Dog Days in the SoCal Desert

When dog-sitting in Palm Springs meets desert oasis family fun, the hot weather, cactus-filled landscape and private pool make for a true Southern California summer experience.

By Darya Mead


When a colleague and friend invited my family to dog sit for his almost one-year-old Doodle puppy, Henry, in Palm Desert, I said yes without a second thought. I’m so tired of my little house after 15 months, I would have said yes to any opportunity to get away, but the idea of warmth and a completely different environment was so appealing. I had seen social media photos of Henry, the dog, and he looked absolutely enchanting, the perfect experience for my boys who have wanted a dog for years. I have steadfastly opposed the proposition, and have sought out dog sitting opportunities, part placation, part adventure to assuage the desire. I knew he was big and feisty, but with 10 days together, I also knew we would get our fix.

A few days before our arrival, my friend texted me the weather report; 108-117 degrees! He assured me the AC was just checked and we would have to arrange the bulk of our activities in the morning and evening, so we could hunker down inside during the midday. I was fine with this, and since his partner worked at Apple, the house was kitted out, so I knew I could work and the kids would enjoy the swanky tech offerings and big screen TV for soccer, baseball, tennis and Olympic Trials and Netflix. 

We arrived with plenty of time to ‘learn the ropes’ with Henry. He was as big as gazelle and as delightful as anticipated; we were immediately smitten. Attractively landscaped and set amongst palm trees, the backyard oasis was divine.  I have also swam laps at least once a week for 35 years and have so missed gliding through the water, among other more important losses this Covid era. The pool was such a wonderful treat for me, to be able to swim morning, noon and night was glorious! Henry also liked to swim and there was an elaborate protocol to facilitate his pool entry and ball throwing calisthenics. My son joked that he would need Tommy John surgery after 10 days of the routine.

Our plan was to take it easy, BBQ, read, do yoga, work, paint with watercolors, swim and take a few short trips in the area. Henry needed a lot of attention and really couldn’t be left alone for more than a few hours. The house was in Palm Desert, about 10 miles from Palm Springs, seemingly more elegant and less kitsch. Our main day trip as a family was to Joshua Tree. For this we had to secure the backup dog care guy to cover for us. We had to have him on call for another impromptu Urgent Care visit, but I will spare you the details. Suffice to say, Urgent Care was very easy to access, only a few blocks from us and surprisingly covered with our health insurance despite some hoops to jump through. Joshua Tree National Park was about an hour from the house and since it was at a higher elevation it was significantly cooler, although still scorching. In general, a trip to the Palm Springs area is probably best not in summer, but this was our opportunity, and it wasn’t 130 degrees, as it was Death Valley a few weeks later.


Joshua Tree National Park

Where two deserts meet, this unique ecosystem reminds me of a Dr. Seuss world. The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family.  Even just driving through is worth the trip; the vistas, the cacti, the Joshua Trees and rock formations are otherworldly. My husband mapped out an itinerary and once we paid our entrance fee of $30.00 for a 7-day vehicle permit, we started our tour. You can get an annual pass for the park for $55, and you can buy the ‘America the Beautiful Pass’ for $80. We probably should have done that, both as a donation and to have access to 2000 recreation sites nationwide. It certainly saves time and money and helps protect these national treasures for generations to come.

Once inside the park our first stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden. This was a high point, and where we took our family ‘album cover’ shot. There is a short nature trail dominated by teddy bear cholla, and walking amidst these gentle beasts is truly inspiring… don’t touch though! In springtime — with a strong desert bloom — the landscape pops with color. In summer it is drier, and beautiful in a different way. 

After that we drove to Skull Rock. We adults had ideas of scrambling on the rocks and taking a little walk around the rock formations. The boys were hot and not keen on that plan, so we just did a mini tour and took a few pictures. It was a weekday and not too crowded, but honestly we enjoyed driving and stopping at various spots to take photos and explore. The Joshua Trees are so unique and it’s just so fun to walk amongst them. We did take a17 mile 4WD Geology Tour Road (listening to U2) that was both fun and stressed me out a bit. Despite 30 years in California and with a partner steeped in outdoor savvy, my New York neurotic nature crept in, making me worried about breaking down. We did have a giant 10 gallon water container in the trunk, but still, visions of Movies of the Week about desert journeys gone awry, played in my head.

