Families Don't Get Gjust Deserts in Palm Springs

Article excerpt

IF YOU DON'T enjoy golf, wallowing in mud baths, or Bob Hope's humor, is there any reason to visit California's most famous desert oasis?

Absolutely. Especially if you've got kids in tow and your idea of fun runs to hiking, immersing yourself in a completely different ecology and learning a little about the richest Indian tribe in North America.

Although Palm Springs earned its reputation as a playground for Hollywood stars, we discovered much to recommend it as a destination for ordinary families during a recent mini vacation there.

We had just a few objectives during our three-day visit:

To build in plenty of swimming time for our two sons, ages 7 and 9, who, like us, were tired of St. Louis' winter weather.

To avoid eating every meal at a fast food restaurant.

To spend as much time as possible exploring the desert.

To relax.

The swimming part was easy. We stayed at one of the area's half-dozen destination resorts, the Westin Mission Hills Resort, in nearby Rancho Mirage. We chose this resort with the kids' priorities in mind; its large heated pool has a serpentine water slide. Over three days, the kids hurtled down at least 100 times each. (Their mother tried it, too, and laughed harder than she has in years.)

Relaxing wasn't difficult, either. The air in the desert seems to have magical properties (Angelinos, in fact, come here to escape the smog). Lying on a chaise longue overlooking an emerald green golf course and the purplish Santa Rosa Mountains made the winter doldrums just melt away.

As for eating, we were successful beyond our dreams. Palm Springs' main street, Palm Canyon Drive, is lined with all sorts of restaurants, many with patios. Our children ate Japanese, Mexican and New Mexican food without complaint.

But the most rewarding part of our stay was the time we spent outside.

I confess to having been a snob about Palm Springs before I visited. I thought of it as one big golf course (actually, there are more than 80). With streets named after people like Dinah Shore, Fred Waring and Frank Sinatra, and as many plastic surgeons as pediatricians in the phone book, I couldn't imagine feeling comfortable there.

I had no idea I'd fall in love with the scenery.

It's hard to find words to describe the natural beauty of the area. Just a few hundred yards from Palm Canyon Drive, the 10,000-feet-plus peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains rise up from the desert floor. The Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the southeast complete the backdrop.

We spent most of a day hiking in one of the canyons that drain the San Jacinto foothills. They're called the Indian Canyons because they're on the reservation of the Agua Caliente Cahulla Indians. The tribe's ancestors settled the area centuries ago because of its abundant water and bountiful plant and animal life. Today, the tribe owns 42 percent of the prosperous Coachella Valley, including the Spa Hotel, where you can take a mud bath, and several casinos.

We hiked Palm Canyon, the most popular of the three canyons that are open to the public. Palm Canyon is home to the largest stand of neo Washingtonia fillifera palms in the world - 3,300 of them. …