Exploring the Sunnylands Center and Gardens is one of the best things to do in Palm Springs.
Located just under 11 miles from downtown Palm Springs in nearby Rancho Mirage, Sunnylands is the former winter estate of Walter and Lenore Annenberg.
Sunnylands Center & Gardens is worth visiting for its Impressionist-feel desert gardens, its mid-century modern visitor center with mountain views, and the spectacular historic estate that has served as a high-profile retreat for many decades.
Sunnylands will appeal to history buffs and to nature and garden lovers, but also to anyone just looking for a peaceful stroll amidst beautiful surroundings.
Planning a visit to Sunnylands? Read on to discover what to see and do at Sunnylands Center and Gardens, plus essential information for your visit.
VISIT SUNNYLANDS IN RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA
Overview of Sunnylands
Things to Do at Sunnylands Center and Gardens
Tour the Sunnylands Historic House and Grounds
Plan Your Visit to Sunnylands
Tips for the Best Experience at Sunnylands
The History of Sunnylands
Walter and Lenore Annenberg were prominent business persons that also served in public service positions. They were also known for their philanthropy. Sunnylands was their winter estate.
Walter Annenberg, a publishing magnate, was the US Ambassador to the UK between 1969 and 1974, and Lenore Annenberg served as Chief of Protocol under President Reagan from March 1981 until January 1982.
The historic estate, the main home on the property, was completed in 1966, and has since served as an important retreat for world leaders and other luminaries. It’s known as the “Camp David of the West.”
Before her death in 2009, Lenore Annenberg set aside 15 acres on the property for the creation of a visitor center.
Sunnylands Center, the 17,000-square-foot mid-century modern, was built and opened to the public in 2012, along with nine acres of desert gardens around the center.
Both Annenbergs have their final resting places on the property. The estate is now managed by The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
What to See and Do at Sunnylands Center & Gardens
Step into the Sunnylands Center
The Sunnylands Center is a sleek white mid-century modern building with a stunning glass facade.
The building sits at the end of a curving driveway that winds past the desert gardens.
Inside is a lounge area where you can sit and look out at the beautiful view out the glass at the back of the building, or read.
You’ll find sculptures such as Rodin’s Eternal Spring and Giacometti’s Bust of Diego on Stele III on display at Sunnylands Center.
Admire the rotating art exhibits, and view the multimedia presentations that talk about the Annenbergs and the history of Sunnylands.
You’ll also find a gift shop to browse, and there’s a cafe if you want a drink or a bite to eat. The cafe offers snacks and light lunches, and iced tea and French press coffee, among other beverages.
There are tables on the back patio as well, if you want to sit outside.
From the glass windows and doors at the back you will look out onto a green expanse of lawn, with the mountains (sometimes with snow at the top!) in the distance.
The lawn is fringed with lovely palo verde trees.
Just outside the back doors and windows is a pair of long rectangular reflecting water pools filled with river stones.
Stroll the Desert Gardens
The landscape at Sunnylands, which includes the desert gardens, was designed by James Burnett, with Mary Irish as the horticultural consultant.
Reportedly, the Annenbergs’ Van Gogh painting A Wheatfield with Cypresses was the inspiration for the garden design.
Close to the center, desert plants are arranged in organized patterns, with the design becoming more organic toward the outer fringes of the gardens.
Pathways lead you past the plantings, so that you can observe species at close quarters if you so desire.
The gardens hold more than 50,000 plants, with several dozen desert plant species represented.
You’ll find cacti, succulent, and other desert plants from North and South America, Africa, and the Mediterranean in the gardens.
While you’ll find many different shades of green, the plants also put on a brilliant display of color, from reds and pinks to oranges and yellows, when they bloom.
Plants are arranged so artistically that you’ll feel like you are wandering through a natural sculpture garden.
Agave, barrel cacti, saguaro, yucca, mesquite, and many other types of arid-adapted plants are arranged in pleasing patterns. Height is provided by desert trees such as the palo verde.
There is a wildflower garden, and feeding stations attract a large number of birds, so bring your binoculars or zoom lens!
Birding enthusiasts may want to join the free guided birding walk through the gardens, offered each Friday at 8.45 a.m., from November through May.
There’s also a labyrinth for contemplation, and seats in nooks where you can relax and enjoy the quiet beauty of the gardens.
Many parts of the gardens feature distant views of the mountains.
There are audio walks that you can download if you want to learn as you stroll.
What to See at the Sunnylands Historic House and Grounds
History of the Estate
Sunnylands also houses the original historic house that served as the Annenbergs’ winter home, and you can visit as part of a guided tour.
Architect A. Quincy Jones designed the 25,000-square-foot home in the mid-century modern style, with a striking pink roof and tall pink boundary walls.
The estate consists of the main home, guest quarters, and three guest cottages.
The extensive grounds include a 9-hole golf course, a rose garden, and about a dozen man-made lakes. 25 acres have been set aside as a sanctuary for resident and migratory birds.
You can see many sculptures at Sunnylands, including works by Rodin, a 30-foot-tall Kwakiutl totem pole carved by Henry Hunt, a bronze fountain by the Chávez Morado brothers, and Birds of Welcome, an abstract avian sculpture.
Over the course of their stay in the home, the Annenbergs built a substantial fine art collection, which included works by Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso.
Many of the paintings were donated to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art after Walter Annenberg’s death. Some of the collection of paintings and sculptures can, however, still be viewed here.
The historic estate was much more than just a winter home.
Over more than four decades, the Annenbergs hosted many world leaders and international luminaries at their home, including many US presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Art Collection at Sunnylands
The interior of the historic home is stunning. The great room features marble floors, elegant furnishings, and fabulous views.
