The 10 best things to do in gay Palm Springs

It’s 1960s desert chic for us baby, as we settle in Palm Springs for a long weekend. But what to do and where to go?! Besides lounging it up beside the pool or steaming yourself senseless at the spa, visitors to Palm Springs can take advantage of a bunch of other glam activities, welcomed by a playful LGBT+ community that has been growing since the 1930s when the Coachella Valley served as Hollywood’s official gay retreat, just two hours in land of LA. See what all the buzz is for with our list of the best gay things to do in Palm Springs below.

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Palm Springs

Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House | Photo: David Everett Strickler

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Whether arriving alone or as a couple, Palm Springs is sure to be your playground, filled with exclusive gay resorts, parties, spas and more

Gay Palm Springs

Delightfully retro in mid-century architecture and beige décor, Palm Springs comes perfectly balanced with glittering pools and palms lit by 300 days of sunshine a year. No wonder then that the sun-seeking gays of the world find Palm Springs a hoot, with the resident LGBT community now accounting for nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. Whether arriving alone or as a couple, Palm Springs is sure to be your playground, filled with exclusive gay resorts, parties, spas and more.

Festival lovers can time their visit to join in of one of the world’s biggest lesbian parties known as The Dinah, the more masculine White Party, or, go for a good old fashioned Pride parade. Otherwise, stick by the pool sipping a sunset cocktail and wait for the party to come to you as it invariably does. Hedonism aside, however, Palm Springs also offers world-class restaurants, renowned art museums and outdoor adventures to fit all types. See our full Palm Springs travel guide for more information on what to do, or take your pick of the top attractions below…

Santiago Resort Palm Springs | Photo: Santiago Resort

Palm Springs

The Saguaro Palm Springs | Photo: David Everett Strickler

1. Palm Springs Art Scene

You’ve heard of Space X but have you heard of Desert X? Rather than space tourism, DESERT X is a biennial art exhibit that promotes contemporary artists and sculptors across Coachella Valley with installations that span from Palm Springs to Salton Sea. International and innovative, the project also intends to encourage dialogue surrounding social and political issues of the day. And if Desert X disappointed you for lack of aerospace intrigue, the Palm Springs Air Museum will satisfy with 4 hangars of vintage warplanes, aviation art and WW2 museum.

For art at any time of year, start at The Palm Springs Art Museum for its world-class collection of modern art, photography and glasswork, spread across 3 separate locations, each more magnificently designed than the last. Then there’s the Backstreet Art District which homes a tight-knit group of working studios, galleries and art stores run by a community of artists and art-focused businesses. Visit on the first Wednesday of any month for the group art walk from 5 pm-8 pm. For a more compact viewing experience, the Melissa Morgan Fine Art Gallery is the place to go in El Paseo, offering cutting-edge artworks of varied medias across 6,500 square feet. Or over in Downtown, the Elena Bulatova Fine Art Gallery presents the works of Bulatova and other well-known artists in a sleek, contemporary setting.

Palm Springs | Photo: David Mark

2. Mid-century modern architecture 

Built up in Bauhaus styles by visionary architects back in the 1950s, Palm Springs’ homes show desert modernism at its best. The mid-century builds are great places to stay while in town, allowing appreciation of clean lines and sliding glass features that intertwine indoor and outdoor spaces, but if that’s not an option, you can also see the residences up close during Modernism Week every year when guided tours allow you to nose through the best neighbourhoods. Outside of Modernism Week, travellers can also do a solo tour using the Palm Springs Modern Committee’s handy map spanning 82 locations.

More fancy architecture and possible sightings of ghost Elvis are up for grabs on the Palm Springs Celebrity Tour, a guided excursion giving insight into Palm Springs’ past as the so-called ‘Hollywood’s Playground’. Celebrities who have lived in the area include Marilyn Monroe, Nat King Cole and the king of Rock n’ Roll himself, who along with other wealthy clients commissioned a great generation of architects to build a resort city of glass, concrete and steel villas beside the San Jacinto Mountains, shimmering like a mirage in the arid desert sands. Among these architects were Californian modernists such as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Albert Frey, who, with the help of photographer Julius Schulman, shaped Southern California’s lifestyle movement of the 50s and 60s.

