I woke to the sound of the wind rustling the branches of the skinny palm trees outside. Through the wooden blinds, I peered out at the courtyard of the apartment complex. The pool water rippled gently. The trees swayed; the branches blurred together like a Lorax hairdo. “Don’t get blown away out there,” a cashier said to me later as I bought a bottle of water for a hike.
It was my second trip to the Coachella Valley area of California. After a retreat in nearby Joshua Tree, I had just under two days to explore some of the Valley’s desert towns and landscapes. Much of the time would focus on hikes and architecture around Palm Springs (details at end of post). The mineral waters of Desert Hot Springs would be the dessert of the trip, a long laze in hot waters that required nothing for me to do.
Hot springs are found throughout California, but most are in the southern part of the state, in both natural and private settings. In Desert Hot Springs, the waters—said to be healing for pain and helpful for circulation—are accessible at more than a dozen spas and hotels that range from the no-frills to the luxurious.
Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel had a midcentury modern design and signed black-and-white photos of celebrities like Lucille Ball hanging on the wall behind the front desk. The spa fell into the no-frills category, with rows of rusting metal lockers in the changing room. But it was clean, with a friendly staff. And at $7 to use the pools for the day, it suited the budget.
The manager of the spa took me to the courtyard to explain the so-called “three-dip method,” the routine for optimal healing in the mineral waters. First, sit in the hottest of the eight pools for five minutes. Then cool off. Get back into the hot spa again and follow that with a swim in the larger pool for exercise and another cooling off period. Return to the hot spa again for five minutes more, and then relax out of the pool while you’re still warm.
Relaxing out of the pools in 40-50 mile per hour winds seemed a bit optimistic. Remembering the instructions likewise seemed optimistic, but I gave it a try, starting in the hottest waters, where a young couple sat kissing on the steps and a group of older Japanese men and women snapped photos of themselves. One of the Japanese women wore a sapphire blue bathing suit, large purple-framed sunglasses and a white cloth tied on her head. She stood in the pool bouncing gently up and down on her toes with a smile.
As the afternoon wore into evening, the winds gathered speed. An empty beer can skittered past on the pavement. A lone flip-flop took a plunge into one of the pools.
A fellow bather said the weather was a once-a-year phenomenon. News reports later said gusts in the area would reach 65-75 mph.
“One time I was in Joshua Tree,” one man shared as he sat in the water. “The wind was so strong I had to sit up in my tent and hold it up the entire night.” Another man joined in. “In ’84, I was in Dominica,” he said, describing relentless rains on the lush island.
I tucked into a cabana for a massage to the sounds of Mexican love songs on the radio. For the final few minutes, the therapist focused on my head and shoulders, massaging my scalp with what I later realized were oiled hands. My hair was fixed in a tousle as I headed back to the hottest pool for one last soak.
By now, the sun had begun to set. The mountains and palm trees reflected in the brown glass of the cabanas. I climbed in, plopped down on a bench and tipped my head back to absorb the last sun of the day, surprised at how relaxed I felt in the gusting winds. The weather was no bother in the hot water. The trick would be getting out again.
Trip Notes for DHS and Palm Springs
I went for the lowest cost option of the various spas in Desert Hot Springs. This site includes a list of other hotels and spas in the area. Note that only some of the spas are open to day guests. At the others, you need to be staying at the hotel to use the pools.
I took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ($25.95) up to the San Jacinto Mountains for two short hikes. The tramway lets you out at an elevation of 8,516 feet (a jacket helps!), where you are surrounded by pine trees, including the butterscotch-scented Jeffrey pine.
From there, I walked both the Round Valley Loop (4 miles) and the Desert View Trail (2 miles). The 2-mile walk offers beautiful views of the Coachella Valley and San Jacinto Mountains. The 4-mile trek had a roughly 800-foot elevation gain and included views of various peaks.
On my second day, I walked the easy 2-mile Tahquitz Canyon Loop Trail just outside downtown Palm Springs, which has a waterfall at the end and some great spots to sit for city and mountain views. Admission is $12.50 for adults. It’s best to go early to avoid the hottest sun of the day.
Palm Springs is known for its excellent examples of midcentury modern homes that blend beautifully with the desert surroundings. You can take a tour to learn more (as I want to next time) or simply drive yourself along the backstreets. For those especially interested in this style, you may want to consider visiting during Modernism Week.
My top picks were Maracas in downtown Palm Springs for delicious chicken fajitas ($15.95) and the family-run Thai Palms restaurant in Desert Hot Springs for mango yellow curry with chicken and shrimp ($13.95).