At one point we stopped to take some photos and another car passed. I was pleased a young guy stopped and poked his head out to ask if we were OK. We didn’t need AC while there, but in the sun it was boiling. We did see a jack rabbit and a lone coyote. I laughed and thought about many Sunday mornings watching Bugs Bunny in a NYC apartment as a child, and somehow Joshua Tree is what I pictured as the scene for many of the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes episodes. My husband offhandedly said ”Bugs was always trying to get to the Coachella Carrot Festival” and a friend who grew up in SoCal mentioned on Instagram that Bugs always took a wrong turn in Cucamonga!! Somehow I find that cartoon connection intensely charming. Finally we stopped for a picnic. The picnic area was well appointed and we found a spot in the shade. I half expected to run into Yosemite Sam.

What to Bring

  • A good map
  • Lots of water and snacks
  • A picnic (not much food to be found in the Park)
  • A wide brimmed hat
  • Sun protection: sunscreen, clothes and lip balm; it’s dry! A few ladies had umbrellas.
  • Good walking shoes

On our way out of the park, I remembered a billboard advertising famous ‘date shakes’. Not sure why I had never heard of this treat, but it sounded absolutely perfect after a day in Joshua Tree. I hated dates most of my life (mostly due to the association with waterbugs in the laundry room of the basement of my NYC apartment building growing up) but suddenly in my 40’s I decided they were scrumptious. I was made to feel like I was a bit obsessive; must’ve mentioned it one too many times, but eventually we found our way to a date shake joint in Palm Springs festooned with Rat Pack photos and music, and $8 later I was in total heaven. Sweet but not sickly, somewhat natural and with little date bits, I just can’t say enough about it; my kids got other things however.


Museums, Zoos & Gardens

Other short adventures included the Palm Springs and Palm Desert Museums. Covid makes everything weird, and you have to sign up online. We had to be mindful of the pooch, and I had to work, so my younger son and husband went to the Palm Springs Museum and raved about it. For a town of its size they have a substantial and interesting collection. We took an evening stroll around the outdoor Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden at the Palm Desert Museum, which was lovely and perfectly shaded given the heat. Normally I am a do-er, packing multiple excursions in when traveling, but this trip it was so nice to stay home and enjoy the dog, pool, AC and the reason to lay low.

One day I took a bike ride early in the morning to check out the Desert Zoo and Gardens. It was so close, about a mile or so away. That was sadly the only bike trip I took as the heat was really intense, but my younger son and I did visit the Zoo at 7am!! It’s open from 7am-1pm because of the heat. He was a bit grumpy about having to awaken so early, but we were really glad to have done it. The setting is unusual and the types of animals more suited to the environment of Africa’s Savannah, Australian Outback or other desert-like ecosystems. We saw cheetahs, desert tortoises, giraffes, (which you can feed lettuce for a hefty price) wallabies, porcupines and the most adorable fennec foxes. We decided we would love one as a pet! The best part of the zoo — besides the setting and garden aspect— was the animal hospital. I was just tickled to see the tortoise X Ray and large animal OR. There is a nice exhibit about endangered animals and trafficking that hopefully educates the many who visit, as well as a magical butterfly garden. There are misters everywhere around these parts; an attempt to keep things cool. I didn’t fully understand it until we went to the zoo, and even the animals got misted!



If shopping is your thing, this area is epic. First of all there was every possible supermarket and chain store you could ever need, and on the swanky El Paseo, all the top upscale shops are easy to access. I actually had to take my laptop to an Apple Store (a speaker had blown out from all the Zooming) and across the street was a Lululemom and Lily Pulitzer! Being alone— without my shopping averse boys— I took the opportunity to take a gander. Lily Pulitzer stuff is quite garish, and perfectly designed for Palm Beach Florida and the Palm Springs area. Oddly, I happened to be wearing a thrift store find, Lily Pulitzer tunic (back in the 80’s I wore the stuff ironically with combat boots often) and made quite a ruckus at the shop, taking many photos with the sales gals.



