"The desert," observed J. Smeaton Chase, a British inhabitant of what was then the tiny village of Palm Springs, "is the opposite of all that we naturally find pleasing."

The forest, though gloomy, offers a sense of companionship and the means of sustaining life. The mountains provide a pleasant boundary to our lives. "But the desert yields no point of sympathy, and meets every need of man with a cold, repelling `No.' "Chase eventually succumbed to "that pale grave face of the desert"; it took him "subtly captive," he cheerfully complained. Whatever the desert's allure - and the quirky, indefatigable explorer maintains that he was never able to define it - "there is something of haunting in it, and it is haunting that lasts for life."

Everything seems to have changed in Palm Springs since Chase set up household there in 1918 and used the village as a base camp for excursions into the surrounding desert and mountains.

In the year that he completed what many still consider the region's best travel guide, "California Desert Trails, Two Years of Adventures," the town was still 20 years away from being incorporated.

Palm Springs had no electric lighting or cement sidewalks, a telegraph but no telephones, one Presbyterian church, one Roman Catholic Church on an Indian reservation, a tiny library, and one physician, except in summer, when most residents deserted the Coachella Valley for cooler spots - Indians for the mountains, white settlers for the sea.

A Palm Springs voting register in 1918 listed 40 names - 22 Republicans, 13 Democrats, 4 independent souls, and one member of the Prohibition Party.

Today, the city of Palm Springs has a year-round population of 38,000.

The metropolitan area, which includes nine cities, has 187,000 year-round residents and plays host to 2 million visitors each year. It has 7,645 swimming pools, more than 100 tennis courts and 101 golf courses, each of which requires one million gallons of water a day.

Once there was only Palm Springs, and across the valley Desert Hot Springs, which the writer and radio talk-show host Jonathan Schwartz, a Palm Springs devotee, described recently as a community "of almost comic anonymity." In the last decade, luxurious country clubs, hotel cities and dozens of residential communities have marched relentlessly across the valley. They now stretch for more than 40 miles through the communities of Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indian Wells - where the palatial Hyatt Grand Champions Resort offers only suites to its guests - and even beyond the far reaches of the palm-tree-lined highways named after the city's best-known residents - Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Gerald R. Ford.

Among the most lavish, or garish, depending on one's taste, is Palm Desert's Marriott Desert Springs Spa and Resort, a sprawling sand-colored warren with more than 900 guest rooms, nine restaurants, three swimming pools, two golf courses, and one artifical lake, complete with sinister-looking fish and ferry boats that shuttle visitors between the main lobby and their rooms.

There are more and more of these facilities each time I return to Palm Springs.

Fortunately, the city's rather rigorous zoning laws have restricted them to areas alongside the main arteries and have limited their height and design to conform with the area's character.

What that means in practice is the pleasing absence of golden arches alongside major roads, few gaudy billboards and neon signs on main streets, and lots of beige-toned low-slung structures with sienna-colored tile roofs. The exception is Cathedral City, incorporated only in 1981, where zoning is lax.

Getting to the desert from Los Angeles is still as simple as hopping into a car and heading east on the San Bernardino freeway, without tolls.

In only an hour, Los Angeles's smoggy haze and crowded beaches have been left behind. Another hour later, the freeway approaches two mountain ranges.

On the left are the snow-capped, 10,000-foot-high San Bernardinos, among the nation's oldest peaks; on the right, the relatively smaller and younger Santa Rosas, also covered with snow, but less so.

As the road cuts through the mountains at the Banning Pass, the air becomes clear, colder, purer. The car climbs; ears pop; spirits lift.

As you turn off the freeway onto Highway 111, the valley spreads out below, 450 feet above sea level. The road descends slowly, gently hugging the base of the mountain that protects the enclave from high winds and inclement weather.

There, nestled below the Santa Rosas, below Mount San Jacinto, the chain's tallest peak, is Palm Springs, as Chase wrote, "the child of the mountain ... nourished out of its veins."

