Snowbirds flock to Palm Springs, but for some lower-key you time, get down to essentials in Desert Hot Springs
Desert Hot Springs Escape
Andrea Gómez Romero
Soak up the scenery on a desert hike in Mission Creek Preserve

Swim, soak, relax, repeat. When you start to feel those midwinter cravings for sun, dry air, and warmth, we say head for the hills of Desert Hot Springs. Only 12 miles from golf-diva cousin Palm Springs, this is a one-horse town, ringed with modest hot-spring spas in the hills above. The best benefit of going back to basics? You won’t have to bail out your wallet after a winter weekend away. Here, the spirit of the springs.

Desert essential #1: The hotel oasis

Andrea Gomez Romero
Enjoy some serious R&R at Miracle Manor Retreat

For recharging. You’ll lose track of time at Miracle Manor Retreat, a six-room ’50s-era motel co-owned by a graphic designer and a Buddhist architect. Each minimalist room has one luxe touch—a perfect bed with organic bedding—and the hot pool comes with million-dollar views of the snowcapped San Jacinto peaks. When you finally emerge from the water, the 1,000 Things treatment (a customized mix of massage, scrub, wrap, and whatever else you want) is steps away at the on-site spa. Breakfast arrives gratis, and if you time it right, you can order the sort of local, organic homemade dinners that would get a thumbs-up from Alice Waters. From $150; 2-night min.; day use $35, $50/couple; treatments from $100;

For the dog. What’s in it for you at the new DogSpa Resort & Wellness Center? A pool and stylish rooms. For Fido? A bed and bowl in every room, a lounge (pictured) and park, free run of the place, and a “nanny” while you’re out. From $149; 2-night min.;  

For a splurge. The newly redone 1947 Hotel Lautner is a four-unit find for midcentury mod mavens, with a saltwater dipping pool and high-design firepit. From $275; 2-night min.;

For the kids. The rooms might lack flash at the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel, but the eight pools of different temps and sizes are kid heaven. And the $7 day-use fee is a bargain. From $119; treatments from $40;

Desert essential #2: The desert wander

The closest hike, 5 miles from town in the Wildlands Conservancy’s Mission Creek Preserve, happens to be one of the prettiest, following the year-round stream that’s the source of the area’s renowned drinking water. Bonus? It’s also one of the least traveled. The green desert valley jumps with quail and rabbits, as the 4-mile (one-way) West Fork Trail ascends gently toward Mt. San Gorgonio and the Pacific Crest Trail. 60550 Mission Creek Rd., west of State 62;

Desert essential #3: The date shake

Don’t dare leave without trying one of these frosty, sweet, and slightly earthy gifts from the desert. The best in the valley is at Windmill Market, a few miles west of town on a barren stretch of Indian Canyon Drive. This funky bodega has old-fashioned sodas and 99-cent tacos, but the real scene-stealer is the shake. Windmill goes for maximum purity with Medjools from local Leja Farms, vanilla ice cream, and milk, all made to order in an old-timey mixer. Sip it on the patio out back and take in the mountain views. $; closed Sun; 17080 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760/251-4489.

Andrea Gómez Romero
Snag a desert plant souvenir at Mariscal Cacus & Succulents

Desert essential #4: Cactus!

Tourists brake for Mariscal Cactus & Succulents—a nursery more than an acre big—just to snap roadside pictures of 7-foot cactus, round spiny orbs, and the rainbow of succulents. But you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look. There are 100 varieties of cactus and 50 varieties of succulents, so pick out a saguaro tree, an agave that catches your eye, or the potted arrangements that double as works of art. Closed Sun; 66085 Dillon Rd.; 760/518-1077. 

Keep Reading: