Drive Time: About 2 hours from LA or OC.
Weather: Can be very cold and breezy in the winter.
Stay: Omni Rancho Las Palmas Hotel & Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage (Disclosure: We received a media rate for staying at the hotel, but were not required to cover it in any way. I’m including because I honestly think it was an exceedingly nice place for families to stay.)
Eat: Since this was our first trip and a quick trip, we didn’t have all the hot spots picked out. That being said, we had some really yummy food. We had a late dinner at Islands Restaurant right on Highway 111 a couple blocks from our hotel. bluEmber is the main restaurant at the hotel, but we never had a chance to eat there. The Palms Cafe on the patio at the hotel has friendly service and a great breakfast with coffee options. We had lunch at Shields Date Gardens “Cafe at Shields” before leaving town. Also tons of restaurants right across the street from the hotel at The River at Rancho Mirage shopping center.
Play: Gecko Gulch Playground and the carousel at the Living Desert Zoo, pools and Splashtopia at the hotel (if it’s warm enough and you have time), Civic Center Park is near the hotel, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert.
Nature: Walk the Rancho Las Palmas Hotel grounds to spot birds, The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – to see the snow, and maybe stop at the Whitewater Preserve off I-10 on your way home.
PM: We left Orange County when the kids got out of school at 3:30pm on the Friday before winter break. Horrible time for traffic, but we were determined to take an overnight trip to the desert! We went the LONG way around because we knew traffic would be a nightmare on the 91 and the 10. So we traveled south to get on the 76 in Oceanside and traveled over the mountains on the 74 to come in to a spectacular nighttime view of the desert. However, I wouldn’t really recommend this route because it was an unfamiliar two lane highway in the dark. Stick to Interstate 10. It’s much quicker!
We arrived around 6:30pm and went straight to The Living Desert Zoo for their holiday WildLights display. Super fun! It was so nice to get out of the car and stretch!
We didn’t check into the hotel until after 8pm and then went back out for an unusually late meal at Islands Restaurant. Our room was spacious with a sliding door out onto a hill with the golf course below. Our building was only 2 stories.
We had a room with 2 beds.
It also had a ceiling fan, big closet and dresser to stow our gear, and a couple of sitting places for parents when the kids were still sleeping.
If I could make any improvements to the room, it would be changing the doors on the bathroom and adding a refrigerator and microwave. The doors were slatted so everyone in the room can hear the shower running – it’s nice when we can use “the facilities” early in the morning (or later at night) without disturbing the kids. Also, we had leftovers from the restaurant that we couldn’t store because the refrigerator was just an honor bar with no cooling.
AM: The kids wanted to sleep in a little and relax in the morning which gave me a chance to walk the grounds in the early morning hours while my husband stayed with the kids.
It was breathtakingly beautiful. Remember, I had no idea where we were since we arrived in the dark! There were snow-capped mountains and palm trees all around.
I was able to get some great photos of egrets, night herons, and to spot cormorants nesting in a tree on the golf course.
The lobby was beautifully decorated and there were a couple of fire pits going outside where I could have lounged around and sipped coffee.
Our biggest challenge this day was deciding what to do! A good friend recommended the tried-and-true Shields Date Garden for date shakes — so we knew we were going there for lunch. But should we head to the Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs to go see the snow?
We walked over to The Palms Cafe to sit by the fire and discuss as a family — over breakfast. We saw at least two other families with their Starbuck’s cups in hand. What? The Palms Cafe was so much better! The servers in the Palms Cafe were so nice and made us the BEST breakfast burritos. You can pick what you want inside. The grown-ups got ours with eggs, potatoes, grilled onions, and grilled vegetables. The kids wanted a simple egg, cheese, potato and sausage which they also shared. Plenty of food!
We decided to go back to The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens to see what it looked like in the daytime. Such a good choice for us! We got a membership and I’m sure we’ll be back again many times this year. Surprisingly, it’s an especially good destination for TRAIN lovers! You can read about it in our post.
PM: Off to Shields where we had a lovely late lunch on the patio Cafe at Shields with just incredibly fresh salads and inspired food – and, of course, a date shake to go.
We wanted to do more and wished we’d stayed a 2nd night to see and do more. But, alas, we only had about 12 hours at the hotel and a 26 hour trip total. We saw so much! We made it home in 2 hours on I-10 during daylight hours to arrive just as the sun was setting.
If I were to do it again, I’d go from a Saturday to a Sunday. I’d arrive early enough on a Saturday to get to The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens right when they open at 10am. Stay and play for the day. Check into the hotel. Pick a nearby restaurant and have an earlier dinner than we did!
You can spend the next day leisurely exploring the hotel and take in Splashtopia. If the weather is good enough, you can play all day at the pool even after checkout. Otherwise, leave at noontime and head to Shields for lunch before you hit the road. The kids can nap on the way home.
Click here for Palm Desert Family Hotel options on Booking.com
Disclosure: We received a media rate for the hotel and tickets to a special event at The Living Desert (however, we ended up purchasing our own annual passes). We always express our honest opinion. Please do all your own fact-checking before booking travel. We are affiliates of Booking.com.