It was a fantastical dream that began in 1935 and still captures the imagination of everyone who visits. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, often called the eighth wonder of the world, took decades of lobbying, designing, and more dreaming before the first shovel hit the dirt in 1961. Since it opened in 1963, the tram has stood alone as the one “must-see, must-do” in a desert oasis replete with glossy events and attractions.
For some, the ride up, ascending 2.5 miles in just 10 minutes, is the peak experience, an exhilarating journey within an 80-passenger rotating tramcar that seems to almost graze the sharp mountainside on the way to the Mountain Station.
For others, the ride is just the beginning of an adventure that can range from elegant dining overlooking the entire Coachella Valley to snow camping under clear, star-sprinkled skies.
1. Dine With a View
The Mountain Station at the top of the tram offers a relaxing mini-vacation, with a small natural history museum and two documentary films about the tram and the surrounding Mount San Jacinto State Park. Pick up a sandwich and drink at the cafeteria-style Pines Café and pull up a chair on the outside terrace for amazing views of the valley floor. Or, enjoy the view from Peaks Restaurant with fresh Coachella Valley produce, dry aged meats and poultry, fresh breads from local bakeries, and fresh seafood and pasta. The cocktail lounge is a favorite of local politicos and business owners at the end of the workday, and the gift shop sells only-at-the-tram souvenirs and maps.
2. Take a Hike
The tram is the gateway to the state park’s 54 miles of wooded hiking trails, and there are plenty of serene, short strolls from the base of the Mountain Station to alpine meadows and overlook points. It’s usually around 30 degrees cooler at the top of the tram than the valley floor, so bring sturdy hiking shoes and a jacket.
Runners can find additional fun during the annual Tram Road Challenge on Oct. 25. The popular 6K uphill run/walk raises funds for local charities. (Call 760-324-7069 or visit www.kleinclarksports.com for more information.)
3. Plan a Snow Day
The tram’s annual snow-guessing contest begins Oct. 1 and runs until the first measurable inch of snow falls at the Mountain Station. (Details are on the tram’s website.) The first 10 correct guesses each win four tram admissions. Use your free passes to spend the day snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or even camping. The silence and pristine air — just minutes from one of the state’s busiest tourist destinations — offer a rare sense of peace and exhilaration.
Bring your own equipment or rent snowshoes and cross-country skis, boots, and poles at the Adventure Center. Skiers and snowshoers need a free day-use permit and campers need a $5 overnight permit; both are available at the Ranger Station in Long Valley, less than a mile from the Mountain Station.
4. Get Romantic
The tram has been host to dozens of proposals, weddings, and romantic outings over the years, and one of the dreamiest dates is dinner followed by a meandering stroll to an overlook where the Salton Sea can be seen shining under a full moon. October’s full moon falls on the 8th, with a moonrise at around 6:45 p.m. in Palm Springs. Romantic gestures can be as grand as securing a private tramcar for the ride up or savoring a simple picnic lunch amid the vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines.
Cars depart at least every half hour Monday to Friday, with the first tram up at 10 a.m. First tram up on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays leaves at 8 a.m. The last tram up leaves at 8 p.m. and last tram down is at 9:45 p.m. One Tram Way, Palm Springs. 888-515-8726; www.pstramway.com