I have made the trip by car dozens of times. It is always thrilling. And it is a different thrill than that afforded by the flight from Los Angeles, which is not recommended for travelers who dislike flying in the normally turbulent air above mountain passes. The trip by car is far less unsettling.

In fall, spring and winter, the weather is usually fair in Palm Springs. The cobalt blue sky of day often gives way to extraordinary sunsets, in which the sun's last rays turn the porcelain desert glaze of the mountains a dazzling range of colors - from pale chrome to ocher, rose, royal purple, indigo, duskier purple and finally black in less than an hour.

No less impressive are the sunrises.

Though not an early riser by nature, I find it difficult to sleep through a dawn here. The tentative first light turns the mountains an ethereal gold. At night, the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine and desert thyme; but at sunrise the fragrance of orange blossoms dominates, and the sound of birds and roosters are all that disturbs the breathless sunrise.

At night, there are thousands of stars, and even an occasional shooting star. And the stars are readily visible, because, apart from Indian Avenue, Palm Canyon Drive and a few of the other main streets, there are no street lights on residential roads.

"Neighbors just didn't want the darn things," said Frank M. Bogart, the former mayor of Palm Springs, who recently published a pictorial history of the city, where he settled in 1926.

Sonny Bono, formerly of Sonny and Cher, has been mayor for two years. And an American flag flies outside the exclusive Tamarask Country Club whenever its most famous resident since 1944, Frank Sinatra, is back in town.

(Sinatra, who has a passion for passenger trains, is said to have breakfast every morning in a train car parked on his property. Until an overly avid fan drove a golf cart through his front door several years ago, it was possible to walk right up to his house. Now there is security and a posted warning: "Forget the dog. Beware of the owner.")

The Palm Springs area is also home to Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Victoria Principal, and the late Liberace, among others.

Walter Annenberg, the publishing magnate, entertains the celebrated and powerful at his 36,000-square-foot, walled-in complex in neighboring Rancho Mirage, protected by many security guards.

If star gazing appeals, there are several tours from the city center of their homes, from the outside, to be sure. These tours are almost as old as Palm Springs; Bogart said that visitors from Hollywood began coming to the valley in the early 1930s to make movies and relax.

Many of them came, as do so many of the famous and not-so-famous today, for the sun and for the waters, the miraculously restorative mineral springs that bubble up from underneath the valley floor.

It was these hot springs - Agua Caliente, or hot water in Spanish, as both the indigenous Indians and the town were first known - that initially attracted white settlers here.

My father, who started coming to Palm Springs in the 1930s, still remembers paying $2 for the privilege of baking himself in mud and being lowered into the hot, bubbling mineral bath for a final rinsing.

The fresh mud bath is gone and prices have risen since then. A half-hour massage and a dunk in the mineral bath now cost $40. But the pleasure of the city's largest mineral baths is unchanged.

The Palm Springs Spa Hotel, which opened its doors in the mid-60's, is much the same. With its gleaming white-tile dressing rooms, sauna, steam bath, massage and relaxing rooms, this unpretentious spa still attracts a delightful mix of tourists and locals, many of whom swear by the bath's recuperative powers. On Indian Avenue in the heart of town, the spa is built on the site of the original Indian bathhouse.

A relaxing spa should be followed by a date shake, a milk shake made from the valley's second most popular crop. (Thompson seedless grapes rank first, accounting for roughly $133 million of the billion dollars earned each year from agricultural produce.) Most of the hotels and restaurants serve them, as do the date farms along the valley roads. It is not a drink for dieters, but after a day of horseback riding or hiking in the canyons, the drink is enormously refreshing.

"When I first came, horseback riding was all you could do here," said Bogart. "There was no golf or tennis. It was just walking and riding, riding and walking." For many desert lovers, that is still the most engaging sport here. I prefer to trust my own two feet, but riders swear by the Smoke Tree Stables on an Indian reservation in the canyons only a 10-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs. One of the most spectacular rides is said to be the one- to two-hour trail linking Andreas and Murray canyons.

The three canyons closest to Palm Springs - Andreas, Murray and Palm - are a hiker's paradise.