One of the best things in Southern California
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway with the valley station, parking lot, and desert floor in Southern California's Coachella Valley visible below.
Southern California has so many amazing places to visit, and of its many state parks, none are more fun to get to than Mount San Jacinto State Park, which although there is a long winding road, is most often reached by way of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The Tramway takes riders up 5,873 feet (1,790 meters) from the desert floor to tundra alpine forests, passing through several distinct climate zones along the way.
Mount San Jacinto is the second-highest mountain peak in Southern California. Across the other side of the pass, which separates the city areas of Southern California from the desert, is the highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio. San Jacinto's peak stands 10,834 feet (3,302 meters), and across the pass, San Gorgonio reaches 11,503 feet (3,506 meters).
The peak of San Jacinto and the surrounding area comprises Mount San Jacinto State Park. It’s an incredible place to hike, camp, explore, and – in the winter months – play in the snow. I've hiked to the top of San Jacinto, and the incredible view at the top was very much worth the slight headache I got from the altitude.
Pathways to the top of the mountain
View from Mount San Jacinto northward toward Morongo Valley and beyond, during the winter.
There is a highway that takes you to the southwestern portion of the park, which is sure to induce motion sickness in those who are prone to it. This part of the park is separated from the mountain tramway station, which is in the northeast portion of the park. There are trails connecting the two areas, which are miles in length and have lots of ups and downs in elevation.
The peak of Mount San Jacinto itself is near the center of the park. If your goal is to climb the peak (as it should be!), starting from either location is excellent. However, there is a lot more elevation to climb from the southwest starting location that is reached by the highway.
Maybe reaching the summit isn't your goal, or maybe making it easier isn't your goal either, although the tramway is so extraordinary that I'd have a hard time justifying visiting the park by driving the long, winding road. Let me share a few more facts about the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and why it’s so amazing, and also about majestic Mount San Jacinto.
The amazing Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
At the bottom of the mountain, the tramway begins in the Coachella Valley, which is an extension of the Sonoran Desert. This desert stretches to Southern Arizona and into a large portion of Northern Mexico. On summer days it can be more than 120 degrees (50 C), and the terrain is sandy with cactuses and other desert flora.
Winter days are often 70 degrees (20 C) or more in the valley. In both summer and winter, temperatures at the mountain station above are often 30 or more degrees (16 C or more) cooler than at the valley station. Southern California residents for the most part never see snow, and by riding up, this is an amazing way to suddenly be in a real winter wonderland.
The valley station is about 12 miles (19 km) from Palm Springs International Airport, and the road to it is easy to get to and find. Nearby is a large oasis with many palm trees.
The tramway first operated in 1963, and is officially the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world. The cables run up Chino Canyon, at an average angle of 27 degrees, and they are exactly 2.5 miles (4 km) in length. This is very steep for the side of a mountain, as I’ll discuss below when I share more information about Mount San Jacinto.
The ride takes 12.5 minutes, and in that time riders ascend or descend an average of 470 feet (143 meters) in elevation per minute. The elevation at the mountain station is 8,516 feet (2,596 meters), which is 2,318 feet (707 meters) lower than the peak of Mount San Jacinto.
The tramcars hold a maximum of 80 people, and each is 18 feet (5 meters) in diameter and slowly rotates throughout its journey up or down. Over the course of the trip the cars rotate a full 360 degrees twice.
If you’re not up to the challenge of climbing the mountain, the view from the mountain tramway station is already stupendous. To the north on a clear day, Mount Charleston in Nevada, near Las Vegas, can be seen. To the southeast, the Salton Sea is usually plainly visible. Views east and west are typically for about 75 miles (120 km). Just the view from the mountain station is worth the cost of going up the tramway.
The mountain station has two excellent restaurants, and shows a film about the history of the tram. From there, a concrete pathway leads into Long Valley, which has some easy trails, plus access to more difficult trails, including a path to the summit of Mount San Jacinto.
Some cautions about going up the tramway
Mount San Jacinto's steep north face, taken from the valley floor. The green in this photo means it rained recently, which is rare for the desert. Ordinarily everything is much more brown.
Preparation is necessary if you’re going up the mountain. Southern Californians in particular may not know what they’re getting themselves into if they go in the winter, and are unaccustomed to real cold weather. I know many fellow Southern Californians who call anything below 65 degrees (18 C) “freezing.” Having lived in Michigan, I know what real cold is, and so I like to remind them that freezing means 32 degrees (0 C) or less.
It’s also helpful to know about animal and plant life. Do you know what a rattlesnake looks like? Do you know how to avoid them? Do you know about ticks, fire ants, and poison oak? Understanding the dangers and how to minimize chances of harm are important to maximize chances of having good time and minimize chances of having your day ruined.
Safely exploring Southern California wilderness areas also involves knowing what to do if you encounter a bear or mountain lion, and more, with a wide variety of possible emergency situations that could come up, if you're going to take part in hiking and/or other outdoor activities in this part of the USA.
One additional caution is that the altitude makes physical exertion and breathing more difficult, and it’s possible to get a headache as a result. When I climbed to the top of Mount San Jacinto I got a bit of a headache, but found the incredible view to be very much worth it. Also, even though it was August, there was thick ice at the top.
The view from the peak was the very most amazing view I've ever had anywhere. I could see all the way to the ocean, all of the Coachella Valley, etc. It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.
The famous naturalist John Muir thought very highly of the view atop the mountain, and said of it, "The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!"
More about beautiful Mount San Jacinto
The north face of San Jacinto is North America's steepest mountain face, also called an escarpment, and it's what the aerial tramway takes you up! From the peak, the Coachella Valley lies to the east and southeast, with cities such as Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Indio, and beyond is the Salton Sea and hundreds of miles of desert. It’s a beautiful area, and other than summer heat, everything else about it is great.
To the south of Mount San Jacinto extends the San Jacinto Mountain Range, one of Southern California's tallest. To the west and southwest is Southern California's Inland Empire, with towns such as Hemet, Moreno Valley, Riverside, and San Bernardino.
As mentioned above, to the north is the San Gorgonio Pass, through which Interstate 10 passes. On the other side is Mount San Gorgonio, Southern California's tallest peak, and the San Bernardino Mountains. To the northeast are Joshua Tree National Park, the Twentynine Palms Marine Base, and the Mojave Desert.
It's possible to camp on the mountain, which requires a permit. In the winter, cross-country skiing is popular. If you go when there’s snow, you get to throw snowballs at whomever you went up the tram with.
When you're in Palm Springs, this massive mountain seems to loom over the city. The elevation of most of Palm Springs is around 500 feet (150 meters), so this mountain's peak is more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) higher.
Tickets are available from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway website, where you can also check the weather at the top, see photos and videos, get directions to the valley station, and more. Tickets can also be purchased at the valley station, including when online tickets have sold out and are unavailable.