My mom makes her winter home near Palm Springs, and my family’s winter home is snowy Colorado, so we often find ourselves vacationing in California regularly to escape from the cold, typically over Thanksgiving, Christmas, or my kids’ spring break in March. My children are 11 and 13 now, but since they were ages 3 and 5 we’ve explored the area’s attractions, both man-made and natural, finding activities the entire family—even Grammie—can enjoy.

Here are my picks for things to do in and around Palm Springs for families with preschoolers to pre-teens.

The Living Desert

When my son was about 4 and in his “Thomas the Train” phase, he could have spent an entire day gazing at the elaborate model-train displays at Palm Desert’s The Living Desert, a zoo and botanical gardens. Forget the animals, he just wanted to watch those trains pass through scale models of an old California logging town, Mount Rushmore, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. When we could lure him away from the outdoor train exhibit, other favorite sights here included the giraffe enclosure and the reptile show. This is a relatively small attraction (in comparison to San Diego’s Wild Animal Park); if you don’t stop to admire the flora in the various gardens (my children were just into the trains and the animals), you easily can cover the zoo in half a day.

Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert

Children between the ages of 3 and 8 will love this colorful, interactive museum in Rancho Mirage. Hands-on fun includes dressing up in Grandma’s Attic, painting a real Volkswagen bug, uncovering artifacts in an “archaeological dig,” and finding your way out of a rope maze. If you’re visiting Palm Springs in the summer months, I’d say the air-conditioned Children’s Discover Museum of the Desert would be a great way to spend a few hours escaping the extreme heat.

Viewfinder Tip: Check the weather at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway before you go, as the temperature at the top is often much colder than the valley floor below. 

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

For many children, the journey to the destination often is as entertaining as the destination itself. This is the case with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you board the world’s largest rotating tram car for a 2.5-mile, 10-minute ride up to forested wilderness—so close and yet so far from the dry, dusty desert below. When we visited at the end of March, there was still snow at the top, but not quite enough for good sledding or cross-country skiing. In the summer, take a guided nature walk at the top of the tram, or explore more than 54 miles of hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park.

Palm Springs Air Museum

I admit, I have not seen this attraction in person. My mom, the ever-patient grandma, took my children, probably when they were 4 and 6, to see the World War II planes at the Palm Springs Air Museum. (I’m pretty sure I opted to spend the day at her country club fitness center, followed by a stint in the spa.) When she returned, she reported the kids were happy to look at the colorful planes on display outside and in a large hangar; they were even happier to sit in some of the planes, especially my son, who, again, was into all “things that go.” Military veterans and aviation buffs would get even more out of seeing the well-preserved aircraft and chatting with knowledgeable volunteers who share a love of planes. 


Kids and grandma before our desert hike

Joshua Tree National Park

When my children were 8 and 10, we introduced them to Joshua Tree National Park, a good hour’s drive from Palm Springs. The goals: To admire the park’s funky-looking fuzzy trees, and to attempt a family hike that suited everyone, including their sixty-something-year-old grandma. At the visitors center, our first stop, rangers highly recommended the 49 Palms Oasis Trail, which was a moderately difficult, 1.5-mile out-and-back (so three miles round trip) over rocky terrain. Our reward at the out-and-back mark was a nifty stand of palm trees (indeed an oasis) that provided shade while we ate our lunch before the return trek across ridges and among lots of barrel cacti. We’re avid hikers, but that hike remains one of my all-time favorites, since it was a fairly difficult trail for some in our group, but we all did it together.

How do you like to spend your time in and around Palm Springs?