Palm Springs’ reputation as a California desert resort city has everything to do with its location in the Coachella Valley.
Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the “health tourism” trade made Palm Springs a fashionable destination, with writer George Wharton James describing it as having “great charms and attractiveness.”
Nestled in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto, the town was host to movie stars and celebrities, and by the 1960s Palm Springs boasted many hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, golf courses and resorts.
There was one problem, however.
For years, the only way to get to the top of San Jacinto Peak was a fairly grueling hike from Idyllwild.
That all changed in 1963, with the construction of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Also known as the Mt. San Jacinto Tram, this tramway takes visitors on a breathtaking ride that starts in the Sonoran Desert and ends up in a mountain forest.
Explore Palm Springs by Tram
In 1935, electrical engineer Francis Crocker was visiting Banning, California. As he looked up at the snow-capped peak of Mt. San Jacinto (which stands over 10,000 feet high), Crocker proposed building an aerial tram through Chino Canyon.
The locals were skeptical, naming the project “Crocker’s Folly.”
Historic events such as The Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Korean War, postponed the project, but construction finally began in 1960.
Private land for the valley station was donated, financing was done entirely through bond issuance, without a dime of public funding, and the bonds were completely paid off by 1996.
It was soon hailed as a great engineering innovation, as teams of engineers had to overcome many challenges regarding road access and tower construction.
In a remarkable innovation for the time, heavy-lift helicopters were used in the construction of the aerial tram’s support towers – these helicopters flew over 23,000 runs during the 26 months of construction.
The tram line opened in 1963, and “Crocker’s Folly” was eventually called “The Eighth Wonder of the World” by many. Palm Springs tram tickets went on sale, and soon the Mt. San Jacinto tram became one of the biggest attractions in the area.
Riding the Tram
In 2000, the original tram cars were replaced with round cars that rotate slowly to give riders a panoramic, 360-degree view of the desert valley floor and the canyon.
The ride only takes 12 ½ minutes, but the spectacular, breathtaking view from the tram cars is worth a lifetime of memories. Trams run every hour on the hour, and at least every 30 minutes with more frequent runs depending on demand.
The tram station at the top of Mt. San Jacinto features a cocktail lounge, a small natural history museum, two restaurants, two movie theaters that show state park and tram construction documentaries, a gift shop, and an observation deck.
Nature lovers can enjoy over 50 miles of hiking trails along with other activities such as cross-country skiing, guided nature walks, camping, snowshoeing, and sledding.
Check the Weather Before Your Palm Springs Tram Experience
It’s important to remember that temperatures may drop by as much as 30 degrees from the floor of the valley to the top of the mountain.
With that in mind, cold weather gear is available at the mountaintop tram station, and this weekly update can keep you abreast of changing weather conditions as you make plans to visit.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway offers a combination ticket for Ride & Dinner beginning at 4 p.m. daily. For $36.00 for adults and seniors and $23.50 for children under 10, you can enjoy cafeteria-style dinner at the Pines Café along with your ride.
For fine dining, there’s the Peaks Restaurant with dry aged meats, poultry, seafood and pastas. The Peaks Restaurant was recently named by Architectural Digest as #8 on their list of World’s best Cliffside Restaurants.
Both the Valley Station and Mountain Station were completed in the early 1960s and were designed in mid-century modern style by notable architects.
Over the years, the stations and the aerial tram itself have been the location for countless weddings, gatherings and special events. Movie and TV buffs will recognize the aerial tram from episodes of I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Columbo and Mannix, as well as an action scene from the movie The Wrecking Crew.
As a passage to the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is noteworthy as a cultural resource. It’s been hailed as a major civil engineering achievement, and its history goes back more than a half-century.
If you’re planning a trip to the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs, you owe it to yourself to take a ride on this mid-century marvel and experience the trip, the view and the wonder.