Travel Destinations

Monday, July 15, 2013

Riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Hiking San Jacinto Peak

What springs to mind when you think of Palm Springs?  I think of the sun, the heat, a cool blue pool, and a frosty beverage in my hand.  Palm Springs is one of the few places that I am okay with hanging out by a pool and doing practically nothing.  But there is more to do in Palm Springs than work on a tan.  A few of us girls recently went to Palm Springs to celebrate my friend and hiking buddy Allison’s birthday.  One of her birthday wishes was to hike to the second highest point in Southern California, San Jacinto Peak, which can be reached by first riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

Original Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Tramcar
In my day, we didn't have those newfangled rotating tramcars. 
This is one of the original tramcars, which is what I rode in as a kid.

Valley Station Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Nature and architecture at the mid-century modern Valley Station.
If you are traveling to Palm Springs, riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway should be at the top of your list of things to do.  It is also a great way to get away from the heat.  The world’s largest rotating tramcars travel from the Valley Station, elevation 2,643 feet, to the Mountain Station, elevation 8,516 feet, in ten minutes, passing through approximately four different ecosystems and experiencing a 30 degree drop in temperature.  The inaugural ride (in non-rotating tramcars) occurred September 14, 1963, meaning the tramway is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
View of the tram cable route and one of the rotating tramcars on the way up the mountain.
I rode the tram with my family a number of times as a kid.  We visited in the winter when there was snow on the ground so we could slide down the slopes on round plastic snow sleds.  In the summer we would hike and take the mule rides (which as far as I can tell are no longer offered).  As an adult, my travels to Palm Springs have either been with girlfriends and involved hours at the pool and bars, or with my husband and our two dogs, who unfortunately are not invited to ride the tram (the dogs that is, my husband has not been banned as far as I know).  Therefore, I was very excited for the opportunity to head up the tramway once again.  

At the top of the tram is Mt. San Jacinto State Park, which has 54 miles of hiking trails of varying length.  Our hiking trail of choice was the San Jacinto Peak trail, which is a 5.5 mile hike one way to the peak of Mt. San Jacinto, elevation 10,834 feet.  According to the tramway website, on a clear day you can see Catalina Island and at night the Las Vegas lights.  The trail is a combination of three trails.  The first is the Round Valley trail, which is a 2.2 mile trail which climbs at a moderate rate to the Round Valley camping area.   This joins the Wellmans Divide trail, a 1.1 mile hike with an elevation gain of 600 feet.  The Divide provides a beautiful view and a great place to rest.  From Wellmans Divide the trail leads up to San Jacinto Peak.
Mt. San Jacinto Peak Trail View
One of the beautiful views while climbing up the peak. 
I may or may not have started singing "the hills are alive with the sound of music."

View from St. Jacinto Peak Trail
To give some perspective, the Mountain Station is in the middle indentation of the range in the distance,
and the trail leads from there to the far side of the green patch at the right side of the picture,
and when this picture was taken, we had not yet reached the summit.
This hike is not an easy afternoon stroll.  However, it is very hiker friendly and for me provided a great sense of accomplishment.  You should be a hiker of some degree, but you do not need to be a hardcore one.  While you are constantly gaining elevation for the first 3.3 miles, it is usually at a very moderate climb, with only a few areas that might leave you huffing and puffing.  When it comes to ascending the peak, I believe the designers of the trail did an excellent job of making it scale the peak in the easiest way possible.  This makes the hike longer than it could be, but much more doable for the average hiker.  Plus the views along the way are incredible.  Once you reach the refuge house at 10,800 feet, the last 34 feet of the climb involve scrambling up rocks and boulders.

Mt. San Jacinto Peak Shelter
Mt. San Jacinto Peak Shelter
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ticket prices are currently $23.95 for adults, $16.95 for children ages three to 12, and $21.95 for seniors ages 62 and above.  Tickets can be purchased at the Valley Station, but they can also be purchased online in advance.  The tramcars depart every ten minutes to every half hour, depending on the number of visitors.  On weekdays the first tram up is at 10:00 a.m., on weekends and holidays at 8:00 a.m.  The last tram up is at 8:00 p.m. and the last tram down is at 9:45 p.m.  When you first step off the tram souvenir photos are offered.  There are gift shops in both stations.  The Mountain Station has two dining options, the Peaks Restaurant and the cafeteria-style Pines CafĂ©.  There is also a cocktail bar at The Lookout Lounge.   

In addition to hiking, there are other activities to be enjoyed at the top of the tram.  Summer activities include guided nature walks and camping.  Winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow camping.  If you aren’t interested in activities, there is always the view.

The day we hiked San Jacinto Peak, the temperature reached 120 degrees on the desert floor.  We were quite comfortable on our hike, as it is 30 degrees cooler up the mountain.  Before reaching the peak, much of it is shaded, and by the time you reach the peak, temperatures drop as you climb.  However, on hot days, it is wise to start hiking first thing in the morning, as you do begin to feel the heat in the afternoon.  We boarded the first tram at 8:10 a.m. and started at the trailhead at approximately 8:30 a.m.  We reached the peak at around 12:30 p.m.  We took our time, with a number of rest, water and snack stops on the way.  We arrived back at the ranger station at approximately 3:30 p.m. 

Mt. San Jacinto Peak
We reached the summit!
Mt. San Jacinto Peak Summit View
Panoramic view from the summit of Mt. San Jacinto Peak
A Wilderness Permit is required for hiking through the wilderness.  Day-use permits can be obtained free of charge at the ranger station at the trailhead.  Camping permits are $5.00.  If hiking, bring plenty of water.  We each carried four liters.  There is water available in Round Valley as well as toilets (though I wouldn’t recommend them).  Also bring plenty of snacks to refuel along the way.  Allie made some fantastic Dark Chocolate and Cherry Peanut Butter Oat Bites which were perfect little bites of energy.  I have pinned the recipe on Pinterest for anyone who is interested.  Because the day we hiked was so hot, I was able to wear shorts and a tank top.  However, on cooler days, layers are necessary.  Be sure to wear sturdy closed toe shoes and apply plenty of sunscreen.  Allie suggested I also mention that it is a good idea to bring the hiker’s Ten Essentials.  Since I had no idea what they were, my suggestion would be to bring someone who knows and has the Ten Essentials!

Ramp to Mountain Station
Our 11 mile hike was a piece of cake compared to having to walk back up this ramp to the Mountain Station. 
I really dislike this steep zigzagging ramp.

Have you ever visited the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, or hiked a trail while traveling that you loved?

Travel the World: Riding the Palm Springs Tramway and hiking San Jacinto Peak, the second highest point in Southern California.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.