the living desert palm desert

Best of the Best 2021: Attractions

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert feels more like an oasis, less of a spectacle while marking its 50th year in the desert.

Derrik J. Lang Attractions, Current PSL

the living desert palm desert


As someone who has avoided zoos his entire adult life — the unsavory smells and swarms of children on field trips never appealed to me — I am always surprised by how much joy I experience when visiting The Living Desert. While it is most definitely a zoo, populated by more than 150 desert-only species, it is also a conservation-focused destination that feels more like an oasis, less of a spectacle.


The past year has been a remarkable time for The Living Desert. The institution celebrated its 50th anniversary, figured out how to care for more than 500 animals during the pandemic, and opened its latest addition: an enclosed Willy Wonka-esque environ called Australian Adventures where Bennett’s wallabies freely hop amid guests like Oompa Loompas.


Yellow-footed wallabies at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.


Giraffes spend their days eating.

The Living Desert Reserve, as it was originally known, debuted in 1970 simply as a protected chunk of land in the heart of Coachella Valley, spotlighting local flora and fauna before expanding to include thriving life from deserts in North America, Africa, and now Australia.

“We’re very blessed here,” The Living Desert CEO Allen Monroe says. “Unlike many cities where you would normally find zoological attractions, we’re not stuck between a freeway and an apartment complex. Our grounds are beautiful, and we have this great mountain range surrounding us.”

The Living Desert is, of course, a haven for animal lovers, whether they desire to feed giraffes with their bare hands or admire supersized kitties likes cheetah, bobcats, and mountain lions from a safe distance. But with miles of magnificent hiking trails and scads of beautiful botanical gardens, this zoo is also, ironically, a perfect place for humans to escape in the Coachella Valley.


Grevy’s zebras at the zoo.

Winners Voted by Our Readers
Palm Springs
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

The eye-popping views are unrivaled from inside the world’s largest rotating tram cars, which travel along the cliffs of Chino Canyon to the pristine Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness. On the 14,000 acres of fantastical terrain (with 54 miles of trails), temperatures are about 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor.

Desert Hot Springs
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum

Cabot Yerxa, a renaissance man who arrived in the Coachella Valley in 1913 and discovered Desert Hot Springs’ mineral-rich waters, constructed — and kept constructing for decades — this unmissable Hopi-style structure, filling 35 rooms scattered across four floors with Native American artifacts and artwork.

Cathedral City
Museum of Ancient Wonders

In an unassuming strip mall off Highway 111, discover owner Alberto Acosta’s collection of I-can’t-believe-this-is-in-Cathedral-City treasures, such as a recreation of King Tutankhamun’s golden chariot and a laboratory cast of a T-Rex skull. While the artifacts aren’t the real things, the sheer amount of objects is astounding.

Rancho Mirage
Sunnylands Center & Gardens

A visit to the former winter retreat of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg begins with iconic pink walls and continues with impeccably landscaped grounds, a dazzling collection of art, their A. Quincy Jones-designed residence, and a 55-year-long history of hosting heads of state, royals, and celebrities.

Sunnylands Cnter and Gardens in Rancho Mirage.

Coachella Valley History Museum

What do a 1909 schoolhouse, a 1921 water tower, and a 1926 adobe have in common? They’re among the well-preserved connections to the Coachella Valley’s past on display at this sprawling complex, which also boasts the world’s first date museum. The exhibit examines the fruit’s fascinating journey from the Middle East to California.

Augustine Casino

There’s a low-key, no-frills vibe at this 42,000-square-foot casino with more than 800 slot machines. The casino’s restaurant, Café 54, offers a beloved cornucopia of different cuisines and dishes, from pizzas and pastas to a surf and turf special of filet mignon and a pair of lobster tails for under $50.