In 10 minutes I went from 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet, with the temperature dropping about 30 degrees, and the surroundings going from desert to mountains.
The Palm Springs Tram has been whisking people up these 2½ miles for 60 years.
It’s the world’s largest rotating tram. The rotation part, though, started in 2000. The floor moves so people get a 360-degree view without having to take a step.
While there are more than 50 miles of hiking at the top, including a route to the top of the 10,834-foot Mount Jacinto, I opted not to tax my muscles. Instead, I took the leisurely Nature Valley Loop and Desert View Loop scenic trails from the top of the tram.
Fortunately, I was ready for the 32-degree temps. I knew to pack gloves and other appropriate clothing. Clearly, not everyone got the memo to dress warm based on their attire and footwear. Considering a few traces of snow were along the trail and ice in the creek, I would not have wanted to have less clothing on.
It’s possible to stay indoors the entire time. Food and beverages are available, with plenty of doses of history.
The scenery is absolutely stunning. In some ways it reminded me of being at Heavenly Mountain Resort or any hiking/biking trail in the Tahoe area where you can see the desert and mountains at once.
But something about the short trails I went on were even more magical. Perhaps because I don’t associate Palm Springs with pine trees I was more taken by the scenery, more impressed by Mother Nature. What also captivated me was the layering of mountains. On the desert side are endless windmills. About 30 miles way is the Salton Sea. It distinctly shimmers in the distance.
Mount San Jacinto State Park is one of the oldest and largest wilderness areas among California’s state parks. Ninety percent of the 14,000 acres is permanently set aside as wilderness.
Like much of the west, this wasn’t always protected land.
One sign reads, “After nearly a century of timber production, parts of the of San Jacinto Mountains looked like nothing more than a logging camp. Where tall trees once stood, stumps and wood debris littered the landscape. Livestock grazing also took its toll. John Muir toured the region with members of the National Forest Commission and advocated for the protection and preservation of the high country. Based on the commission’s report, President Cleveland established the San Jacinto Forest Reserve in 1897. More robust protection came in 1927 when a Forest Service game refuge was created to regulate the hunting of deer. It took another 10 years to arrive at a true wilderness designation. In 1937, the federal government, the California State Park Commission, and local officials collaborated to permanently protect the region. This land was designated the Mount San Jacinto State Park and set aside as a wilderness area. Later, adjacent Federal land was designated the San Jacinto Wilderness. The result was permanent protection of nearly all of San Jacinto’s high country.”
One doesn’t have to “hike” to get good views. Plenty of photo-ops abound just outside the buildings at the top of the tram.
Still, I was happy to walk a couple miles to immerse myself more in the natural setting and get away from the crowds.
The idea of the tram was not welcomed by all initially, with many thinking it was a pipe dream.
Electrical engineer Francis Crocker came up with the idea in 1935, thinking it sure would be a lot cooler in the mountains than sweating in the desert. Thus began the efforts to create a tram through Chino Canyon. After all, the temperature difference between to bottom and top of the tram is usually between 30 and 40 degrees.
During the 26 months of construction it took about 23,000 helicopter trips to deliver workers and materials to the sites where the towers were erected and the mountain station was built. The tram opened in September 1963.
Now it’s a tourist attraction, a refuge for locals, a state park and a federal wilderness area.
- Parking is $15; free to locals with ID.
- Tram tickets are $30.95. They may be purchased in advance.
- Phone: 760.325.1391