The Southern California Desert Is One Massive, Trippy Outdoor Gallery

Old Hollywood meets modern surreality in the epicenter of desert cool.

Desert X reimagines the desert as a canvas. | Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs
Desert X reimagines the desert as a canvas. | Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs

Palm Springs has long been the epicenter of California desert cool, a magnet for people seeking something a little different and a lot weirder. The greater Palm Springs area was a playground for Old Hollywood royalty, who populated the iconic mid-century modern homes that dot the trippy landscape amid palm trees, lush fountains, and windmills. Its unique wilderness has long drawn people seeking escapes both luxurious and psychedelic. 

For California free spirits, the compass has always pointed to the desert, most recently thanks to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, perhaps the best-known music festival in the world.  

This year, the festival was put on pause. But the art that serves as the lifeblood of the region cannot, and will not, be canceled. Greater Palm Springs—the nine-city diaspora that includes Palm Desert, Indio, Coachella, and Indian Wells—remains on the brink of a major resurgence, with art and culture at the forefront of it all. 

“Out here you can experiment. Out here you’ve got space. You’ve got light. You’ve got so much beauty and inspiration," says Steven Biller, artist and editor-in-chief at Palm Springs Life Magazine. "It’s a very contemplative place. The light does some magical things out here and that’s why artists love it.”

The Coachella Walls murals shine a light on overlooked history. | Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs

Look beyond the behemoth festival and over-the-top pool parties and a deeper history reveals itself. Most of Palm Springs actually sits on The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation that forms a checkerboard pattern alternating between city-owned and tribal land. The complex, intertwined relationship is an integral piece of the Greater Palm Springs evolution, which is reflected in a lot of the art you’ll find in the city and beyond, from murals reflecting local history to gallery displays and sculptures hidden in public places and expanses alike.  

”It’s a special place to explore,” says artist and local native Sofia Enriquez. “You can find an art scene in just about any city in the valley.” 

Inspiration continues to spark incredible things in the Southern California desert, which could be considered one huge, socially distant outdoor canvas. Even better, most of it is free. Here are the best ways to immerse yourself right now.

Desert X is like a 40-mile art scavenger hunt. | Desert X

Explore Desert X’s 40-mile outdoor gallery

Before the Coachella crowds descend, a biennial contemporary art exhibit called Desert X takes over the desert between February and April. The unconventional exhibit invites international artists to transform unlikely locations—an empty lot, a natural preserve, an abandoned storefront—into vibrant installations exploring the lesser-known parts of the valley. 

The free exhibit relies heavily on the outdoors, making it a fortuitous cultural experience during a pandemic. 

“There are many layers of histories in the Coachella Valley, and the artists are in this perfect position of bringing up all these matters—issues of justice, diversity, environmental awareness,” says Jenny Gil, executive director of Desert X. 

While the list of participating artists is generally not revealed until a few weeks before the opening, we are told this year’s third biennial exhibit is the most diverse to date, with 10-12 installations spread across 40 miles in the Valley. 

“You don’t have to be an art person to encounter these things and find meaning with them,” says Biller, who is also a Desert X board member.

“Empowerment of Women” is one of the many Coachella Walls murals. | Sofia Enriquez

Discover the stories of the Coachella Walls

Inspired by the Wynwood Walls in Miami, the Coachella Walls originally launched in 2014 with five murals in downtown Coachella’s Historic Pueblo Viejo District. The project was the brainchild of Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez (also known as the Date Farmers), who brought together artists from around the world to create works commemorating the forgotten farm community deeply embedded into the fabric of the city. 

The project has since expanded to 14 murals within a 10-block radius in an effort to revitalize the neighborhood and draw foot traffic to a rural town that tourists and Coachella concertgoers often overlook en route to the big event in neighboring Indio. 

Murals like El Mac’s Anonymous Farm Worker are an ode to the immigrant workers from Coachella who work tirelessly to supply our produce and crops in often harsh working conditions. Several others—such as Lucha Sin Fin by Mata Ruda—pay visual tribute to Latina women and the struggles they have endured. 

“Some of [the murals] are kind of tough in subject matter, but as a whole, the project is colorful, it’s vibrant, it’s triumphant, and it creates a place that kind of envelops you,” says Biller.

Frank Sinatra’s house is a marvel of mid-century modern architecture. | Natural Retreats c/o Homes & Villas by Marriott International

Immerse yourself in Palm Springs' architecture and public art

Modern public art is everywhere in Palm Springs, from artist David Černý’s unsettling Babies installation to Instagrammer-baiting angel wings, stunning murals, sculptures, and even 40 art benches curated by The Palm Springs Public Arts Commission. But in Palm Springs, even the buildings themselves are indebted to the arts.

