To-Do List: Discover the Kid-Friendly Charms of Palm Springs

I used to consider Palm Springs a grown-up getaway. But when I visited with my preschooler, we discovered pint-sized fun all over the desert.

Full disclosure: When my husband’s family told me they were moving to Palm Springs, I wasn’t happy. As a parent, I thought the desert city sounded about as kid-friendly as those “you break it, you buy it” signs in fancy stores. I pictured Frank Sinatra, mid-century modern architecture, gated golf courses and swanky restaurants — in other words, few options for fun with my young son. But I’m happy to say that I was wrong. In fact, over the years, we’ve found plenty to do in Palm Springs with kids.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

For a ride as exhilarating as any amusement park — but easy enough for even the youngest family member — head to this rotating tramway, the largest in the world. The 8,000-foot ascent traverses 2.5 miles of rocky Chino Canyon cliffs to arrive at the top of San Jacinto Mountain National Park. Not only does the 10-minute journey offer amazing views, it’s also a respite from the desert heat. Temperatures are often 30 to 40 degrees cooler at the summit than on the ground in Palm Springs (so bring a jacket — really!).

When my son was in grade school, we would ride the tram to the top, get a snack and take in the views. Now that he’s older, we try different hiking trails each time. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot snow on the mountaintop — a true marvel after starting the day swimming in the desert heat.

Courtesy of The Living Desert Zoo
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

As animal lovers, my family was delighted to discover this expansive desert zoo. It’s home to wildlife that thrives in dry, hot conditions (think camels and African birds and mammals), as well as cactus and other desert plants. Our favorite activity is feeding the giraffes; when they wrap their long tongues around our lettuce offerings and gently tug them into their mouths, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Courtesy of Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert
Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert

When my son was a toddler, we loved this interactive indoor playground. The Today I Want to Be exhibit was always a fun time, especially its miniature supermarket and pizza parlor. And visiting the Let’s Get Physical area — with an indoor climbing wall, pulley system and rope maze — was a great way to let off steam while escaping from the desert heat.

You’ll even find entertainment for the grownups in the group. The Brain Buster Road tables features perplexing brain teasers that completely captivated us. During one visit, I excelled at the creativity-testing backward maze and bested the other adults in our family. Score!

Courtesy of Sherman’s Deli & Bakery
Kid-Friendly Eats

Delicious doesn’t have to mean stuffy in Palm Springs. One of top quick-bite spots is Tyler’s Burgers for fresh-made sliders, awesome fries and creamy shakes. Sherman’s Deli & Bakery, another favorite, offers New York-style corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, chicken soup and fizzy chocolate egg creams, along with amazing cakes and pies for dessert.

And no trip to Southern California is complete without a meal at an amazing Mexican restaurant. Las Casuelas Terraza is our go-to for Cal Mex favorites such as creamy guacamole, cheesy quesadillas and savory tacos.

Courtesy of Palm Springs Air Museum
Palm Springs Air Museum

Although attractions may often be advertised as “fun for the whole family,” it can be challenging to actually find something that engages children at the same level as adults. But the Palm Springs Air Museum and its unique collection of fighter planes really does have something for everyone. Housed in a massive hangar space near the Palm Springs Airport, it contains real airplanes that swooped through the skies during the Korean, Vietnam and both World Wars.

Since almost all the planes are in flyable condition, you can walk through cockpits and explore interiors. Docents include veterans who flew in many of the skirmishes these planes took part in, and their stories are fascinating. Little kids can pretend to fly a model plane, and big kids can use computer software to try simulated flight. Both options have equally captivated my son over the past decade.

Elsewhere in Coachella Valley

Over the years, we’ve enjoyed branching out and exploring the region’s gorgeous landscapes. We love driving through Joshua Tree National Park’s Seussian-like landscape and traversing the easy hiking paths in Indian Canyons. We’ve also discovered delicious date shakes and unique activities such as watching polo (now a family favorite). And one of our most memorable day trips was touring the deep crevices of the San Andreas Fault.

Melissa K. is a travel writer living in New Jersey.