Photo: Don Stouder

Palm Springs

Photo: Grant Morris

3. Hiking in Palm Springs

Carry enough water and the desert is your oyster, with a total of 183 kilometres of hiking trails in Palm Springs running through both Agua Caliente Indian Reservation and Mt San Jacinto State Park. On walks in the reservation you’ll come across 4 canyons – Palm, Murray and Andreas, with Tahquitz Canyon off to the side. The ancient heritage of the Indian Canyon Palm Springs community is still impressed on the rocks here to this day, alongside century-old house pits and foundations outlining the lifestyles of native tribes on a beautiful spot of land.

If considering hiking Palm Springs’ 10,834-metre Mount San Jacinto, choose a level of difficulty to suit you, trekking within 13,000 acres of wilderness along a number of trails or straight to the range’s snow-capped peak, Southern California’s second highest. Nor does this have to be difficult as many of the trails are accessible via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway which takes trekkers over the Chino Canyon cliffs and right into the State Park in 10 minutes flat. Once disembarking at 8,515 feet, there are various trails snaking down the mountain. Start with the sharp switchbacks down Long Valley, issuing your own permit at the ranger station before marching on to Round Valley Meadow. Those with surplus energy can continue on the Wellman’s Divide which climbs to a series of sensational viewpoints before pointing onwards to San Jacinto Peak, less than 9 kilometres from the tramway station.

Indian Canyons Hike | Photo: Zach Vessels

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The Aerial Tramway transports passengers over desert, Ponderosa pine and mountain spires to the heart of Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area where some of the best hikes in Palm Springs can be found

4. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

As well as being hella useful in helping scale San Jacinto, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is worth riding simply for the view. Ascending 5,783 feet in just 10 minutes, the Aerial Tramway transports passengers over desert, Ponderosa pine and mountain spires to the heart of Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area where some of the best hikes in Palm Springs can be found. To make the $25USD ticket more than worth it, the tram cars rotate to give 360-panoramas of the valley below, before arriving at the aptly-named Mountain Station where a cocktail lounge, restaurant and observation deck await for non-trekkers. The natural history museum and documentary cinema are two more places to pass a leisurely morning, though outdoorsy types coming in winter can also consider cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In fall and spring meanwhile, overnight camping becomes the top choice, available with advance reservation.

Remember to pack an extra layer or two before boarding the tramway, as the elevation at the top makes for an extreme drop in temperature, roughly 18°C lower than the desert floor on an average day!

Photo: Ben Dutton

Tramway, Palm Springs | Photo: Jess Joyce

5. Joshua Tree National Park

All the best Palm Springs tours will include a day or night out to Joshua Tree National Park, a vast desert park once known among gold seekers and newly named as an International Dark Sky Park. Palm Springs to Joshua Tree is just a 40-minute drive into the wild, moving off-road and on to Joshua’s dirt tracks where an alien landscape takes over 800,000 acres. Seeing the park in its entirety would be a feat, but most visitors will take on one corner at a time, sighting the most famed rock formations and plant life by day and the most sensational starscapes at night. The Joshua Tree National Park Jeep Tour is one fun way to see more of the park, travelling down Jeep-only trails and clinging on for dear life.

If heading to Joshua tree from Palm Springs, note that Joshua is best seen outside of the height of summer as the land can get scorching and therefore dangerous for hikers. Instead, come in spring or fall to make the most of the countless hiking trails and rock climbing routes that cut through the park, taking a ranger-led tour to learn of the region’s two unique ecosystems, topography and history that dates back to the early Pinto Man, some 4,000-8,000 years ago.

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Roberto Nickson

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Lindsay Doyle

6. Desert adventures

As well as Joshua Tree tours, more desert adventures await amidst the Greater Palm Springs area, specifically in the Indian Canyons and San Andreas Fault area. The latter is particularly good at night to appreciate the Milky Way backgrounded by velvety black skies, something you can do with Desert Adventures tour provider. Other tours offered by these guys include the ‘Ancient Footprints’ Walking Tour of Indian Canyons and San Andreas Fault ‘Bones of the Earth’ Jeep Tour. Tours are also available within the city, showcasing Palm Springs intriguing past, including dedicated LGBT history tours.

7. Shopping Palm Springs

Splurging all the way til sundown has never been more fun than in Palm Springs, where shopping comes second nature. Palm Canyon Drive is the city’s most lively shopping district, lined with palms and a neat selection of boutique and vintage shops as well as well-known brands. For gay-centric shopping Palm Springs can also provide, with a large number of LGBTQ+ businesses based on E. Arena Road between S Indian Canyon Drive and S Calle Encilia, where you’ll be heartily welcomed by the gaybourhood’s local community.