The mid-20th century modern architecture in Palm Springs is practically a trademark. Take a leisurely drive or bike ride through any of the residential streets and you’ll be gushing over the perfectly manicured homes and villas once owned by mega-celebrities like Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, and even Frank Sinatra. Other notable homes include the iconic desert ranch home with a striking pink door and a 1954 remodeled home called Mostero House

You can map out your own DIY tour, but you’ll be missing out on all the fascinating stories behind the walls. You’re better off booking a guided (COVID-safe) architectural tour with one of the many local operators like PS Architecture Tours or Palm Springs Mod Squad to find out why Palm Springs has been dubbed “The Playground of the Stars.”

There is perhaps no better time to explore the meeting point of art, architecture, and culture than during February’s Modernism Week. The weeklong annual festival that celebrates Palm Springs architecture, fashion, and design across more than 350 events. The art extravaganza includes home tours, films, lectures, and tours of galleries and gardens.  In 2021, Modernism Week will be a virtual program that will be streamed. Tickets and information can be found here.

Sunnylands’ sprawling gardens have captivated presidents and royalty. | Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs

Walk through the sprawling Sunnylands Gardens

Located just east of Palm Springs in Rancho Mirage, Sunnylands comprises both the 200-acre historic estate which was once home to philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, and the Center & Gardens. The estate was intended to be a place of privacy for influential world leaders that sought respite. Among the high-profile guests are former presidents Nixon and Obama and Queen Elizabeth.

Take a stroll outside along the 1.25-mile path and listen to a free, self-guided audio tour through the Sunnylands gardens, which was inspired by the impressionist and non-impressionist paintings that the Annenbergs once had inside the home. Other available tours include a Landscape Tour, which is a 45-minute shuttle ride, an Estate Bird Walk, or a Historic Walk. More information on the tours can be found here.

Before COVID, visitors could book a ticket to tour the interior of the home and browse the exhibit at the Center. Today, only the 15-acre sculpture gardens are currently open to visitors. A virtual tour of the current exhibit InMotion: Agam at Sunnylandsis available here.

“Mismo” by Sofia Enriquez has become a fixture of the Indio landscape. | Photo by Lance Gerber

Play Where’s Waldo with sculptures throughout the desert

Sculptures are seen everywhere in the Greater Palm Springs area, dotting the landscape like funky cacti. Among the most iconic is the bronze sculpture at the Palm Desert Civic Center Park by Curt Mattson: named Messenger of the Puul, it honors the Cahuilla Indians in its depiction of a shaman receiving a message from an owl.  

Palm Desert’s El Paseo median has also been used as a showcase for sculptures. Explore the outdoor strip by car or foot and look for whimsical sculptures like What the Nose Knows—a giant-sized schnoz with glasses— by Ron Simmer or take a self-guided tour of the sculpture garden at the Melissa Morgan Fine Art gallery.

Other sculptures are remnants of past Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival installations that have been preserved and sprinkled throughout the area, including Mismo, a large-scale paisley installation by Enriquez that stood out prominently during Coachella in 2019. The jaw-dropping Etherea sculpture by Italian sculptor Edoardo Tresoldi, meanwhile, creates an optical illusion from the wire mesh material it’s made of can be found at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Sixth Street in Coachella.

East Jesus is a folk-art oddity hiding near the Salton Sea. | Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs

Find abstract art and “the last free place in America”

From Coachella, head south toward Bombay Beach, a small washed up town that lies along the Salton Sea and is actually 223 feet below sea level. You’ll find abstract pieces like the interactive Lodestar by Randy Polumbo, a 50-foot military jet made with fabricated elements such as blown glass, crystal, mirror, and structural steel which appears to be taking a nosedive. The Bombay Beach Biennale is an art movement that uses the existing abandoned structures into an artist’s canvas. 

Further south, you’ll reach a seemingly deserted town with no signs called Slab City, also known as” the last free place in America.” The unofficial entrance to the remote town is Leonard Knight’s 50-foot colorful Salvation Mountain, a hillside structure that has been a popular spectacle for tourists. Keep driving and you’ll eventually come to East Jesus, a sculpture garden in the middle of nowhere constructed out of junk. 

“It’s actually registered with the California Association of Museums,” says Biller. Artists and creatives often visit the habitable community and add to the collection. “It’s a fun experience. Between downtown Coachella, Bombay Beach, and Salvation Mountain and East Jesus that’s a full day art experience.”

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Leila Najafi is a freelance travel writer in LA. Follow her adventures near and far on Instagram @LeilasList.