The Path to Chino Canyon

A trip to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway begins and ends with a ride through a ‘geological pageant’

Ann Japenga Hiking

Tramways Road cuts through the often-traveled and little-known Chino Canyon.

A few hundred thousand people a year chug up the steep road through Chino Canyon, sniffing the air as their engines start to overheat. Probably none of those thousands knows this place. Chino is the most-visited, least-known canyon in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

Yet it is so worth knowing. Before you step in line at Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, stop behind the flying wedge Visitors Center on North Palm Canyon Drive and step out of the car. You’re standing on a massive jumble of crushed boulders and sand washed down from the mountain over the eons. It’s called an alluvial fan or cone or a bajada. Landscape artist Terry Masters once deemed it “the greatest alluvial fan on the planet.”

Before you, Mt. San Jacinto soars to 10,834 feet. The granite core of the mountain pushed up through layers of metamorphic rock in recent history — geologically speaking — and still rises. When you ride the tram, you’ll have an up-close view of the fractures, strata and uplift, gleaming palisades, and ribbon-like fissures — the full geological pageant.

To your left is Leaning Rock, a landmark to the Cahuilla Indians who once lived here. Up-canyon, a jungle of wild grape vines and palm trees stands out amid the monochrome creosote and burroweed. That’s “The Vines” in modern parlance, also known as a cienega or oasis, and once the site of an Indian village. Most of the big events in Chino Canyon happened here. Here, too, the wild Peninsular bighorn sheep cross the gravel apron to get to the other canyons that make up their range.

In The Vines, by a steaming hot spring, lived a Cahuilla Indian medicine man named Pedro Chino. He could morph into a mountain lion, predict the future (with help of his soothsaying dog), and travel underground through secret waterways under the mountain. We know such waterways actually existed because workmen in the 1930s found them when digging a tunnel for the Colorado River Aqueduct. When the shaman died in 1939, he was said to be 126 years old.

Also born in The Vines was Chief Francisco Patencio, author of the Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians. (Anthropologist Lowell Bean is working on an expanded reissue of this pivotal book.) Patencio tells us that when a smallpox epidemic struck the tribe in 1825, the sick were moved to a cave hospital in Chino Canyon and dosed with water from the hot springs. Archaeologists have never found the cave, which was probably shuttered by rockfall.

More trouble came in 1860, when great floods roared down the canyon. Indians ran for their lives to higher ground and abandoned the destroyed village.

Pedro Chino sold his house in The Vines in 1880 to the Palm Valley Water Co.

The land belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, but Pedro Chino figured he had lived there long enough to have the right to sell it.

In the early 1900s, The Vines came to life again as artists, explorers, and writers — such as J. Smeaton Chase and George Wharton James — discovered the magical setting. James lived in a crude shack, but felt like royalty as he bathed in the “hot champagne” springs. “Solitary?” he exclaimed. “No! Why should I be solitary even though no other human beings are with me?” For company, he had the soaring cliffs, the bighorn sheep, the music of the creek, and the kvetching of the mountain spirit Tahquitz.

In the 1980s, The Vines was again a Bohemian colony. Palm Springs artist Snake Jagger and friends lived there in tiny trailers in what looked like a hobbit town. Jagger says it was the best time of his life.

Proceed up the road toward Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. In 1936, Francis Crocker dreamed of an elevator to whisk visitors up the great mountain. Earl Coffman, son of Palm Springs pioneer innkeeper Nellie Coffman, soon joined his quest. 

Construction of the tram was stalled for 17 years due to one of the most epic environmental battles in Southern California history. Harry James, founder of the outdoors organization Trailfinders, had succeeded in protecting the San Gorgonio wilderness and led the fight to stop the tram. “He saw the tramway as a mechanistic intrusion that would destroy, or at least seriously harm, the wilderness nature of this high mountain country,” wrote John Robinson in The San Jacintos.

James lost. The tram opened in 1963. But the fighting continues. The Chino Canyon cone has been a battlefield over proposed developments for at least 30 years, with no signs the uproar will abate anytime soon. 

If James was the hero of the failed preservation fight, the late helicopter pilot Don Landells was the star of the tram construction. Others insisted such a major engineering project couldn’t be done with flimsy copters. But Landells, a former bush pilot in the Yukon, had been experimenting with the newly developed Bell Supercharged G-3. He and his fellow pilots flew 23,286 flights up the mountain, often shirtless and wearing straw hats. He proved that Ford tractors, cement mixers, steel beams, miles of cable, workmen, and all materials for the terminals and five towers could be transported by the aircraft.

It’s often said no one was harmed in the process; but in fact people and heli-copters were hurt. You can read about it in Jim Landells’ forthcoming book, which features never-seen photos of the tram construction. Jim is Don Landells’ son and a helicopter mechanic at Landells Aviation in Desert Hot Springs. Don Landells was killed in a crash while surveying bighorn sheep near Las Vegas in 1986.

If you dream of a walk in the canyon or a soak in the hot springs, it will be a feat. There is almost no place to legally park; and even if you could, there’s no easy path. “It’s rough going cross-country through all those boulder fields,” says Jim Toenjes, a Palm Springs archaeologist who has worked on surveys in the canyon. “The canyon is cut by so many streams and channels that you’re just going up and down, up and down all the time.”

Today, The Vines is private property, fenced and off-limits. Due to earthquakes and floods, the springs that once welcomed 10 or 15 people are not much more than a muddy sink. As a result of all the restrictions and private property, the canyon feels like a bajada under a bell jar: untouchable.

But there are places you can legally walk (such as the paths from the Palm Springs Visitors Center), and the canyon longs to be known.