There are distinct differences between the California desert communities of Palm Springs and Borrego Springs, but they both offer a bonanza for the visitor seeking to maximize the core qualities each so uniquely provides.
Palm Springs is a mature desert getaway that has morphed into a vibrant year-round enclave. There’s a plethora of things to do for those who must remain “connected” to the 24/7 world.
Borrego Springs, on the other hand, located roughly 90 minutes away, is much smaller, and harkens to a time when life was more laid back. It’s a good destination for those seeking a respite while relishing the value of being off the grid in order to replenish mind and body.
Both have their own unique style, and can easily be visited on the same trip.
The 2016 version of Palm Springs has certainly evolved with an assortment of lodging, gastronomy, and shopping options. My lodging choice took me to the Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, tucked just a short walk from Palm Canyon Drive, the main thoroughfare, and mere minutes from the Palm Springs International Airport.
Built in 1925, the Willows is nestled against the base of rugged Mount San Jacinto, with the Palm Springs Art Museum nearby. Built as a getaway home for William and Nella Wilde Mead, two of the most prominent citizens of Los Angeles, it was transformed in 1996 into a sumptuous boutique hotel. It has just eight rooms, all carefully restored and each specifically named. Believe it or not, I stayed in one named for Albert Einstein who, as well as other prominent folks, has stayed there.
The Willows is just a short walk to the many shops, stores, and restaurants lining Palm Canyon Drive. If you want a bit of nostalgia head to Melvyn’s Restaurant & Lounge, where Frank Sinatra had a table set aside especially for him. For those into outdoor pursuits, a 10-minute drive away is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you can get a stellar view of the Coachella Valley.
Once the tramway deposits you at the Mountain Station—elevation 8,516 feet—there’s lots to do, with two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, two documentary theatres, a gift shop, and over 50 miles of hiking trails.
Located on the southern side of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountain Range, Borrego Springs had its origins in a similar manner to Palm Springs—a desert getaway meant to refresh tired minds and bodies.
However, unlike Palm Springs, Borrego Springs doesn’t have the close proximity to a major highway such as Interstate 10, which accelerated swift travel to Palm Springs and other communities in the Coachella Valley corridor.
Borrego Springs remains true to its origins. Amazingly, there are no traffic lights in the community. With a population of just under 3,500, Borrego Springs emphasizes a close connection to Mother Nature on a few fronts, one being the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park at 600,000 acres. It surrounds the village and provides a range of outdoor activities to enjoy.
The reason for my visit to Borrego Springs was twofold. First, to attend the re-opening of the Rams Hill Golf Course, now with a Tom Fazio-designed layout. The new layout provides a beautiful showcase of the desert without the invasive clutter of homes predictably found in the Coachella Valley.
The second reason was to stay at the renovated La Casa del Zorro (house of the fox). Originally opened in 1937, La Casa del Zorro was literally an outpost far removed from daily civilization. Over the years, it has changed hands multiple times, and in 2013 a major refurbishment was completed that accentuated its authentic Southwestern motif.
The property spans 42 acres, so there’s sufficient room for privacy as well as activities for those wishing to partake. If you stay in a casita you have your own pool. The rooms are exquisitely appointed, with marble baths and wood-burning fireplaces for optimal style and comfort.
One of the main attractions in Borrego Springs is the intriguing—if a bit quirky—”sculpture garden” of 130 full-sized metal sculptures showcasing creatures that roamed the California deserts millions of years ago.
Strategically placed in fields along the roads, the sculptures include sabre-toothed tigers, wild horses, and desert turtles. They were created by California artist Ricardo Breceda and commissioned by the late Dennis Avery, a local millionaire who funded philanthropic ventures around the world.
But the most enduring element in Borrego Springs comes in the evening, when the night sky emerges. The town has been designated as a “dark-sky community”; when night falls, the countless stars and planets easily seen with the naked eye are simply enthralling.
Such nighttime splendour is a magnificent way to end any day.
New Jersey-based M. James Ward’s strong sense of wanderlust has lured him to all corners of the world. He has written about his travels for a range of publications.