Headed to Palm Springs and looking for info on Desert X 2021? This post will tell you everything you need to know — the meaning behind Desert X, how to get the most out of your experience, and all my favorite art pieces!
As we were planning our recent trip to Palm Springs, I quickly realized our visit would coincide with Desert X. So of course we had to go!
I had heard about this outdoor exhibition a bit in the past, but I didn’t really know too much about it. After a quick search, I learned it’s kinda like a scavenger hunt and art show mixed together — all in the middle of the Coachella Valley desert. Fun, right?! But don’t worry — there’s a map, so it’s not really too hard!
If you’re just reading this post now, get your butt down to SoCal ASAP. Desert X only lasts for a few short months in the desert, typically somewhere between February and May. The art is fleeting, meaning it doesn’t stick around forever. If you’ve seen something on IG you need to see for yourself in real life, well, get down to the Coachella Valley sooner than later.
And if you missed this year’s art installation, there’ll be more. Although you’ll probably have to wait a while! Since starting, Desert X has only been happening every other year. I’m guessing the next one in the valley won’t be until 2023! But hey, something fun to look forward to!
Some basic info for Desert X 2021:
- When: March 12 – May 16, 2021
- Where: At sites across the Coachella Valley, CA (near Palm Springs)
- Cost: Entirely FREE (!!!), thanks to generous contributions from donors, foundations, and corporate sponsors.
- Hours: Sunrise to sunset Monday through Sunday, unless otherwise noted. You can always check the official Desert X website for updated opening hours.
- Where to Stay: all the pieces are situated in the Palm Springs area, so I recommend The Ace Hotel and Pool Club (where we stayed and loved), Korakia Pensione (I wanna stay here next time), or The Saguaro (if you love some color)
What is Desert X?
Ohhh, it’s a whole lotta fun! Kinda like an outdoor treasure hunt in the middle of the desert!
Desert X is a contemporary outdoor art exhibition held in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. And it’s super fun! It started only a few years ago in 2017, and there’s since been another in 2019. There’s new artists and installations at every show, which makes no two shows the same. Meaning, if you’ve gone in the past, expect totally different art this time around!
And it’s not like any other art exhibition I’ve been to! The pieces are scattered among the Valley, which makes it just that much more exciting when you’ve found a piece. It’s all self-guided, so you can pick and choose which pieces you’d like to see and when (just check viewing hours of course).
And of course, the pieces all have some deeper meaning behind them. This is art after all!
There’s lots of shared artistic, historical, and societal issues that are brought up. I’d definitely recommend reading up a bit on each piece — it’ll make your experience so much more meaningful!
Themes of Desert X 2021 include land rights and ownership, migration, water exploitation, social justice, racial narratives of the west, the gendered landscape, and the role of women and young people. They get kinda deep, but all important topics to really think about.
Acknowledging the Cahuilla People
I can’t write a whole guide to Desert X and not mention the The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
They’re the historic Palm Springs-based Native American tribe with more than 400 members and a community based right in the Coachella Valley. AND they still live right there — exactly where the installations of Desert X are! They’ve been in the area for at least 5,000 years after all! Learn more about the Agua Caliente tribe here. Respect their land. Please.
One thing I love (and recently learned) about Desert X is that the creators truly acknowledge the Cahuilla People as the original stewards of the land on which Desert X takes place. This land is not ours, but the indigenous people of the area.
Artists and curators work closely with the Cahuilla People, and a major aim is to always pay respects (past, present, and future) to those here before us.
Info on Desert X 2021
- There’s over nine different art installations to find, with a few being added as the show progresses (we visited in late March and some of the pieces weren’t even showing yet!).
- This year’s show is taking place a bit later than earlier years, from March 12 – May 16 (due to public health guidelines).
- Artists hail from all over the globe! The Desert X 2021 pieces were designed and executed by those from Saudi Arabia all the way to Argentina, with one lone local residing in Joshua Tree.
- At some of the pieces (and depending on when you visit), you’ll be able to ask questions to Desert X docents! They’re super knowledgeable about all the art and artists, and didn’t mind answering some of my silly questions.
How long to stay:
You can easily see all the pieces in a day — that is, if you plan it right! Definitely take a look at the map so you aren’t criss-crossing the desert more than you need to. And just remember that some pieces need a (free) timed ticket to enter (info below). The pieces aren’t as spread out as in years past, so you won’t need to do just as much driving.
