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The approach is stunning: Spectacular rock formations reveal themselves around every turn on the steep drive up, in brilliant relief against a dark blue sky. Then a thick stand of California fan palms, like nothing you've ever seen--their shaggy beards hang all the way to the ground. They're a little surreal, like a council of elephants conferring in the desert.
This is Indian Canyons, a preserve that belongs to the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, and it's one of the best things about Palm Springs.
Yes, we come to the desert to decompress at midcentury boutique hotels with no shortage of spa treatments and mojitos. We love to shop and dine and lounge in the pool and play tennis. But Palm Springs is also a great place to bring the kids, and its hiking trails are as compelling for them as for adults.
At the end of South Palm Canyon Drive you'll find Indian Canyons' entrance. Straight ahead, up in the mountains, is Palm Canyon, with an Indian trading post and a thick oasis that marks the head of a network of trails that wind along cool streams up through rocky hills scattered with a dazzling array of wildflowers in the spring. In those hills are hikes for almost every age and skill level.
With little kids you won't range too far from the several thrilling oases. They'll collect pointed rocks (real arrowheads!) and give chase when whiptail lizard families, soaking up the early-morning sun, scatter off the trails.
With older kids--say, at least 11 or 12--who love to scramble over rocks, consider Murray Canyon. The trail meanders over rocky fields of wildflowers, then follows a cold stream up the mountain to a waterfall. It's a strenuous four-mile round trip, with lots of crossing back and forth over the stream (yes, you'll get your feet wet). Wear bathing suits under the hiking duds because at the top there's an ice-cold pristine pool under the waterfall.
Go early in the morning and you can reward yourselves with brunch on the patio at Norma's, the cafe at the Parker Palm Springs hotel. It's stylish and fun, and has something for everyone: blueberry pancakes the size of flying saucers, sandwiches, ribs--and even the "zillion dollar lobster frittata" with Sevruga caviar. Or stop by Tyler's, right in town, for one of the best burgers in Southern California.
Save a day for the Living Desert, a zoo in Palm Desert that preserves about 1,000 acres of Colorado Desert habitat (that's Palm Springs' desert; the Mojave is to the north). Small children will love the elaborate model train display; older kids will appreciate the interpretive nature trail that climbs up toward the Santa Rosa Mountains, with an impressive view of the San Andreas fault line. On the road back to Palm Springs, stop by Big League Dreams Sports Park in Cathedral City, which features scaled-down versions of five ballparks, including Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field, along with plenty of batting cages so everyone can hit a few balls.
Where you stay sets the tone for your getaway. Some boutique hotels don't cater to families, with words like "Predominantly Adult Clientele" on their websites. But grown-ups craving a hint of 1940s glamour will find their kids welcome at Mojave Resort, a quiet boutique motel in Palm Desert. Its 24 rooms, done in orange and ocher, some with kitchenettes, circle an inviting pool. It's a short walk to the tony El Paseo shopping district. When the kids are tired of window shopping, hop on one of the yellow courtesy carts plying the street--they'll think it's a ride.
Or try Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa. There, kids will love Splashtopia, which boasts almost 2 acres of family-friendly activities, including a sandy beach, water-play zones and a river that circles two 100-foot water slides.
For a dress-up dinner, check out Villa Abbate, an over-the-top Sicilian restaurant with some excellent dishes--which aren't easy to find in the desert. Try the pollo limone, simply roasted chicken with lemon and garlic, or the terrific veal chop. Abbate also happens to make a superb marinara sauce; over pasta, it's a crowd-pleaser.--
WHERE TO STAY
Mojave Resort, 73721 Shadow Mountain Drive, Palm Desert; (760) 346-6121, www.resortmojave.com. Weekends through May 31, a room with two queen beds is $199 per night, breakfast included. Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, 41-000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; (760) 836-3040, www.rancholaspalmas.com. Double rooms start at $200 on weekends. Book your room close to Splashtopia.
WHERE TO EAT
Tyler's Burgers, 149 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 325-2990. Fabulous burgers, potato salad and coleslaw. Burgers start at $6; lunch only; cash only; closed Sunday. Sherman's Deli & Bakery, 73-161 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert; (760) 568-1350. Don't miss the matzo brei. Sandwiches start at about $8. Norma's, 4200 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 770-5000. Pancakes, omelettes, sandwiches, cocktails and more. Brunch dishes $12 to $1,000 (for the lobster frittata with Sevruga caviar). Villa Abbate, 69820 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; (760) 321-6835, www.villaabbate.net; Sicilian specialties such as pescatore fritto, linguini marinara and pollo limone. Pasta $17 to $26; main courses $25 to $40.
TO LEARN MORE
Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism; (760) 778-8418, www.palm-springs.org.