With the fabled California desert city of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley spread far below in a hazy morning shimmer, it occurs to me I have something in common with the large raven I spot scooting determinedly along a metal guard railing – we both have flown up a mountain.
Poe – what other name to call a raven? – and I are at an elevation of 8,516 feet on Mount San Jacinto in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. I don’t know the point of departure and flight path my feathered comrade traveled to get here.
My mode of transportation, however, is pretty spectacular.
I’m flying aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It’s the second steepest tram ride in the world. My aircraft is the world’s largest rotating tramcar and the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere (two other rotating trams are in Switzerland and South Africa).
Flying truly is the operative verb here. A recorded voice following the ascent from the valley station at 2,643 feet above sea level to the mountain station, where the wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park beckons beyond, sends us disembarking passengers onward with a “Thank you for flying the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.”
The tramway is a major gateway to this area, one which Congress sought to preserve in 2000 by officially designating it as a treasured natural resource for its nationally significant biological, cultural, recreational, geological, educational, and scientific values.
The ride is nothing short of exhilarating, and the thrill of it still pulsates within me.
I generally don’t have a fear of heights. My childhood visit to the observation deck of the Empire State Building elicited newfound joy and amazement. I once stood atop the open-air skeletal structure of my employer’s 384-foot-high office building for a topping out ceremony to lay the final steel beam. I peered over the unbarricaded edge (unbelievable in today’s hyper-safety environment, but true) to glimpse the street, and felt no qualms. I’ve traipsed with glee over the rocks at the top of 14,115-foot-high Pikes Peak after riding the cog railway. Soaring above the lush vineyards of the Burgundy region of France in a hot-air balloon ranks on my list of top 10 travel experiences.
Any momentary thought that my first tramway trip might prove differently quickly vanishes, especially as I realize most of my fellow riders are part of an elderly tour group. One gent even uses portable oxygen, which hopefully for his sake is enough to compensate for the thinning air we’ll soon encounter. If they can fly the tramway, so can I.
The recorded narration playing inside the tramcar informs us that some of the windows will open automatically during the trip (good, air current!), and to keep our hands inside. Our tramcar takes off from the station and slowly begins its ascent.
The narration reveals vital statistics about the tramway that are as staggering as the steep escarpment and rugged terrain beneath and around us.
The 2.5-mile long trip up 6,000 feet of Chino Canyon takes 10 minutes. The tramcar, its interior dimensions 18 feet in diameter and eight feet high, accommodates up to 80 passengers and a weight of 35,600 pounds. It travels 12,708 feet of cables, and passes through five towers, the first being the tallest at 227 feet. The floor of the tramcar slowly rotates twice during the trip, affording us full 360 degree views. The ride is smooth, with slight vibrations as we move through the cable towers, and otherwise quiet, except for our excited chatter as we ooh and aah our way upward.
The contrast from where we take off to where we land is startling, for we pass through five distinct life zones. Our flight begins in the dry, dusty Sonoran Desert, with the fall temperature a seasonal 94 degrees, passes over jagged granite peaks, and ends amid an arctic alpine wilderness that’s surprisingly windless and a pleasingly balmy 53 degrees. Poe and a few squirrels are the only wildlife I spot during my brief stay at the mountain station, but the state park is a diverse habitat for roadrunners, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, ringtail cats, the endangered southern rubber boa, and others.
The mountain station features a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar, and the state park visitor center, but I’m more interested in absorbing the panorama from V.W. Grubbs Viewpoint.
A sign notes that from where I’m standing the San Andreas Fault parallels Interstate 10, the fault system’s forces having etched the current landscape with its pulling, straining, lifting, and dipping over millions of years. True confession – the thought of an earthquake, however remote, while at this extreme height does give me pause.
Enough of that, though, for the scenery is magnificent.
I see the runway of Palm Springs International Airport and the thousands of spinning wind turbines of the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, the oldest wind farm in the U.S. Farther in the distance is Salton Sea, a 35-mile long shallow lake on the desert floor. In the early 1900s, a raging Colorado River, swollen by heavy rainfalls and snowmelt, overflowed and eventually surged into the Salton Sink, a desert basin 278 feet below sea level. It took two years to contain the flow, and by then it created the lake.
I venture indoors to watch a brief film about the history of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. We owe our thanks for this engineering marvel to Francis Crocker. One day in 1935, the young electrical engineer gazed longingly at the still snow-capped peak of Mount San Jacinto. Mopping his brow in the heat, he expressed a desire to “go up there where it’s nice and cool.”
Desire became a dream and then a plan for a tramway. Despite being dubbed “Crocker’s Folly” by a local newspaper reporter, he persevered. Crocker engaged funding ($8.5 million from revenue bonds, not tax payers’ money), the support of politicians, a feasibility study by the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Von Roll Iron Works of Switzerland to manage the construction.
Nearly 30 years later in 1963, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway took its maiden flight. In 2000 the tramway conducted an ambitious modernization program, again with Von Roll, to install new tramcars and update facilities.
The duration of my trip precludes time to explore Mount San Jacinto State Park, which has some 54 miles of hiking trails, primitive campgrounds, a picnic area, a ranger station, and an adventure center for cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing during snow season.
As I board for the descent, I think about adding hiking to my itinerary the next time I book passage aboard Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – and maybe a reunion with Poe.