A Living Playground

What do you get when you cross a gecko, a king snake and a chuckwalla? A playground…


Well, it's partially a playground, partially a fun educational experience and a great transition between both. It's found at Gecko Gulch at The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in a most livable desert town, Palm Desert, Calif.

Gecko Gulch features large, colorful creature sculptures manufactured by CemRock, which include the aforementioned desert animals -- the gecko, king snake and chuckwalla, plus a variety of other desert animals and insects. In case you're wondering, the chuckwalla is the largest lizard in the Colorado desert.

At Gecko Gulch, children can pan for gold, explore tunnels made to replicate animal burrows, climb giant spider webs and basically explore the desert ecosystem in an interactive, playground-like environment.

Simply Fun

Most of the features in the park are fully accessible, and the area is graded in a way that makes it very wheelchair friendly. One of the goals of Gecko Gulch is simply to entertain, and to entertain simply.

"Kids still like to play on simple things; we like to think that kids are so high-tech now, but when you watch children of almost all ages at the park, they really get out there and have a lot of fun. It's good to see that kids still enjoy climbing, sliding, digging and burrowing," says Marcia Fisher, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for The Living Desert. "We also see that in our children's Discovery Room, so we keep it as simple as possible in there as well. Children need to use all five senses while they're here, so we tend to stay away from the high-tech stuff, like touch screens that can't handle abuse and tend to break down quickly."

Gecko Gulch is divided into two areas -- one side is a toddler area and the other accommodates older children. The toddler area includes a sand pile, a raptor's nest, a giant tortoise and other creatures.

There's a grassy area in between for parents to sit and watch their children. This sitting area has benches, misters, a water fountain and a foot-washer fountain. The area is gated and closes automatically.

A barrier has been sunk into the ground about a foot and a half to keep the real and unwanted critters -- like snakes and insects -- out of Gecko Gulch.

Just outside the park is a large picnic table area with mister fans that flip on during extremely hot days. Currently, Gecko Gulch is using portable restrooms as they finish up plans to build a children's discovery area, which will have full-service restrooms.

"We placed Gecko Gulch in a transition area between the North American and African section of the zoo so that it would be a nice break for visiting families between the sections," says Fisher. "We wanted to design it so that it would feature oversize sculptures of desert animals, underground burrows and tunnels and other desert features -- like a giant Saguaro cactus slide -- as the play apparatus. We designed the tunnels so that no one could get trapped inside -- there are five ways out of it -- so there's always a way to get out. We also pan for gold at Gecko Gulch at an imagination station so that children understand part of our valley's history. We have an active gold mine in the valley, and they can see what it used to be like."

Gecko Gulch also has a giant "spider web" play feature, which is tied into concrete post. Fisher says they immediately realized there was the potential danger of children falling off onto the concrete posts, so they padded the posts and pulled the "rope" tighter so that it wouldn't sag when a lot of children were using it.

Though unabashedly fun, Gecko Gulch still serves the zoo's educational mission. Fisher says there's appropriate signage the zoo wrote and designed that discusses the desert and its ecosystems.

Each station along the way includes explanatory copy and pictures. At the burrows, for instance, signage copy discusses which animals live there, why they do, and how they live there.

"At Gecko Gulch children can use their imagination. They play on the oversize sculptures and when they see one in the wild they'll hopefully make a connection," says Fisher.