We did not eat out, other than a sandwich shoppe on the first day and a few other coffees or beverages. Mostly this was a combo of Covid concerns, the heat and keeping the dog company, but honestly if you rent a house, it’s so appealing to cook and eat outdoors; we actually barbecued ribs three times! If you want to go out to eat there are plenty of options and quite a festive atmosphere.


Idyllwild and San Jacinto Mountains

True to Covid times, my older son’s college graduation from UC Santa Cruz during this trip was supposed to be virtual. I figured it would be nice to view the graduation all together in a comfortable house, but then at the 11th hour the school offered a ‘slug walk’, a :30 second live streamed, somewhat ramshackle display of graduation regalia. Crestfallen, that I would miss this momentous but brief and somewhat sub par event, I knew he would want to be there with his friends. So for the last few days it was just me and the 17 yo with the dog.

The house where we were staying was just off Highway 74. A beautiful twisty, steep road that goes from Orange County though the mountains and desert. It passes through many parks and National Forests along its route. I had wanted to take the Palm Springs tram, for some reason it has eluded me on each of my prior trips to the area. I was determined to go this time, but the combo of the glitchy online Covid registration system and the heat made me reconsider. I had to do two interviews for work while in the area, and the British hair designer and his wife who I met suggested a day trip to Idyllwild, a small mountain town about 35 miles away. The teen, once again, did not want to leave the comfy air conditioned house and the idea of taking a tram alone sounded a bit tragic, so I opted for the solo trip into the mountains, thinking it also might be cooler.

This mostly 2-lane highway (with plenty of turnouts) is somewhat treacherous, but beautiful. Called the ‘Palms to Pines Highway’, I stopped at a stunning view point called the Cahuilla Tewanet Scenic Overlook. It was already 100 degrees, so with my water bottle and big floppy hat, I started to walk along the little trail.There was no-one else there, and the heat was overwhelming. Again, I had a flash to a 70’s TV show of a lady who disappears or dies alone in the desert. I might have completely melted and all that would have been left would have been my big hat. I hurriedly took some photos and sauntered back to the car, hard to say if I was being prudent or a tad edgy.

There were signs of a fire at the top of the mountain, though, which was quite disturbing. Part of the reason I had wanted to visit Idyllwild, was that the area had suffered with wildfires the last few years, and I figured I’d rather spend money in a small community than a giant tourist town. Idyllwild did not disappoint. Bustling and full of mom and pop stores, a cute movie theatre and restaurants, I hit a thrift store and had so much fun. At another local spot I picked a geode and got it cut in half by a poetic young guy who was not fazed by my over-exuberance (I was the only one in the store). A few too many ‘crystal kissy’ type shops for my taste, but overall a fun little sojourn. I bought some hot sauce, licorice, honey and special dog treats for Henry, as well as these cheesy gnomes for my garden that I thought would elicit the ire of my boys; now happily ensconced in a patch of succulents.

Finally, one cannot visit this part of California without paying homage to the desert scene of yore. The Palm Springs of my grandparents era is still on display if you search hard enough. This ‘Rancho Superwash’ sign was so enticing I actually got out of my air conditioned car to take a number of photos, despite 112 degree heat. One day I heard ‘Mr. Bojangles’ twice! I love that song, but it was just classic that it played on two different occasions when I was out and about. So too, is the mid-century modern vibe, which peeks out from time to time. One evening when it was just me and the teen, I asked Siri or Alexa (or whatever the gadget’s name was), to play Frank Sinatra. I was dressed up a bit for an aforementioned meeting, and my dress reminded me of my maternal grandma’s style. She had loved Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Junior and all those crazy cats. With the teen hunkered down in the back room, I did a little self indulgent photo shoot/ dance in the very photogenic living room. It was just me, Old Blue eyes and one very confused puppy, who seemed to enjoy it.


Darya Mead – August 2021

ROAM Contributor   

Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.


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