Tram To The Stars- Hiking The San Jacintos

We are lucky enough to have a second home, part-time, in Palm Springs. The bulk of the time, we visit in the “high season”; November thru April roughly. But each year, we do go down at least once in the heart of the summer, or the “low season”, and this year, it was around the 4th of July.

Around that time of year, the place changes. There are far fewer people around, they tend to me more local, and well, uhhh, its hot. Like 115 degrees hot. So, many stay inside til late in the day, and only then, do the desert dwellers emerge from their caves, from under rocks, or from their air-conditioned cantilevered modernism, to be outside.

There is another option to beat the heat however. In North Palm Springs, very near home, there is a tramway that rises some 6,000 feet into the San Jacinto Mountains. Climbing some 2,000 feet to get to the base of the tram, that means one is some 8,000 feet above the valley floor; and thus much cooler; the temperature often averaging some 30 degrees cooler at the top. So this amble took advantage of this technology, and opted for a hike on a 75 degree day rather than a 105 degree one. Here’s the vicinity map:

The tramway is a remarkable engineering feat. It was built in 1963, with a Swiss firm not surprisingly building the cars. The current cars rotate 360 degrees (slowly!) as they rise , which gives one incredible vistas of both the rapidly expanding valley below, as well as the sheer face of the mountain in front of you. The transformation of the landscape, along with the temperature , is stunning.

Once inside the tram, visitors hold on as the slightly jarring effect of spinning as you rise sets in:

Again , heights don’t bother me, but for the squeamish, particularly when the car shakes as it goes over one of these towers, it can be unsettling. This is what it looks like heading further up:

Once near the top, one gets a first hand look at the evolving vegetation, now more alpine  in just a few minutes. In fact , the whole ride is not even 15 minutes.

At the top one can venture out along the visitor center to cast out at the view. It is a primal urge to get up high and overlook. In the Bay Area, there are ample natural promontories (Twin Peaks, East Bay Hills) with which to gander in awe at the metropolis below. In Paris, one clambers up Montmartre. In other locales, lacking the topography, the city substitutes with say with the likes of the Empire State Building or the Hancock Tower. It’s very satisfying from that perspective, we all picking out our own personal landmarks (there’s home, the office,etc)

This is Palm Springs equivalent , the top of the tram in the San Jacintos. And yes, I could see home.

For some, this and a cocktail in the bar will complete the journey, but ours would include a modest 6 mile hike to a gorgeous alpine meadow at about 9,000 feet. Again, Here is where we were an hour ago:

To this:

And finally this:

The tram had a brief narration on board, mentioning some of the history of the place, the difficulty constructing the tram, as well as reminding one of the gift shop at the bottom. As we descended down the canyon, it mentioned the Native Americans who first lived here, that they too would climb into the canyon and seek respite from the summer heat. That prospect left one more dizzy than the spinning car. How did they survive a summer here?

At the bottom, one gains a greater appreciation of the massiveness of the mountain, and its power to cool, as the mid-afternoon temperature had now risen to 110.  Just then I saw a rodent (a desert squirrel of some sort?) emerge from the rocks and onto the parking lot. It had a hard-won nut of some sort in its mouth, and it was taking a break. It set the nut down on the scalding pavement, and the nut burst into flames.

I thought, never let your guard down in the desert my little friend……never.

This was Hike 22 in my chronicling 50 urban ambles in my 50th year. 

Hike 22 : 6 miles

Distance traveled  to date:  145 Miles