Queertique is one such shop at 120 La Plaza, serving up queer lifestyle goods such as art, clothing, and vintage pieces created and curated by independent queer artists. Trina Turk Palm Springs is another for stylish apparel and accessories, stocking Mr Turk menswear and beachwear in the all-glass Albert Frey building uptown. Retro Mr Turk also has a stand-alone menswear store on the boulevard, closely rivelled by Division and Peepa’s, two chic contemporary stores showcasing an eclectic mix of independent branded clothing, home décor, jewellery and gifts. Thick as Thieves meanwhile is the place to go for a home décor focus, blending industrial, primitive and modern design across an international range.

Every Thursday evening shoppers are in for something special, when the Weekly Palm Springs VillageFest comes to Palm Canyon Drive from 6pm to 10pm. Traffic is stopped during this time to allow easy strolling among the hundreds of stalls and entertainment booths, hawking everything from arts and crafts to food and drink. To combine art and commerce, however, you’ve got a choice between the high fashion gurus of Elizabeth & Prince downtown in La Quinta or SHAG the store uptown, an art gallery and store dedicated to SHAG, aka Josh Agle, a fine artist and illustrator well known throughout California and Nevada for merch, prints, books and other collectables of his characteristic 70s cartoon works.

Mr Turk Palm Springs

Photo: Mr Turk

8. Spa & Wellness

After a full day of retail therapy or a bumpy Jeep ride, there’s only one way to unwind in Palm Springs and that is at one of the many impressive spa retreats both in and slightly outside the city. Though some are more remote and exclusive than others, our top choice of the best spas in Palm Springs include The Men’s Spa at La Dolce Vita Resort for its full range of treatments alongside two pools, a steam room and lounge where clothing is optional, and Estrella Spa at Avalon Palm Springs which has the added bonus of glam Regency design throughout, making guests feel that bit closer of Hollywood.

Also on the more natural side of the city’s wellness scene is a visit to a Palm Springs hot spring (actually located in the nearby town of Desert Hot Springs), handily springing up under number of independent inns and resorts. The area east of San Andreas Fault is one of the hot spots for mineral springs, all fed by warm and cold-water aquifers below the desert earth, rising sulphur-free from the ground at temperatures of up to 82°C. A fair few boutique resorts lie just west of the fault, allowing for curative vacations where spring bathing is said to improve health, metabolism and ease aches and pains. Of these resorts, the Natural Hot Mineral Water Resort has been favoured since its heyday in the 1950s, while Miracle Springs Resort and Spa and Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa Oasis both help bring relaxation to the day-trippers of Joshua Tree at the foothills of Desert Hot Springs town.

Photo: Jonathan Borba

Photo: Emiliano Vittoriosi

9. Escape Rooms Palm Springs 

Those looking to engage in something a little different while in the city can try locking themselves in one of the fun Escape Rooms Palm Springs. Choose between magic, murder or robbery themed rooms, completing a number of tasks, riddles and mind games to unlock the room before your time’s up. A great team building activity, escape rooms can also be pretty thrilling, as you find yourself getting more and more immersed in the story as the clock counts down. Find the Escape Rooms close to downtown near the tramway, with tickets at $35USD per person.

10. Palm Springs Nightlife

And finally, darkness falls and Palm Springs lights up with more opportunity, both in the starry skies and in the streets. To cater to its wealth of LGBT locals and travellers, gay Palm Springs comes filled with camp entertainment venues, playful bars and sophisticated date spots. Of the best gay bars Palm Springs has to offer, Quadz is the place for sing-along nights with an emphasis on Broadway, while the community haunt of Blackbook Bar can satisfy with gastropub fare and craft cocktails. Toolshed meanwhile is a great example of the edgier gay bars in Palm Springs, suitable for leather lovers and bikers for its go-go dancers and DJ nights attended by the ‘Palm Springs Leather Order of the Desert’ and the ‘Desert Pigs Motorcycle Association’! For something a little more relaxed, try the outdoor patio at Chill Lounge or weekly drag performances at Toucans Tiki Lounge.

If that wasn’t enough of a wild night for you, diehard party animals and stag chasers venture from Palm Springs to Las Vegas to create a gay reboot of The Hangover. The journey from Las Vegas to Palm Springs takes just 4 hours by car, though the bus takes considerably longer at around 7 hours. The stories you’ll take home however will surely make the long ride worth it!

Ace Hotel | Photo: Stephen Kent Johnson

Photo: LosMuertosCrew

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Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Jayma Leavengoodjpg

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