All kinds of tours exist in and around Palm Springs
- windmill tours, architectural tours, celebrity house tours. Palm Springs boasts one of the largest per capita gay and lesbian populations in the U.S., not to mention a deep LGBT history, so it’s a wonder no one had ever thought of doing the most obvious local tours of them all: LGBT-focused excursions for visitors and residents alike.
Other gay vacation meccas have them: Key West’s popular gay and lesbian trolley tours focus on the isle’s queer history, and San Francisco has had a famous walking tour called Cruisin’ The Castro for nearly 25 years running. And now, finally, Palm Springs offers LGBT tours too – and operated by an excellent local tour company to boot.
Award-winning Desert Adventures boasts the largest fleet of tour vehicles in The Coachella Valley
–15 seven-person open-air Jeep Scramblers, all colored in the company’s signature red. Mary and Charlie Dungans founded Desert Adventures in 1988 after they rode in one of Arizona’s famous Pink Jeep Tours. The couple decided there must be more exciting things to do in Palm Springs besides play golf and tennis, and began offering their entertaining, educational, and eco-friendly jeep tours with an emphasis on the Coachella Valley’s rich environmental and cultural heritage.
Three years ago, their daughter Kim Nilsson bought the company along with her business partner, Bob Schneider – and between Kim’s background in hospitality and social psychology and Bob’s decade marketing movies at Warner Brothers, Desert Adventures has definitely got their act together. Desert Adventures adhere to strict sustainable green policies, train their guides
for 200 hours on everything from Native American culture to plate tectonics, and joined the Desert Gay Tourism Guild and marched in Palm Springs’ Pride parade years before they even thought about running gay tours.
The company launched the Gay Icons Tour last October, followed by two more desert tours for the LGBT community.
Desert Adventures set up a booth at downtown’s street fair so everyone could meet and greet their friendly gay guides.
“We believe this is the first attempt to launch gay-specific tours in the valley,” says Desert Adventures co-owner Bob Schneider. “With the rich history of gay activism and the large gay population here in the Palm Springs area, it seemed like a natural progression for us as a tour company to reach out to this market. We have a number of gay guides who work for us, and they completely agreed with the idea.”
The new Gay Icons Tour is a nearly two-hour exploration of Palm Springs from the comfort of one of Desert Adventures’ trademark red open-air Jeep Scramblers. The Gay Icons Tour sweeps through decades of Palm Springs LGBT history
, taking in how gays and lesbians were pivotal to the founding of the desert resort town, and focusing on the rich history of the area as a private sanctuary where Hollywood stars could let their hair down and let loose – including closeted celebrities.
From Lily Tomlin to Liberace to Judy Garland to Truman Capote to current resident Barry Manilow – it seems like any star who meant anything to the LGBT world resided at one time or another in Palm Springs. The Gay Icons Tour takes you peeping through the windows of Cher’s recent Las Palmas abode, reveals how Warm Sands’ first all-male resort was where Hugh Hefner hid away for his mistresses, and shows you the house of gay founding father Cleve Jones (the ex-hustler activist who conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt, portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the movie Milk
“It was actually our one of the gay guides who works for us, Bob Gross, who was responsible for coming up with the idea of The Gay Icons tour,” says Bob Schneider, co-owner of Desert Adventures. “I thought it was a good idea, and so Bob spent a lot of time researching the info and the route. This idea led us to the idea that perhaps we could offer other gay-led tours to the gay community.”
Besides the Gay Icons Tour, Desert Adventures offers two other gay 4x4 jeep trips that delve deep into the desert’s natural landscape and history. Both will be led by one of the Desert Adventures’ resident gay guides, Bob Gross and Carlos Salas (below left and below right).
One LGBT tour explores the lush oasis of Andreas Canyon
, lined with a canopy of California Fan Palms (the only native palm in the Western U.S.) and home to the sacred mound that marks the location of the Cahuilla Indian’s creator, Mukat. The tour also takes gay guests to Palm Canyon, the largest natural palm oasis in the North America and the former kingdom of Palm Springs’ first full-time resident gay nudist from the 1920s, William Pester.
Speaking of getting back to nature, Desert Adventures’ third LGBT tour will appeal to the clothes-free crowd.
A gay naturist-naturalist excursion is available on the private 840-acre Metate Ranch where gay guests are free to go naked while exploring miles of trails and dramatic steep‐walled canyons thrust up by the San Andreas Fault. Desert Adventures is the only tour company with exclusive access to this ranch, owned by the area’s original Wilhelm Family for generations. The ranch is named after the huge 2,000 year-old metate grinding stones found on the property, and there’s an historically-accurate recreation of a Cahuilla Indian village to explore as well.
“I know we have done nudist tours in the past for a mixed audience so I don't see why a gay nudist tour would work any different,” says out tour guide Bob Gross, a native New Yorker who’s lived in Palm Springs for over a decade. “If they want to hold hands or chuck their clothes, they’ll know there won’t be an opposite-sex couple with kids who might be shocked.”
“Guests will just need to keep their clothes on until we are actually at the property in the Indio Hills. After all, we do ride in open-air jeeps!” he laughs.
Desert Adventures’ three new 4x4 gay jeep tours can be booked from Tuesday to Friday year-round. The Gay Icons Tour lasts from 90 minutes to 2 hours, and the Metate Ranch/San Andreas Fault tour and the Andreas Canyon/Indian Canyons tour are approximately three hours each. For more info, contact Desert Adventures at 760-324-5337 or go to www.red-jeep.com.