The kitchen displays the Annenbergs’ beautiful china and the Room of Memories a fascinating collection of hundreds of photos, letters, and cards. The atrium contains an original casting of Rodin’s Eve.
Decorative objects such as vases, tableware, and figurines are also part of the fine art collection at Sunnylands, from such renowned names as Tiffany, Lalique, and Steuben.
Essential Information for Visiting Sunnylands
Where is Sunnylands located?
Sunnylands is located at 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270.
Rancho Mirage is one of the desert cities that make up the Greater Palm Springs area. It is about 11 miles from downtown Palm Springs (see map).
When is Sunnylands open?
At the time of writing, the Sunnylands Center & Gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday, from 8.30 a.m. until 4 p.m.
The historic house and grounds can only be visited on guided tours, also generally from Wednesday through Sunday. Tours usually start at 9 a.m.
What is the cost of admission to Sunnylands Center & Gardens?
The Sunnylands Center and Gardens are free to visit.
Are dogs allowed at Sunnylands?
Pets are not allowed at Sunnylands. Per state and federal laws, service dogs are permitted.
What types of tours are available for the Sunnylands Historic Estate?
The Historic House Tour is available from October through early June. The tour lasts 90 minutes and showcases the interior of the house. The tour costs $49.00 per person.
Birding on the Estate is offered from November through April. The 90-minute tour is led by a local birding expert and lasts 90 minutes. It does not include the interior of the historic house. This tour costs $39.00 per person.
Open-Air Experience is a 45-minute shuttle tour of the estate. It is offered November through April. No access to the interior of the historic home. This tour costs $28.00 per person.
The Historic Walk is available November through April. The 60-minute walk through the estate takes you close to the historic house but there is no interior access. This tour costs $26.00 per person. You can inquire at the reception desk to see if any same-day tickets are available.
Notes on Guided Historic Estate Tours
Tours may not be offered if retreats are occurring at the estate, and may, in rare instances be canceled after the sale of tickets, in which case you will be refunded your money.
Tickets go on sale on the at 9 a.m. on the 15th of each month for tour dates the following month. They sell out almost immediately, so be sure to snag yours as soon as they are offered.
Tour guests must be at least ten years old.
Tickets may be purchased online at the Sunnylands website.
Parking at Sunnylands
There is a good-sized parking lot at the Sunnylands Center. Parking is free, and there are charging stations for electric vehicles as well.
Historic house and estate tours begin at the Sunnylands Center, so you can park here for the tours as well.
Is photography allowed?
Photos are not permitted inside the historic house, but you can take photos everywhere else. Staged photo shoots are not allowed.
Tips for Your Visit to Sunnylands
Visit in the Winter or Early Spring
The cooler months of the year are the best time to visit Palm Springs in general, and Sunnylands as well.
The weather is pleasant for wandering about outdoors, with daytime highs generally in the low 70s in the winter and in the low 80s in April and early May.
Many succulents bloom in the early spring, so that’s a great time to visit the desert gardens at Sunnylands, although the gardens look stunning even when not in bloom.
You’ll find the greatest variety of tours for the historic house and grounds between November and April, although you can tour the main house for a longer period.
Book the Main House Tour!
Especially if you are an art, architecture, or history buff, you will want to plan your visit ahead of time and snag tickets for an interior tour of the main house. It’s well worth the time and the money!
The house features exposed architectural elements, a spectacular pink roof, and walls of Mexican lava rock.
The statement sculptures on the grounds and the beautifully designed and furnished interiors with the many pieces of art will delight art lovers.
History buffs will enjoy touring the home and grounds to learn about the many retreats of import that have occurred at Sunnylands, and the many luminaries that have visited. The Room of Memories is fascinating!
Allow Plenty of Time!
The gardens are great for a stroll. But the ambience is so serene and beautiful that if you enjoy being in nature, you’ll want to spend some time just relaxing for a bit in a quiet nook.
We’ve spent an entire morning or afternoon on the center and gardens, because we love desert plants and birdwatching.
If you plan to tour the historic home and grounds as well, plan on several hours for your visit. Bring a small picnic lunch to enjoy or grab a bite at the cafe.
Check Out Special Events
Sunnylands Center someyimes offers special events, from yoga and tai chi in the gardens to family days and special exhibitions and movies on the lawns.
So be sure to check the calendar to see what’s on tap for the dates of your planned visit!
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
The gardens are a desert environment, with desert plants that feature prickly parts, and wildlife.
Be aware of your safety as you walk. We wear long pants and sleeves and keep to designated paths, as well as sturdy but comfortable closed-toed walking shoes.
Bring Sun Protection
Since you are in the Southern California desert, sun protection is essential.
Carry Adequate Drinking Water
Bring a bottle of water with you when you walk in the gardens or when you tour the grounds of the main home.
You can fill up a refillable bottle at the center.
Visit Early or Late for Good Photos
The light can get harsh in the middle part of the day, unless it’s a cloudy day.
Choose the earlier or later part of the day if you are looking for more mellow light for photos.
Bring your smartphone or a camera for photos and short personal videos!
Looking for a small camera that takes great landscape photos? Consider the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III. It shoots excellent high-resolution photos, and great video as well. Get it on Amazon!
If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars. We saw many birds while we were walking the desert gardens!
We use the Celestron Trailseeker compact waterproof binoculars. They work great even in low light situations.
Planning to explore more of California? Here are some other guides to check out!
- The Best Botanical Gardens in California
- California’s Most Beautiful Waterfalls
- Visiting the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens near Pasadena
- The Best Gardens in the SF Bay Area
- Visiting McWay Falls in Big Sur
- The Best Gold Rush Towns in California
- A Guide to the Balboa Park Gardens in San Diego
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