This article is dedicated to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the adventures that await you at the top of the San Jacinto mountains.
After enjoying expansive desert views on the valley floor, get ready to be transported to a totally different world at the San Jacinto alpine forest. The state-of-the-art rotating tram cars pick you up from the Valley Station - suspended from a 2 mile stretch of steel cables - and deposit you at the Mountain Station. The trip will take you from an elevation of about 2,600 feet (806 m) to about 8,500 feet (2,596 m. You will experience a temperature drop of about 40 degrees. This is similar to traveling from the Sonora desert to the Canadian tundra in 11 minutes.
Tip: Try to be one of the first people on the tram car. This way you can get a window view.
On your way up you will experience stunning views of the desert, the granite rock pillars that form the base of the mountains, lush vegetation nestled among the rocks and a bird’s eye view of Palm Springs.
The Mountain Station is nestled on the edge between two worlds. On one side it overlooks the Coachella Valley – which is part of the Sonora Desert. On the other side, it overlooks the Alpine forest of the San Jacinto Mountains. Outside the Mountain Station, the land is part of the Mount San Jacinto State Park.
Important Note: During peak hours there usually a long wait to get on the tram. It could be as long as 2 hours. The lines might be shorter if you arrive at opening time or late in the day.
There is a lot to discover inside the station, but the adventure starts at the end of the ramp that leads you down into the forest. But before you descend down the ramp, stop at the ranger station store and talk to the rangers. Get a map of the area and sign your kids up for the junior ranger program.
Things to do in the Forest
The State Park and Wilderness area offer 54 miles of hiking trails. Trails range from the easy nature walk to the strenuous trek to the peak of San Jacinto.
We took the nature walk which took us in a loop close to the mountain station. Along the way, we enjoyed the shade of the forest trees, crossed several bridges over streams (dry during summer) and climbed some interesting rock formations.
If you want to do a more strenuous hike, you will need to obtain a wilderness permit from the ranger station.
During the cold months, and especially after a snowstorm, the area become a winter wonderland. Hiking through the snow is a challenging but very rewarding experience. Make sure you wear the right shows for the snow/ice or rent a snowshoe.
Family Snow Fun
Take the whole family to enjoy some fun with the snow. Build a snowman or have a snowball fight. Ride a sled down the gentle slopes. You can bring your own, or buy one at the adventure store.
Primitive campsites are located in four designated campgrounds throughout the Wilderness area. Wilderness permits are required for any hiking or backpacking. For the more adventurous and well-experienced, snow camping offers a special way to spend a winter weekend.
Guided Nature Walks
This is a very valuable program in which a volunteer takes you on a nature walk to learn about the natural environment in the forest. Those walks are free of charge. They are only available memorial day through labor day. Go here to check times.
Cross-country ski enthusiasts have found the State Park to be unsurpassed in its challenging terrain. You can bring your own equipment or you can rent skis, boots, and poles at the Adventure Center.
For those wanting to take a walk during the winter into the backcountry, snowshoe rentals are available. Wilderness permits are required for anyone venturing outside of Long Valley.
Tip: The Tramway’s Annual Maintenance is scheduled for September 13 through October 1, 2010. Reopening Saturday, October 2, 2010. Check their website before you go.
Read About it:
Back at the Mountain Station
You can watch a movie about the history and construction of the tramway. You can browse the gift and souvenir shop. You can stroll along the balconies overlooking the desert. And the best part, you can climb to the top viewing platform that offers a 360-degree view of the whole area. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Salton Sea to the south and to Mount Charleston north of Las Vegas.
Where to eat
Bring your own snacks or picnic and enjoy your meal at provided picnic tables. Just make sure all the food and drinks are packed away in your backpacks before boarding the tram. Food and drinks are not allowed on the tram.
You can get sandwiched, Pizza or Salads at the cafeteria-style restaurant on the second floor. Food is what you expect from this kind of restaurant. If you buy the combo ride-and-dine ticket, expect to eat at this place.
We decided to have our lunch at the Peaks Restaurants because we liked the menu items and the stunning view from every table in the restaurant. The tables were arranged in 3 terraces so each one would have a view of the desert floor – way below.
It took a while to get a seat, but it was worth the wait.
We ordered the Avocado Bruschetta for appetizers. The appetizers were delicious, but the portion was small. It would be nice if the waiter warned us about the portions so we would order more dishes.
For the main meal, we ordered the Fish and Chips and Cup of Tortilla Soup & Turkey Pomodoro.
The fish was crispy and tasty. The chips were spiced just right. The Tortilla Soup was very spicy and mouthwatering. Turkey sandwich was excellent.
The prices were a little above average, which is expected for this kind of resort.
My rating for this restaurant: 4 stars for food; 3 stars for service and 5 stars for the view.
Note: During construction on the 3rd level, the Peaks moved to be at the same location as Forest View.
Forest View Restaurant
To avoid the wait, we made reservations through OpenTable and were seated right away.
We ordered the Flat Iron Steak and the Spinach Salad. Both were delicious and the steak was cooked to order.
We also enjoyed beer and cocktails. The restaurant has a nice selection of tab and bottled beers. The bar can make any mixed drink you like.
The snack bar at the Valley Station offers a small selection of sandwiches, salads, and drinks. The outdoor seating area offers a great view of the mountain and the tram cars. You can also enjoy a nice waterfall.
Also at the Valley Station, you can take a short flight of stairs to a balcony overlooking the tram station. You can watch the tram cars docking and departing.
Back at Palm Springs
Enjoy a stroll along Palm Canyon Drive – the main artery and commercial and cultural center of Palm Springs. Shop for gifts, have dinner at one of the fine restaurants or pay a visit to one of the museums like Palm Springs Air Museum; Palm Springs Art Museum; or Children's Discovery Museum.
Do you have more time on your hand? Consider visiting the Joshua Tree National Park close by. Read about Joshua Tree NP here.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
One Tramway Road
Palm Springs, CA. 92262