga del Sol (, and Santiago ( The fourth gay resort on San Lorenzo Road, Escape Palm Springs, sold and closed in August.

Three other gay resorts on the north end of downtown include the expansive Canyon Club Hotel (, which is know for its big landscaped backyard with a koi pond and hedge maze. It is also open for day passes. The Bearfoot Inn ( caters to bears but draws a good cross section of gay men who enjoy the hotel and the location. Chaps Inn ( is marketed to leather/Levi and SM clientele.

The only gay resort outside of Palm Springs city limits is the aforementioned Cathedral City Boys Club ( It now includes the gay bar and restaurant, Runway. The 3.5-acre resort is open for day passes

Since the closing of Delilah's in 2007, there are no full-time lesbian bars in the Palm Springs area but the LGBT Community Center of the Desert maintains a great list of lesbian-focused events and mixers. Visit the center's website ( and click on the "Programs" tab, then click on "Women." Chill, Toucan's, and Hunters are among the city's bars that are particularly women-popular.

The Castro Street of Palm Springs is downtown on East Arenas Road, the block between Indian Canyon Drive and South Calle Encilia. The first gay bar on the block, Streetbar, opened in 1991. The block was rundown at that time with many vacant storefronts. Now it is one of the most popular business blocks in the city.

Scott Murchison is the owner of Palm Springs' newest bar, Eagle 501. Photo: Ed Walsh  

Streetbar is still on Arenas Road and always draws a crowd. Hunters is the biggest bar on the block with a main bar, dance room, and expansive patio. BlackBook bar and restaurant features upscale bar food and is the place to go for a late night meal. The piano bar Stacy's has been a welcome addition to the block for clientele who prefer a quieter venue. The video bar Quadz is undergoing an expansion that will include a patio. Quadz's neighbor, Chill, is known for its plate glass windows where you can watch the crowds on Arenas Road go by. The newest bar on the block is Eagle 501, which opened in July in place of the dive bar Score. It is already drawing a loyal crowd.

The other two gay bars in Palm Springs are Toucan's Tiki Lounge and Cabaret, which boasts Palm Springs' longest running drag show. It is on North Palm Canyon Drive, north of downtown. The other gay bar in Palm Springs, the Tool Shed, is on Sunny Dunes Road. The Levi Leather bar is infamous for its Thursday underwear night.

All the Palm Springs' LGBT nightlife used to be in Cathedral City, just south of Palm Springs. There are still four gay bars left there: The popular Barracks leather, fetish, and bear bar also has a poplar underwear night on Wednesday evening. Trunks is a friendly locals bar with a pool table, sports on multiple screens, and inexpensive drinks. Studio One 11 is a cocktail lounge with live entertainment nightly.

The newest gay bar in Cathedral City is Runway, which is part of the CCBC resort but it has a separate entrance so you don't need to be staying there to visit. As its name implies, Runway features drag shows and other live entertainment.

Palm Springs has two gay general stores: Gay Mart, on Arenas Road, and Q Trading Company on Sunny Dunes Road, a few steps from the Tool Shed. Gay Mart has an expansive gym and swimwear clothes section. Q Trading offers a wide selection of gay books as well as various sex toys and accessories. Bear Wear Etc. is on the Arenas Road strip and as its name implies, sells clothing and accessories focused on bears. Gear Leather and Fetish is similar to Bear Wear and has a large selection of underwear and gym clothes.

For more information, check out Palm Springs' official travel website at