ot far from Newport Coast’s picturesque beachscapes, verdant canyons and manicured neighborhood enclaves lies a vastly different but equally magical world, where the ocean’s salt-permeated mist dissolves into the arid warmth of the Sonoran Desert. An easy two-hour drive to the east gets me to Palm Springs, a desert retreat where Mid-century modern meets modern-day L.A. At the far edge of town, a road winds uphill from the iconic main drive to one of the destination’s coolest attractions: the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
At the junction of North Palm Canyon Drive and Tramway Road, a dramatic, kite-shaped roof draws my eye. The Albert Frey and Robson Chambers designed structure, originally the Tramway Gas Station, houses the Palm Springs Visitors Center. Just past that pointed roof, I obediently (per the signage) turn off my car’s AC to protect my engine from the steep climb. At 3.8 miles long and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the road is as popular with runners as it is with tram-goers. Hugging mostly open desert, it empties into Valley Station, another structure built by Frey and Chambers.
Feeling the change in altitude as I get out of the car, I pick my way up the slope to the station, which reminds me of an old, small-town train depot, and purchase a round-trip ticket for the tram. As I wait my turn, I peruse gift shop souvenirs and take a seat by a back window where I can watch the golden-yellow cable cars come and go.
Not a half-hour later, I am climbing into the cabin with about 60 other passengers, all anticipating the magnificent ride that attracts some 600,000 visitors a year and that landed on CNN Travel’s “10 of the world’s best cable car rides” list in 2017. (The tram’s inaugural ride dates to 1963; the cars went through a few redesigns before landing at the current rotating cable car, which is one of only three in the world.) With a gentle jolt, we leave the cactus-speckled Sonoran behind and, in just 10 minutes, will travel 5,873 feet up to arrive amid the cool, dense forests of the San Jacinto Wilderness.
During that brief trip, we pass through more than five biomes, or ecological zones. Through the tramcar’s tempered-glass windows, we watch the valley floor fade to a distant panorama, its palm fronds and creosotes shrinking into blurry abstracts. The Salton Sea, some 60 miles away, comes into full view. As the cabin floor spins, I find myself face-to-face with Mount San Jacinto’s granite escarpment, close enough to see shrubs sprouting from its crevices. A docent at the center of the cabin shares tram trivia and describes the bighorn sheep we might see if we’re lucky.
“You’re doing something that would otherwise take thousands of miles in terms of life zones,” Cameron Burrows later tells me. An ecologist who for years has observed local wildlife, Burrows notes that some scientists believe there are as many as 12 biomes between the Sonoran floor in Palm Springs and San Jacinto, and that he’s “still amazed” by the area’s diversity.
Flora and fauna inhabiting these microenvironments vary with temperature, elevation and moisture. In the arid Sonoran, which stretches from ground level to above Valley Station, plants such as brittlebush, yucca and lavender thrive, along with the critters that depend on them for food and shelter. In the Lowland Cienega (Spanish for “marsh”) underground water sources nourish cottonwoods, sycamores and the California Fan Palm, the area’s only native palm and the resort town’s namesake. Keen-eyed visitors may also spot bobcats, coyotes and kit foxes.
There is a collective gasp from the cabin as, gliding along the sturdy cable, the tramcar trundles past the first tower and causes the cabin to sway. Four more towers to go, and each bump and swing elicits the same excited response.
We ride through two “transitional” zones where desert and mountain life intermingle. Here, the canyon narrows and the temperature dips; in winter, snow might powder the mountains like sugar or, in a wet year, coat it like icing. Brittlebush and burrobush coexist with mountain mahogany and manzanita, and deer are not an uncommon sight. You might even catch a glimpse of a tawny mountain lion.
We disembark at Mountain Station, a Mid-century lodge designed by E. Stewart Williams. Through its wraparound windows, we gaze at San Jacinto’s coniferous landscape and button up against the crisper temperatures, which are a treat during the summer and a wonderland for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing the other half of the year. The invigorating aroma of pinion pines, junipers and firs and the unparalleled views of the Coachella Valley enliven the senses.
Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness boasts direct access to a network of scenic trails that lead to San Jacinto Peak — at 10,834 feet, the second-highest point in Southern California — and stretch as far as Idyllwild, offering campsites along the way. On this excursion, however, I plan to move at a more leisurely pace and enjoy the sights.
Before setting off, I visit the lodge’s natural history museum and view a documentary film that recounts the story of the tram from conception to completion. The Pines Café offers cafeteria-style fare to go, but I’ve packed my own picnic of cheeses, olives and a baguette. (Unfortunately, wine is prohibited.) While the observation decks provide stunning views, better ones can be found along the Desert View Trail. So, down I go, along a steep concrete walkway, toward the trailhead of this 1½-mile loop that features five “notches,” or overlooks. A series of stone cairns guides me beneath the shade of twisted trees and over swaths of pine needles and cones. Marked by hand-chiseled signs and massive boulders, each notch reveals a different vista, from the pinkish pastel haze of the valley to the mountaintop ranges, their colors shifting and changing with the movement of the sun.
I while away the afternoon gazing into the crystal-clear sky and meandering around a meadow on the Long Valley Discovery Trail. (At just three-quarters of a mile, this is a great option for families with small children.) Hikers wishing to commune longer with nature can cover the Round Valley Loop Trail in a morning or an afternoon. Running about 4.5 miles past mountain vistas and spring-fed streams and through cool granite and wooded areas, the moderately strenuous hike tops out at 9,100 feet.
As I head back to Mountain Station, the chill, dense air calls for another layer of clothing and, by the time I reach the lodge, a refreshing local beer and seasonal food. While waiting for a window seat at Peaks Restaurant, I check out Lookout Lounge, a cabin-style bar facing the mountains, and imagine that the term “happy hour” must have originated in a place like this. Perched high in the clouds with a seemingly infinite view, Peaks is an idyllic spot to watch the sunset. As the sky fades to midnight blue, the sparkle of city lights below cuts through the darkness. I savor my meal and sip my wine as I plan my next adventure in this wilderness. Captivated by the magic, I hold out for the last tram down. The nighttime descent is quiet and proffers up only the white lights at my feet. Their abstractness slowly becomes focused, until I am with the palm fronds once again.
If You Go
Spring and summer are ideal seasons to take advantage of the recreational options atop Mount San Jacinto.
Tickets: $25.95 per person; $16.95 for children ages 3-10; $23.95 for those older than 65. Seasonal passes are also available. For information, visit pstramway.com.
What to pack: Park ranger approved!
• Water and a small backpack
• A hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
• Warm clothing or layers for the evening
• Extra shirt and socks (to stay dry) if you hike
• Appropriate walking or hiking shoes