I recommend spending the weekend in the desert and doing all my faves in Palm Springs — boozy brunch at The Parker, strolling through the Moorten Botanical Garden, and checking out all the colorful doors and mid-century modern architecture! You can even spend a day in nearby Joshua Tree National Park! We spent 3 full days in the Palm Springs area and saw a few pieces each morning before it got too hot!
How to find pieces in the desert
Before learning a bit more about Desert X, I truly thought you had to drive through the desert with hopes of finding the art pieces (ha). How wrong I was — there’s a whole app and even paper maps with exact addresses and directions. It would make it a bit more exciting if it was in fact an actual treasure hunt, but I’m glad there’s some guidance! Driving aimlessly under the hot desert sun probably isn’t the greatest idea for anyone anyways.
Tip: Download the Desert X 2021 mobile app for iOS or Android before getting to the desert (we didn’t have the best service). It’s by far the easiest way to navigate between sites. Or just keep this post up on your phone (pre-downloaded, of course).
- You can also grab a paper map at different Desert X hubs in Palm Springs — the Ace Hotel (where we stayed!) the Visitor Center, or online.
Just FYI, all locations are accessible by car, but you’ll need to walk a tad for a few of them. Look for a white DesertX sign at each piece (with a sideways X in black), and you’ll know you made it!
It gets hot y’all — even in March! We visited late March and temps were unexpectedly soaring into the mid-90s! Be prepared — and I don’t say that lightly. A few tips for staying safe in the desert:
- Wear comfortable walking shoes! Some installations are located on uneven desert landscape or gravel.
- Bring lots of water — staying hydrated is SO important
- Slather on the sunscreen and wear a hat, you’ll wanna protect yourself from the sun
- Be prepared to get a bit dusty — this is the desert after all!
Respecting The Art and Desert Landscape
Remember — the pieces you see are art. And the land is not yours. Follow all guidelines — they’re guidelines for a reason! If you’re not sure about something, you probably shouldn’t do it.
- Only walk on designated pathways (never put the delicate ecosystems of the desert at risk)
- Do not climb the art installations (you can get creative with photos from the ground, I promise).
- Never leave garbage at the sites (take out anything you bring in)
- Avoid trampling vegetation (no matter what it is), disrespecting the soil and land, and disturbing any wildlife you see when visiting
- Park in designated spots (in specific marked lots and on paved roads)
- Visit from sunrise to sunset (it’s unsafe to do so when it’s dark out)
- Pets are allowed at some of the installations, but they are your responsibility. This means keeping your pets leashed, making sure they don’t touch (or pee on!) the artworks, and respecting the environment and others visiting the pieces.
Desert X is HUGE on Leave No Trace! Follow the official guidelines: Plan ahead and prepare, walk on designated paths, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, respect wildlife, don’t smoke (please oh please), and be considerate of other visitors.
My Favorite Desert X 2021 pieces
This year, there’s 9 different art installations located throughout the desert. Since our visit to DesertX 2021 was kinda an add-on to a much longer (and somewhat packed) itinerary, we didn’t visit every single piece. We did however see a whole bunch! And I’m pretty sure we walked right past a piece and drove by another and didn’t even realize — whoops!
How did I choose which to visit? I picked the ones that looked and sounded the most interesting to me! I would have loved to visit them all but we just didn’t time it right. I’ll definitely be going back for future Desert X shows!.
- Artist: Ghada Amer
- Address: Sunnylands Center & Gardens (37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage)
- When to go: Check sunnylands.org for opening days and hours
This was one of my favorite Desert X pieces of all the ones we saw! Not only was the installation located in the absolutely gorgeous Sunnylands Garden (I legit never wanted to leave), but I loved how the piece was dedicated solely to women.
Before creating the sculpture garden for Desert X (essentially what her piece is), Ghada Amer surveyed the citizens of the Coachella Valley about the words they associate with women. You’ll see words like “Resilient”, “Determined”, “Loving”, and “Strong”, all in large letter-shaped planters filled with indigenous (and gorgeous) desert plants. “Resilient” was my favorite — those mini cacti are just so cute!
The words were kinda hard to photograph (gotta get creative with those angles), but I still loved it. I took a bunch of cool videos, though! Plan to spend at least an hour at Sunnylands if you enjoy manicured gardens and chic desert landscapes. We had brunch reservations so couldn’t stay too long, but I could’ve spent all day here!
Never Forget (Indian Land)
- Artist: Nicholas Galanin
- Address: 2901 North Palm Springs Road (right near the Visitor Center)
- When to go: morning for the best light (on view from sunrise to sunset)
You’re driving along and BAM — there’s the exhibit! You can’t miss it. It’s HUGE and sits several stories high (you’ll see it from the road, I promise).
