When you speed down I-10 between Arizona and Southern California, you might not think of stopping in the Coachella Valley and Indio, California. However, I highly recommend taking some time to explore the history and amazing agricultural bounty. It wasn’t until the Southern Pacific railroad was built, bringing in potential settlers from the coast, that people realized the rich soil, arid climate, and artesian wells were ideal for agriculture. By the late 1940s, Colorado River water flowed into the area via the Coachella Canal and agriculture grew.
While the history of Indio, California—once named Indian Wells—is beautifully illustrated by murals throughout the downtown area, you’ll be quickly drawn to the sweet taste of the dates, now a major crop in the area. And, the quirky Shields Date Garden and Café has been a roadside attraction since the 1920s.
Add in Indio, California’s notoriety as a city of festivals hosting the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and an annual National Date Festival (both scheduled for 2022), and you’ll discover plenty of reasons to visit.
What's in This Article:
Dates, Sex, and Shakes
Imported in the late 1800s from Egypt, Algeria, and the Persian Gulf to the southwest, dates are huge in Riverside County, California. It’s one of the region’s most popular crops. You may see a billboard on the freeway advertising Shield’s Date Garden (and famous date shakes). Take an exit and drive down Hwy 111 and you’ll come upon a giant armored knight sign bearing the name of Shields Dates beckoning you to stop. And you should. It’s a great place to wander through the date groves, shop for dates, and get a historical perspective on the importance of dates in the valley.
This roadside attraction has been open since 1923. The family-established date farm has been dreaming up ways to attract visitors since then. In the 1950s, the owner put together a slide show about date growing and named it “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” Now, it’s a short flick showing daily at the complex.
But best of all is the chance to get off the fast-paced highway and wander the shaded date groves. Look up and you will see ladders high in the palms. Why? Date palms must be pollinated by hand and harvested by Palmeros, expert date farmers who have to climb almost to the top of the tree.
Visible from their café patio is a beautiful pond with a fountain. You’ll pass by this oasis as you wander the date garden trails.
A fairly new addition is a collection of life-sized biblical figures illustrating the life of Jesus. The statues were donated by a Canadian couple who regularly visited Shields and needed a home for their unusual collection. And why not? Dates were grown for food in the Middle East as far back as 4000 BC. So, they fit in among the citrus trees and date palms.
When you finish your tour, stop by the shop for all types of date products, gourmet goodies, and a Shields’ Date Shake. It’s filling, but this is a tradition for many who travel through the Coachella Valley.
Consider taking home a box of Floyd Shields’ hybrid date varieties—the blonde and brunette varieties. A fun way to serve them is to cut them lengthwise, place a piece of walnut inside, close the date and roll it in powdered sugar. Easy, but delicious.
Floyd Shields not only created a tourist attraction, but he also created date products. One well-known product that is usually in customers’ shopping carts is Shields’ Date Crystals, which you can use in recipes in lieu of chopped dates. Both the crystals and yummy date sugar are sold in the same reusable metal tins that Mr. Shields originally used.
Indio, California Farmer’s Stand Surprise
After checking out the Shield’s Date Gardens, I headed toward Indio’s historic downtown. But a busy farm stand caught my eye. Madison Street Produce, open seasonally, was drawing quite a crowd and so I pulled into their large parking lot next to the fields of healthy produce. They were known for their strawberries, and they had flats of the bright red berries, plus lettuce, eggplant, and more harvested from the adjacent field just that morning.
But my “wow moment,” was spying the bright blue flowers, some of them being dried in the back of the shed, that looked like thistles. In fact, they were a thistle-like flower—the flower of the artichoke. Now, I’ve seen fields of artichokes growing in the Monterey Bay area but never such a gorgeous flower. The busy clerk told me they were for ornamental purposes and suggested I go back and see them growing in the fields. Those were even more brilliant and made for memorable photos.
But soon I was on to central Indio to find out more about dates, check out more murals, and stop for a highly touted culinary surprise.
More About Dates
Since the Coachella Valley grows almost 95 percent of the dates grown in the U.S., it’s only natural that the town of Indio hosts an annual county fair and National Date Festival. The next event takes place in 2022 at the Riverside County Fairgrounds with Middle Eastern-inspired buildings, carnival rides, concerts, and, of course, dates and date cooking demos. 2022 will be their 75th festival. Watch for a Middle Eastern-themed pageant, camel races, and more traditional date festival events that will surprise you.
Also in Indio, you’ll find the Coachella Valley History Museum surrounded by scenic grounds featuring the 1926 adobe Smiley-Tyler House, the historic 1909 Indio Schoolhouse, and the world’s only Date Museum. The museum hosts special events like their Day of the Dead celebration and often has special exhibits.
Mexican Delight in Indio, California
During my travels, I had a marvelous dinner in downtown Palm Springs. During the meal, I chatted with the owner who echoed what I had been told by others. “You must have a meal at El Mexicali Café – the one down by the railroad tracks.” I’ve learned that where Mexican farmworkers settle, there will be great traditional Mexican food, but to have the owner of a high-end steak and seafood restaurant make the recommendation is very special. He added, “just expect some rumbling when the trains go by!” He recommended their octopus dishes but I don’t eat octopus (long story.)
As I drove by more murals, I spied a small building with an open patio right next to the railroad tracks. It was surrounded by a large dirt parking lot. This was the place!
It wasn’t even lunchtime yet and the patio was busy. They were serving breakfast or lunch – whatever you wanted. Banners hung from the rafters advertising margaritas and Mexican beer, and I noted that El Mexicali Cafe has a full bar, but it was a bit early. I was ready for an ice-cold cola, house-made chips, and freshly made creamy guacamole to start. They make everything from scratch there.
It was a friendly place, too. The wait staff was cheerful and the patrons seated nearby struck up conversations with me. They were eager to help me choose my brunch. I went for a combination plate, nothing too exotic, because I was hungry for “traditional.” I did notice that they served enticing dishes like chilaquiles, machaca con huevos (shredded beef with eggs), and papas con chorizo (potatoes with sausage) for breakfast. Lunch starters ranged from shrimp cocktail, ceviche, and the “Guilty Special” with shrimp, octopus, and abalone in a “devil sauce.” And that was just for starters. The menu went on and on.
As I chatted with a woman from New York there on vacation to go hiking in nearby Joshua Tree National Park, the waitress brought my dish. It was every bit as delicious as promised and, yes, the trains rumbled by, and cars whizzed past. But I was in my element—dreaming of being in a little Mexican village. Of course, I couldn’t eat it all so placed the leftovers in my cooler and headed east to home, knowing I had great makings for an early dinner.
When You Go to Indio
In my short time there, I gained a sense of California’s agricultural history and experienced why visitors should stop in Indio for today’s foodie finds. Have a date shake, pick up produce, and enjoy a Mexican meal.
It all awaits you in Indio, California. The Greater Palm Springs Visitors Center provides information on places to visit, stay, and dine. While you are there, take a tour of their historical murals and learn more about life in this agricultural railroad town. For more ideas on California travels, see these articles by Wander writers.