The Living Desert (about 16 miles southeast of downtown Palm Springs) has been around since 1970, when it was established to bring people closer to the type of animals and plants that resort development was displacing. But these days, it has stepped up its game to meet the standards of a high-level attraction and a world-class zoo experience—one that distinguishes itself by focusing on the huge variety of unique life that calls the desert home.
Fully accredited by the prestigious Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, which holds its members to high standards, the Living Desert holds its own with the country's most interesting zoos. Its 80 or so developed acres offer enough to see and do to fill 3–4 hours of time. You'll have the feeling of strolling around both a zoo and park: plenty of enclosures supply habitats to a large variety of plant life and gorgeous desert animals from around the world including rhinos, cheetah, African painted dogs, reptiles, warthogs, mountain rams endemic to the area, and a gaggle of gentle giraffes. Visitors of any age can have the chance to feed those sweet giraffes by hand (it costs $8 for a small bundle of leaves) from a special observation platform.
Other things not to miss: the model train exhibit with some 3,300 feet of track, which would be worth its own ticket; a section on Australian deserts that includes wallabies; a real desert oasis that happens to be on the grounds; a garden cultivated specifically to attract hummingbirds; and an 18,000-square-foot hospital where you can watch live medical procedures through huge windows. The grounds are staffed by many devoted volunteers, many of them local retirees with deep knowledge and stories about the residents. If you're bringing little kids, there's a carousel and a play area for them. We also recommend This Is How We Zoo It (another $15 adults, $10 kids), a 30-minute golf cart tour into backstage areas to learn how the animals are cared for.
The remaining 1,120 acres are undeveloped, but not off-limits. Wear your hiking boots to explore its three trails of undeveloped desert land.
Giraffe feeding starts at 9am and should be the highlight of your visit. In fact, it's wise to check the daily schedule before your arrival to ensure you don't miss anything else that's interesting. Coming here in peak summer might be uncomfortable (more for humans than for the animals who are used to the desert), and in fact, it closes in the afternoon in the hottest months. That's all the more reason to arrive as soon after opening as possible. Bring a picnic if you want. It also rents strollers and ECVs to make touring easier.
The Living Desert is an underrated day out, and it deserves its place on the Coachella Valley tourism circuit.