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16 Palm Springs Treks Out Of The Pool

By Andrew Belonsky

Before the movie stars celebrated Palm Springs's liberal sexual atmosphere in the 1950s, and before the United States Army used the Coachella Valley as an air field and staging area during World War II, the desert town was all about nature.

One of the first 19th Century Californians to settle there, in 1885, San Francisco lawyer John Guthrie McCallum, and he did so so his son, suffering from respiratory problems, could recuperate in the dry desert air. Within two decades, health tourists and dignitaries, including Vice President Charles Fairbanks,were climbing over the mountains to rest up in Palm Springs.

Although much has changed since those days, when hotels were still relatively rugged, when music festivals were acoustic and when the desert was mostly unplanted - not yet those sprawling golf courses -- but the fresh desert air and the mountains stay mostly the same, save for some ski lodges and trams.

Here, we present 16 Palm Springs activities away from the hotels and poolside cabanas and venture into the great outdoors.

To get a panoramic shot of the Coachella Valley, hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Though the ticket prices are shockingly steep ($23.95/person), there are few other ways to get such a wide view of spectacular Palm Springs. Then, after ascending about 6,000 feet, you're deposited at the top of the San Jacinto Mountains, where you can hike around 14,000 acres of natural wonder or, if you'd rather keep the trip low energy, have a bite at the Peaks Restaurant overlooking the valley.

Elsewhere on the San Jacinto Mountains, the range that borders Palm Springs to the West, you'll find Tahquitz Falls, a splendid natural oasis that puts the hotel's pool to shame. Found at the end of the Tahquitz Canyon trail, the waterfall is surrounded by desert flowers such as apricot globemallow and red-budding chuparosa. Legend has it that the Tahquitz roams the canyon, feasting on human souls, so be sure to watch your step.

Another easy hike can be found at the Cactus to the Clouds Trail about a mile outside of town, a great path for those who want to get a feel for the terrain. But for those conditioned for a really challenging trail should try the 11.8 trail that runs up Marion Mountain to see a view that pioneering naturalist John Muir called "the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth."

Just don't attempt this or any other trail in the summer. It's far too hot.

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If you're willing to drive an hour north, hit the trails in the San Bernardino Mountains. Heart Rock's 1.7 trek is an easy route for casual hikers, or a picnic up the 4.6 trail to Jamabad Point. For experienced hikers, The San Bernardino Peak via Angeles Oaks will let you get up on the range's crowning peak, San Gorgonio.

More trails can be found down south at Idyllwild, but there's also some pretty great rock climbing at Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Rock. Or, if you'd rather hit the woods on wheels, take a bike on one of the park's nine official trails. If you want to hit a national park with cultural relevance as tall as its Yucca brevifolia trees, head to Joshua Tree. We've recommended this iconic wilderness when we were in Las Vegas, but it's worth suggesting again. And the park, known for its incredible trails, will soon get even better: Congress is set to pass legislation opening up 29-miles of mountain biking paths.

Back closer to town, Palm Springs has acres of golf courses to enjoy for various fees. Even if you've never swung a club before, why not spend an afternoon chasing balls at Escena Golf Club, where 18 holes runs $30-$47/round, or, if you're looking for a truly affordable rate, at the Tahquitz Golf Resort, where you can get reduced twilight and sundown rates. You may not be able to see the ball, but you can feel around for it.

While there are a few lakes around Palm Springs, but the only one that's truly open for swimming is man-made Lake Perris, where locals and tourists looking for chlorine-free splashing have gone for decades. If swimming in open waters isn't your thing, take out a pontoon or fishing boat -- if nothing else, the sun reflecting off the water will give you a wicked tan.

Adventurous types visiting Palm Springs will definitely want to try rock climbing on the mountains' boulders, and for newcomers, get a lesson at either Uprising Rock Climbing Center or the Vertical Adventures Rock Climbing School, both of which will help you get a grip on the ins and outs of rock climbing before setting you loose on the mountain.

While the hotels keep their pools open all winter long, much of Palm Springs's action takes place on the slopes. Visitors can go cross-country skiing just off tram at the San Jacinto Mountains, or tackle the steeper slopes of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains about an hour east.

No matter which mountain you visit in the winter, though, you're sure to be greeted by a winter wonderland aided not only by the range's high altitudes, but by resort owners eager to fulfill your every need.

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