Strolling around a glass observation tower on the top of a skyscraper. Walking on the glass Skywalk at the Grand Canyon. Mountain climbing on sheer cliffs. Skiing down the side of a steep mountain. Being a tight rope walker. Nope, none of these are currently on my bucket list and most likely never will be, especially now with my new found fear of heights which has developed as I have, um, let say “matured”. But somehow that slipped my mind (hmmm, another sign of maturity?) when friends told us that we should add a trek up the side of San Jacinto Mountain on the Palm Springs Aerial Tram to our itinerary during our stay at Rancho California RV Resort in Aguanga, CA.
After checking the weather to ensure they were predicting a good day, we purchased tickets (adults $25.95, seniors $23.95, children $16.95) online, planning to take a tram at 11:00 a.m. on what was supposed to be a sunny day.
Leaving in what we thought was plenty of time for our hour drive to Palm Springs, we stopped for breakfast at the Country Junction Family Restaurant in Beaumont, CA. Good breakfast! It seemed a little pricey but then again everything is here in CA!
Looking at the gargantuan mountains ahead of us as we turned on to Tram Way, I started to get a little nervous. Yikes, those mountains are really, really tall! What was I thinking?? At the entrance, we paid $5 for parking and were directed to Parking Lot A. In planning our arrival time, we didn’t know that we would have to park at the bottom of the parking lot, then make what seemed to be a never ending climb up a very steep hill to the entrance. Long story short, by the time we got there we were too late to board the 11:00 a.m. tram. Instead we were reassigned to the 11:30 a.m. tram. Fine by me since it gave us a few minutes to catch our breath, peruse the historical display panels which explain the geology and history of the canyon and take a few pictures.
Here are some stats about the tram car:
- It is a 2.5 mile, 10 minute journey from the Valley Station (elevation 2,643′), to the Mountain Station (elevation 8,516′). The summit of San Jacinto Mountain is at 10,839′.
- Temperatures at the mountain station are usually about 30 degrees cooler than those in the valley.
- During the ascent, the tram passes through five unique life zones from the Mexican Sonoran Desert to an Alpine wilderness.
- Manufactured in Switzerland, it is the largest rotating tram car in the world and the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The cabin floor rotates twice per trip on ascent and descent.
- The car has an interior dimension of 18 feet in diameter and 8 feet high with a capacity of up to 80 passengers and 35,600 pounds cabin weight when loaded
- Actual length of the cables traveled by car is 12,708 feet, spanning a total of 5 towers. The first tower is the tallest at 227 feet
- See the website for more technical details.
As we were herded towards the tram, we were instructed to stop so we could have our souvenir photo taken (heard someone say that the cost was $25 so we didn’t bother looking at it). Hard to believe that 78 others were going to fit with us inside this tin can with windows. Standing by the open windows as we started to ascend, the floor started to rotate making it difficult to hold on to the railings along the bottom of the open windows. That made me feel somewhat insecure, especially when the tram started to sway at each of the five towers. Good thing Rob took a lot of pictures out the windows, I missed most of the scenery since I was studying the floor, too freaked out to look up at the sheer cliffs or to look down at where we had been. Gulp!
After what seemed like a very, very long 10 minutes, we finally landed at the Mountain Station where there are two restaurants, several observation decks offering picturesque and spectacular vistas of the valley floor below (unfortunately the Grubbs Viewing level, which offers a 360 degree view of the valley, was closed due to snow), a natural history museum, two documentary theaters, gift shop and over 50 miles of hiking trails. Several trails were close to the station but they were covered with ice and snow so there was no hiking for us that day.
In one of the theaters we learned that the aerial tram was the dream of electrical engineer Francis F. Crocker in 1935. Dubbed as “Crocker’s Folly” and delayed for a number of years because of WWII and the Korean War, construction began in 1960 and completed in 1963. The unprecedented use of helicopters in the construction of four of the aerial tram’s five towers helped the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway earn a reputation as a great engineering feat. A number of TV shows (Mannix, Mission Impossible, I Spy and Columbo to name a few) were filmed on the tram. In 2000 the original tram cars were replaced by the new cars that rotate slowly, offering riders a 360° panoramic view of Chino Canyon and the desert valley floor.
When hunger pains struck, we had two choices – Peaks Restaurant for fine contemporary California cuisine with awesome views, or the cafeteria style Pines Cafe. Wanting a more relaxed atmosphere, we decided to have lunch at Peaks which was quite busy so we had to wait about 30 minutes for a table. We both had a Classic Cheddar Burger ($15) served with curly fries. Food was good but nothing special. Guess we were paying high prices for the view.
I have to admit I let out a huge sigh of relief when we arrived at the Valley Station. But despite being a little scared, the entire experience was well worth it. Now that I know what to expect, believe it or not, I think I probably would do it again!