Take a 10-minute ride up along the dramatic cliffs of Chino Canyon and through five climate and ecological zones.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS AERIAL TRAMWAY
Best View of the Valley
On a clear day, if you look southeast from the deck outside Peaks Restaurant at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, you can see as far as the Salton Sea. But that won’t be your first eye-popping moment on this adventure. The magnificent scenery comes into view as soon as you board one of the world’s largest rotating tram cars and begin the 10-minute ride up along the dramatic cliffs of Chino Canyon — through five climate and ecological zones — to the pristine Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness. At the top, at a much cooler (colder!) 8,600-foot elevation, you can look out over the entire Coachella Valley and watch it begin to twinkle as the sun goes down.
The tramway is an engineering marvel born in August 1932 when The Desert Sun publisher Carl Barkow casually said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be up there on the mountain right now?” In earshot of that comment was electrical engineer Francis Crocker, manager of the Palm Springs office of the California Electric Power Company, who was inspired to launch a 30-year campaign to build the tramway with the help of influential local pioneer Earl Coffman. The perilous construction job up the side of Mount San Jacinto required roughly 23,000 helicopter missions hauling workers and equipment to build the towers and the 35,000-square-foot Mountain Station.
The tramway took its first official guests up the mountain Sept. 12, 1963, and in 1983 was designated a historical engineering landmark.
Best Ways to See the Desert
I should have scheduled my massage for after my trek with Desert Adventures Red Jeep Tours. Instead, I tried to maintain my limber body while our guide maneuvered our bouncy ride through the geological cuts and canyons of the San Andreas Fault zone. This is a great way to explore the Coachella Valley. We stopped at several points to learn how the shifting Pacific and North American tectonic plates created the canyons. In addition to the fault tour, Desert Adventures offers a hiking tour of the Indian Canyons, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and a four-hour Painted Canyon geology and agriculture 4x4 Jeep tour through the spectacular Mecca Hills area and along the Salton Sea. All tours bring guests up to speed on local plant and wildlife — from bobcats and bighorn sheep to chuckwallas and fringe-toed lizards.
My favorite way to view the desert landscape, though, is on horseback. I saddle up at Smoke Tree Stables and ride with a guide for a few hours in the Indian Canyons.
For a higher vantage point, book a sunrise or sunset adventure with Fantasy Balloon Flights (Champagne included). If you prefer your feet on the ground, or closer to it, take a tour with Pedego Electric Bikes, based in La Quinta.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELA STALLINGER
Best Place to See a Waterfall
A dramatic, 60-foot-tall waterfall awaits hikers halfway into the 2-mile loop trail that starts at Tahquitz Canyon Visitors Center. Located in a nook of the San Jacinto Mountains at the end of West Mesquite Road in Palm Springs, the trail ascends 350 feet to Tahquitz Falls, which is powered by seasonal mountain springs. The trail features robust plant life and wildlife — from the beavertail cactus to the Costa’s hummingbird — and a bounty of beauty and history to view, including towering rock formations and ancient rock art created thousands of years ago by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The tribe continues to manage the sacred location, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tahquitz Falls was famously cast as Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, the 1937 black-and-white film directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt.