The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: Beat the Heat

Last weekend, Andrew and I booked a short getaway to celebrate our newfound freedom (thank you, summer break!). We swore on the ghost of semester’s past that our first trip of the summer would consist solely of relaxation and food. Nothing expensive, nothing adventurous—just a quiet weekend away from home. We perused the internet for a cheap hotel with free continental breakfast, and Groupon led us to the idyllic Red Lion Inn in Palm Springs, CA. For $40 a night we feasted on hand-made waffles and Raisin Bran, binge watched Cinema Sins and Your Movie Sucks on our King sized mattress, and stormed the tiny pool with 99 cent store floaties. It was truly heavenly. 

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I know what you’re thinking: How in the world did you find such a cheap hotel room in Southern California? We were surprised too! We’ve learned from experience that a suspiciously cheap hotel room is either terrible, in a terrible area, or both. We knowingly did our research beforehand and found that the Red Lion Inn had decent ratings and was located in a great little town, so we apprehensively booked our stay, waiting for the unknown caveat to arise. And of course, all of our questions were answered the second we swung open the door of Andrew’s air conditioned Kia. It was legitimately sweltering outside.

The Palm Desert creeps up near 110°F mid year, and everyone in their right mind migrates North to escape the unrelenting summer sun. Even the shop owners leave town, knowing that the high rollers only come in the winter. The heat hits you like a tidal wave, and going outside is like trekking through a thick, dry fog. Needless to say, this isn’t the most popular summer vacation destination around. 

But we soon unearthed a secret… albeit a very well known secret, but a secret to us! As we sucked down our free cups of orange-infused iced water, sprawled out in the cool hotel lobby, we picked up a pamphlet for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. “Ascend two-and-one-half miles to a pristine wilderness aboard the world’s largest rotating tramcar” it said, guaranteeing a 10 minute tram ride up the side of the San Jacinto mountain range, totaling an 8,000 foot incline. 

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When we were driving down earlier that morning, we gawked at the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges. They seemed to circle around the city limits like the walls of a crater. From a distance, they resembled the landscape below: dry, rocky, and hostile. Yet apparently, up close—thanks to the miracles of altitude and atmosphere—the peaks of those mountains rose above the desert climate and transformed into a forest of woodland trees, rivers, meadows, wildlife, and cool weather. Once our eyes skimmed over the tantalizing promise of “cool weather,” we threw down the pamphlet, filled up our cups with orange water two to three more times, and enthusiastically slugged out to the car. 

So here's the lowdown: As of today, tickets for adults are around $26. General parking is $5. Food is overpriced. Don’t buy the food. Check online for their hours of operation, I believe they change seasonally.  

Some people might see that $31 price tag and be immediately turned off. From the advertisements, it might seem like the tram is the main event, and in that vain it’s very understandable that most tourists don’t want to pay thirty bucks for 20 minutes of entertainment. Thankfully, that’s simply not the case! The tram—however fun and terrifying it may be—is just the precursor to a day full of hiking, geographical information, and stunning views. 

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So there we were, stepping into the Californian equivalent of the London Eye. The massive swinging octagon was absolutely filled with locals, travelers and tourists. It’s a marvel of engineering (says someone who has no engineering experience nor knowledge, mind you). The cables that propelled our giant rotating UFO up the mountain were thin at best—a braided clump of metal slightly smaller than my fist. As we careened up the mountain, floating dangerously close to jutting rock shards and mossy cliff sides, the thought of that cable made my chest a little tight. In retrospect, that added to the wonder of the moment. And in my honest opinion, I would’ve paid $31 for the tram ride alone—but you’ll have to see for yourself to justify my claims. 

Once you reach the peak the real fun begins. The weather had cooled nearly thirty degrees from the previous 110, so hiking and “bouldering” were a breeze. Andrew and I arrived just in time for a free guided nature walk, and we learned all about the local trees and various species of bugs, rodents, mammals and birds. We discovered that San Jacinto's unique climate was similar to a grocery store: the soggy meadows were the produce aisles, the fallen pine seeds were the nut and cereal aisles, and the water saturated with natural sediments was the beverage aisle. We learned this while sniffing sweet tree saps and watching tiny ground squirrels nibble on nuts, as we swatted thousands of ladybugs away from our noses and listened to the hollow wind whistle through the treetops. I can’t recommend this guided walk enough. 

From then on we were free to do as we pleased, which lead us to tiptoe over insanely picturesque lookouts and past frolicking baby bucks. We also checked out the tiny museum that cataloged the wildlife, and even the little theater room that played videos about the trams initial construction. I can’t say I recommend the video—it was a bona fide snooze fest—yet very informative to those who are interested in the complications of metalwork at 8,000 ft. elevation. 

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We did have a few mishaps. Andrew lost his wallet, which eventually turned up after we had searched through every trash can and under every loose rock in the area. We also failed to bring food, and ended up buying two less-than-satisfying $9 french dip sandwiches. The potato wedges were darn good, to be fair. But overall, we had a wonderful experience. There is something uniquely incredible about traveling from the desert to a fully-functional forest in ten minutes time. It makes me think back to the original tribes of Native Americans we learned about on our guided nature walk. They would make the trip down or up the mountain once a year to visit with neighboring tribes, yet today I could throw some pocket change at a nice tram conductor and they would take me there in an instant. Our guide even asked our group what we would forage to survive in those mountains, and most of our answers were “Bugs? Berries? Mushrooms?” We had no idea! Can you imagine: a group of bumbling tourists in dresses, converse, and muscle tanks trying to set a trap to catch a squirrel for dinner, only to retreat back to the cliff side and set up camp? I can’t. 

Despite our removal from the hyper-natural lifestyle, it’s brilliant to have such wise and informed park rangers on duty to share about such an isolated ecosystem. I was blown away. And finally, as if to end the day perfectly, we rode down in our octa-cart—windows opened wide so the last remnants of cool mountain air would rush in—and a little chipmunk sent us off by the dock. We then immediately hopped in the car, burnt our hands on the black lather, picked up dinner alongside some authentic pan mexicano, and spent the whole night dreaming of ladybugs. 

Thank you so much for reading! We really hope you have the opportunity to visit this aerial tramway someday. If you have, please let us know how you liked/disliked it in the comments below! We would love to start a conversation.