Californians long ago figured out that the antidote to congested big-city living in this part of the country is a trip into the desert. Southern California has plenty of deserts to choose from but maybe no place is more popular than the Coachella Valley - better known as Greater Palm Springs because it comprises several cities adjacent to the grand-daddy of all California desert vacation spots, Palm Springs.
The cities of this valley have made good use of irrigation water piped in to transform the harsh desert environment into a cornucopia of luxury resorts, golf courses - some 120 at last count - upscale shopping boulevards and palm trees as far as the eye can see. The fertile green lawns are carefully overseen by an army of landscapers and a drive through the neighborhoods of places like Palm Desert and Indian Wells is a window into the "good life" enjoyed by well-to-do retirees as well as upwardly mobile professionals.
Yet never far away from these meticulously maintained homes and estates is the raw desert - a place where you can finally put space between yourself and other people, and enjoy what passes for a back-to-nature experience, even though minutes later you'll most likely be luxuriating in modern, upscale accommodations designed to pamper you from head to toe.
On our most recent trip to the desert we based ourselves a few miles east of Palm Springs in Indio, a comfortable neighborhood, but perhaps less extravagant than some other parts of the valley. Out on the eastern edge of the Coechella Valley cities, this area is now undergoing a major transformation with several new housing developments that feature modern, spacious homes set alongside man-made lagoons and canals, all five minutes from the freeway. It is in this same area that a major new resort complex - the Resort at Indio - was built just in the last few years.
This group of condo-style buildings includes 453 units altogether, built around what almost looks like a water theme park full of swimming pools, whirlpool spas, giant sprinklers for the kids, ponds, canals and even a man-made river to float down on a resort-provided inner-tube. There are a couple of huge swimming pools - the largest being almost 5,000 square feet. The resort also includes tennis courts, a basketball court, a recreation center with pool, ping-pong and other games, and a modern workout gym. Golfers need go no farther than the Terra Lago golf course adjacent to the resort.
Given the recreational opportunities, it's not surprising that the Resort at Indio is especially popular with families. During our visit on an unseasonably warm spring weekend, family groups large and small were taking full advantage of the pools and other facilities. With hundreds of deck chairs and plenty of space to accommodate them, families were spending hours poolside. Come mealtime, many would walk the short distance back to their condo units and fire up the barbecues available on their decks and patios.
As you might expect, the accommodations are really vacation rentals, not hotel rooms - each unit comes with a complete kitchen, multiple bedrooms, living and dining room areas. Since the resort is almost brand-new, everything-s in top shape with the latest appliances, colors and d'cor.
As tempting as it was to just laze by the pool all weekend, we did want to get out and experience the desert. With daytime temperatures reaching mid-90's, we headed out early in the morning when temps were more in the mid-70's to mid-80's. Our objective was the Pinkham Canyon Trail, within the Joshua Tree National Park, only a 20-minute drive from the resort. Our desert activity: geocaching.
For those who are not yet enlightened, geocaching is a relatively new activity in which you use your hand-held GPS unit to find "caches" or boxes of trinkets hidden in various locations. There can be caches in remote areas, or in developed areas, or even in amusement parks such as Legoland near San Diego. What it really comes down to is a kind of Easter Egg hunt for both kids and adults and, from what we've discovered, it is great family activity.
Since we have a new Garmin GPS, there is software that comes with the unit that interfaces with a major website - www.geocaching.com - to make finding these caches relatively easy. Prior to heading out to the Pinkham Canyon Trail, we went to the website and found a dozen or so caches that were located in that particular area. The Garmin software enabled us to download the longitude and latitude of those caches into our GPS so that we could see where they were on our GPS map. Once we got in the general area of the caches, we just let our GPS lead us right to the locations of the caches.
Some caches are easy to find in easy terrain; others can be quite challenging and located in terrain that is hard to traverse. Because we knew the desert heat would gradually cut our caching adventure short, we chose the easiest of all options - driving the 4-wheel-drive trail and stopping to find caches along the way. We eventually found about two-thirds of them and, of course, our grade-school-aged kids were thrilled with each find - even though nothing of real value was to be found. The idea is to take a trinket and leave a trinket of your own; it's "treasure" only in the sense that you'll treasure this activity with your kids. And it gave us the illusion, anyway, we had gone "into the wild."
Another 15 miles east from the Pinkham Canyon Trial on Interstate 10 there is a great place to see some military history first-hand: the General Patton Memorial Museum at Chiriaco Summit. The museum is a testament to General George Patton, one of the military heroes of World War II, and also to his specific involvement with creating the Desert Training Center, a vast desert landscape set aside for tank training when U.S. troops needed to prepare for warfare in North Africa. While Patton only ran the center for four months when it opened in 1942, he was instrumental in choosing the site where it was located.
The museum tells the story of the training center, but it also is a collection of artifacts from several wars including World War II. It's not in a fancy building and doesn't compare, for example, with the World War II Museum in New Orleans, but it is a fascinating group of exhibits that brings visitors closer to the realities of war. Through its collection of photos and documents, the museum offers a historical account of Patton and his contributions to the U.S. military. There is a large assortment of items actually used in war, from German Lugar pistols to machine guns to gas masks to uniforms and gear worn by our troops in several past wars.
It's as if someone put up a sign that said "Bring us all of your war memorabilia and leave it here."
Outside the museum are several tanks and other Army vehicles that help visitors envision what tank warfare must have been like in World War II. And it was easy to imagine hundreds of these tanks doing mock battle in these miles and miles of open desert a little more than a half-hour away from today's glitzy Palm Springs.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Indio is located in the Coachella Valley, about 20 miles east of Palm Springs. The Resort at Indio is at the northern edge of the valley abutting the desert foothills and adjacent to the Terra Lago golf course.
WHAT: The Resort at Indio is a condo-style resort in which visitors can reserve condos much as they would reserve a hotel room. During our visit there were no restaurants on property, but a deli and an on-site Domino's Pizza were scheduled to open in late spring 2008.
WHEN: Prime time of the year is late fall, winter and early spring because daytime temperatures are moderate during those periods. However, we've enjoyed Palm Springs even in hot temperatures by planning early morning outings and spending a lot of time in the swimming pool. Rates are substantially lower in summer.
WHY: The desert is a great place to escape civilization and it's where you can always count on sunshine.
HOW: For more information on the Resort at Indio, phone 800-867-2095 or visit www.greatpricedcondos.com/id/. For more information on the Patton Museum, phone 760-227-3483 or go to www.generalpattonmuseum.com.
PHOTO CAPTIONS, from top: Lazy River at Resort at Indio; resort is built around pools, hot tubs, waterspouts and even a man-made river; finding a geocache in the desert; tank on display at Patton Museum
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
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