The 45-foot letters of INDIAN LAND reference the massive Hollywood Sign we all know (and love). But what most haven’t got a clue is that the original Hollywood Sign actually initially spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND — built to promote a whites-only development.
“Never Forget” acts as a memorial for Indian land and all the lives lost in the genocidal nation-building of the United States. It reminds us that Indigenous land and community continue to exist. Super powerful and I kinda wish the piece would stay up permanently for this reason alone.
You can learn and donate to the LANDBACK GoFundMe. Funds raised go towards repatriating land back to Indigenous communities and to acquire legal titles to Native American homelands for Indigenous tribal communities.
ParaPivot (sempiternal clouds)
- Artist: Alicja Kwade
- Address: 71690 Channel Run Road, Sky Valley
- When to go: open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Reserve tickets here
This was another one of my favorite exhibits of Desert X 2021! I loved the photo opportunities, the angles, and oh — the views from all the way up here!
Be prepared to walk up a relatively steep hill (I was unprepared for this, but made it). Definitely take along some water and wear comfy shoes. The trek up should only take about 15 minutes or so, but it’s hot out there! I’m letting you know in advance so you don’t make the same mistake I did!
And once you get up, you’ll see marble stones balancing within a winding steel frame — just like clouds or icebergs! The piece acts to showcase that while our universe is massive, it’s also quite fragile, and that simple forms tend to yield complex meanings.
From Thursday to Sunday you’ll need a (free) timed ticket to view the piece. We went on a Monday and it wasn’t crowded at all! Parapivot is actually on private property (and even behind a guard who locks the gate at 5pm sharp), so don’t expect to visit outside of posted visiting hours.
- Artist: Eduardo Sarabia
- Address: Frank Sinatra Drive and Portola Avenue
- When to go: open 9-5
- Reserve tickets here
I loved how interactive this piece was — kinda like a giant triangular maze! The whole installation is made from walls of petates — traditional Mexican rugs woven from palm fibers. Look closely, the texture is wild and intricate.
The piece recalls the journey many people take as they move or migrate from place to place. It acts as a reminder to all those who have passed through the Coachella Valley, while letting us visitors contemplate our own journeys as we navigate through the maze ourselves.
The walls are super tall and you can’t see over them, until you get to the open-space in the middle with a few stairs to peer over. Since the walls are tall, they thankfully provide a bit of shade in some areas!
You’ll need a free, timed entry ticket for this piece as well (from Thursday to Sunday). We ended up going early Tuesday morning (before heading to Joshua Tree) and were the only ones there! The piece is located on the sand a bit away from where street parking is, so you’ll need to trek in the desert for a few minutes. It’s worth it though!
The Wishing Well
- Artist: Serge Attukwei Clottey
- Address: James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center (480 W. Tramview Road, Palm Springs)
- When to go: sunrise to sunset
This large-scale sculpture is completely made of yellow, plastic Kufuor water jugs — used to transport water in Ghana! I liked this piece and how colorful and happy it appeared, but it’s a powerful reminder of all those who need to trek far distances for clean water.
It’s much more impressive from up close — but be sure not to step on the art (even if it’s on the floor)! Don’t miss the famous Palm Springs windmills in the distance.
The North Face x Gucci Pit Stop
- Address: 327 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way
- When to go: anytime
The North Face x Gucci Pit Stop isn’t an official art piece of Desert X 2021, but it looked pretty cool so we decided to check it out anyways. I mean, we literally passed right by it on our way somewhere else, so we couldn’t not stop.
The Pit Stop is a huge branded geodesic dome which commemorates a special capsule collection North Face and Gucci have collaborated on. You’ll find things like luggage and shoes, ready-to-wear pieces, and even tents and sleeping bags (not here, but within the collaboration).
The dome is the dedicated Pit Stop of Desert X 2021, and uses different materials that relate to landscapes, travel, and exploration and is covered in a pattern from the collection.
It’s lit up at night and would probably be really cool to see once the sun goes down.
Other installations we missed:
Since we learned about Desert X kinda last minute (after I finished planning our Palm Springs itinerary), we didn’t have time to make it to all the stops. Well, we probably could have, but that would’ve interfered with our precious pool time at The Ace. And it was unfathomably hot and sticky out. So, ample pool time was necessary!
The pieces we missed include:
- Jackrabbit Homestead
- What Lies Behind the Walls
- Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia (we drove past these photographs on billboards a few times)
- Tamanrasset (although I think we walked right past this)
I hope this massive guide to Desert X 2021 helps you plan your trip! Which pieces are you most interested in seeing?!