Palm Springs is a fabulous adult playground, with great restaurants, golf, tennis and pools a plenty, but I’m nearly always there with my nine year-old son who this year led me to believe he might actually “die” from boredom. In search of something new, we discovered The Living Desert. Turns out, there’s plenty to do in Palm Springs with kids – you just have to know where to look.
Located in Palm Desert, an easy drive from any of the desert communities, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is much more than just a zoo… although, that’s how I sold it to my son. More than you do in big city zoos, you feel like you’re on a hike where you might stumble upon wild life. You’re winding around beautiful desert paths that are cultivated in such a way that they are exhibits of Sonoron desert life unto themselves. Then you find yourself face to face with animals that often feel closer and less caged than they do in LA for example. You feel you might be able to touch them. And sometimes you can. We rode a camel, fed a giraffe (they have spectacular tongues) and hit the petting zoo, which totally satisfied the need to freely interact with animals.
And while there were no elephants or monkeys… I discovered I had never before seen a badger, or a swift fox. There was a nice mix of big and small animals and both my son, and my niece of the same age who joined us, had a really great time. Neither complained of not seeing a rhino and were instead delighted by snakes and bob cats, wolves, zebras and boars. You can ride a camel, see a cheetah (worth the price of admission), and even tour a facility where animals are rehabilitated.
The aviaries and gardens were also particularly good. My son chased a couple ducks and you felt relaxed and able to hang with the birds. They also enjoyed a carousal ride and a play ground called Gecko Gulch which had unique play structures. But the high light of the non-animal exhibits had to be the train. There was an enormous electric model train (a G-Scale) that you encounter right at the beginning of the park that’s as good a one as any I’ve ever seen.
Perhaps the thing I liked best about our adventure, was I didn’t feel the constant assault of consumerism I usually do at the zoo. There wasn’t caramel popcorn, coke, candy and zoo toys being offered every three feet. There were by my count only two restaurants and two souvenirs shops. One at the entrance/exit and one mid-journey where we stopped and had a peaceful lunch followed by one small toy per child.
The Living Desert was created in 1970 by locals who wanted to preserve the natural environment in the face of a growing desert metropolis. Fortunately, they made superb early hires and the woman who first came on as a naturalist stayed on for nearly forty years and became the institution’s CEO. Because it’s attuned to the pace of desert life, The Living Desert is a wonderful place to visit with grandparents, who will appreciate a tram that circles the park. Reasonably priced, fun twists and turns, animal interactions, botanical gardens and little bits of sneaky education about wild life and habitats too boot… we recommend it as a winter adventure.
The Living Desert: 47900 Portola Ave Palm Desert, CA 92260 (760) 346-5694
Click here for a list of Behind the Scenes animal experiences – which cost more money (they support the zoo!) but offer a more in-depth and special experience on a special tram with zoo personnel.
Families with older kids can go on hikes into the desert on one of three trails on the property. Click for details.