Palm Springs: A Cultural Oasis in the Desert
By Lydia Kremer
Most of the world knows Palm Springs is a sublime Southern California desert oasis where towering majestic mountains and palm trees come together in dramatic fashion offering stunning vistas. But Palm Springs is steeped in a rich cultural heritage, too.
Its past history and current social life are inextricably woven which gives visitors much to celebrate!
It may come as a surprise to know that much of Palm Springs lies within an Indian reservation. The area has been inhabited by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for centuries. The City of Palm Springs was so named by the native tribe for the city’s healing hot springs and palm oases.
Healing Ancestral Waters
The Agua Caliente’s ancestral springs are actually located in the heart of downtown where the famous Spa Hotel once stood since the mid-1950s. The site included a hotel and a 30,000-square-foot spa and bathhouse where the original hot springs still flow today.
A new cultural center is set to open on that original 5.8 acre site in 2020 which will include a new Agua Caliente Spa and Bathhouse. The Spa includes approximately 40,000 square feet for the public to luxuriate in the ancient healing waters. The new Spa will feature treatments rooms, men and women’s bathhouses, a tranquility garden, a salon, fitness center and outdoor hot mineral pools.
The water from the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Springs is estimated to be at least 12,000 years old and contains mineral properties that are unique in the world. Keeping its tradition for giving to the community, the Tribe has shared the healing water with visitors for more than 100 years. This new Spa will be the fifth bathhouse or spa at the site, with the first one operating in the late 1880s.
Also the new Cultural Center will include a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, a Gathering Plaza, gardens and an "Oasis Trail." The new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum will celebrate and educate the public on the history and traditions of the Agua Caliente people. The new Museum will include approximately 48,000-square-feet of space to exhibit collections in a main gallery, a changing gallery and an art gallery. The new Museum, a repository for cultural artifacts, stories and history, will also include an education center and garden.
The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum has the distinction of being affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Until 2020, visitors can visit the existing Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, an intimate space at The Village Green, which will continue to offer the public changing exhibitions of rare archives, photographs, and historical artifacts.
You’ll also find a variety of cultural outdoor recreation in Palm Springs to round out your visit. A few minutes from downtown on another part of the Agua Caliente tribal reservation is one of the historical and recreational gems in the desert – Indian Canyons. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Indian Canyons are comprised of four distinct canyons. While they are a culturally sensitive environment, the canyons are open to the public for wonderful outdoor recreation.
Don’t pass up a chance to discover Indian Canyons - they include Murray Canyon, Andreas Canyon, Tahquitz Canyon with a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, and Palm Canyon, the world’s largest fan palm oasis – all of which offer a myriad of hiking trails to explore. At Tahquitz Canyon Visitors Center you can watch a short film before you set out on your hike. At Palm Canyon, the Trading Post offers refreshments, maps, as well as books, pottery and jewelry.
The Indian Canyons are sacred land for the Agua Caliente people and have valuable historical significance for them. Visitors are cautioned to walk lightly on the land and respect the sensitive nature of the environment that contains ancient rock art and grinding stones.
Dynamic Cultural Arts
Palm Springs’ multi-dimensional cultural offerings extend to the arts and live performances. The Palm Springs Art Museum may be another surprise. Visitors are often astonished to discover our small town has a world-class museum!
Founded in 1938, the same year that the City of Palm Springs was incorporated, the Palm Springs Art Museum has 150,000 square-feet of exhibition space, two outdoor sculpture gardens, and a café.
The Museum features a sophisticated collection of art that rivals many urban metropolitan museums, and includes works from Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Antony Gormley and Ansel Adams. Spread over the 150,000 square feet, the museum boasts major collections of modern and contemporary art, glass, photography, architecture and design and Native American and Western art.
The downtown location of the Palm Springs Art Museum is the umbrella for two other museum facilities -- the Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion located on Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs which features exhibitions and programming that explore the rich topics of architecture and design.
The Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, an 8,400 square foot, Silver LEED-certified building named The Galen, presents rotating exhibitions and special collections. The Galen also features the four-acre Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden. Both The Galen and the Architecture and Design Center offer free admission to the public.
The surprise doesn’t end there! The Palm Springs Art Museum also boasts the state-of-the-art Annenberg Theater, a 430-seat theatre designed by the pre-eminent Arthur Elrod and has Walter and Leonore Annenberg as its namesake.
Each season the Annenberg Theater brings audiences a dynamic combination of visual and performing arts by internationally-known performers and concert artists in music, dance, and theater as well as additional programming of lectures, music, community events, and symposia.
Palm Springs also offers a bounty of other live theater productions by several local theater groups who produce stellar theater productions throughout the season.