Mar 16 2012
On our vacation, we each did something to challenge our comfort zones a bit. Our kids went on rides they weren’t quite sure about, and I rode to new heights in more than a few places.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway sounded like a good idea when I was planning the trip. I’d ask Californians if they’d been on it, and they’d say things like, “No, but I’ve heard only good things about it.” Comments like this, paired with the fact that it was open into the evening, made it a good stop for the end of our day in the Palm Springs area.
As we drove up the four-mile access road just after 4 p.m., however, I began to question my wisdom in putting it on our to-do list. “We’re going up THERE?” I asked as we pulled into the parking lot and could see the towers on the mountainside that held the tram cables in place.
By then, however, it was too late. We were there. We hiked up the parking lot and into the ticket building to buy our tickets.
Although it was in no way due to excellent planning on my part, we learned that we’d arrived at a good time. Tickets are discounted after 4:00 for the ride to the top of the mountain. Though still not a great bargain, the discount was appreciated.
Aerial Tramway tickets are issued for a specific time, and our tram car was boarding as soon as we’d finished the purchase transaction. We waited in a holding room until our tram car arrived, and then walked into the large car.
The floor of the car rotates throughout the ride, so passengers get a 360-degree view of the Coachella Valley without having to move around the car. Everyone stands, but a woman with a severe fear of heights was allowed to sit on a small step in the center of the car.
There are five towers that the car rolls over along the way to the top, and while the 10-minute ride is otherwise smooth, there’s a bit of an “oooh” moment as the car swings over the arms of each of these towers.
Soon enough, we were at the top, with the option to explore as long as we wanted. The top station includes overlooks, restaurants, a bar, a gift shop, and photo kiosk as well as restrooms and other amenities.
I wasn’t too sure how I was going to like looking down from the top of an 8516-foot mountain, but it wasn’t really so bad. Because it’s not a sheer dropoff from the lookout areas, the vegetation and landscape make it appear that you’re just on some uneven terrain, but with a really good view in the distance. I’m nervous about the third-floor railing at Mall of America, but I managed the fenced-in areas at the top of this mountain just fine.
The kids begged for quarters for the binoculars, and enjoyed getting closer views of the sights from these. We could see the mountains near Joshua Tree National Park to the left, Palm Springs and its nearby towns below, some of the many wind generators that line the Coachella Valley at the bottom of the mountain, and the Salton Sea to the right. I forgot to look for the San Andreas Fault, although I’d read that it can be seen from the top.
Looking the other way, we could see hikers in the distance; the land at the top of the mountain is a state park and is available for recreational activities.
We stayed near the station, however, and after getting our fill of the view, headed inside to find something to eat. We chose the cafeteria-style Pines Cafe instead of the fancier Peaks Restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised at the reasonable prices for basic but good food. The boys had a large slice of pizza for $4, I had tortilla soup for $3.50, and our daughter liked the $5 yogurt parfait. My husband had some kind of sausage and sauerkraut that was part of a meal deal but also sold a la carte. All in all, we ate for about the same cost as fast food would have been, but with a much nicer view.
While we were eating, the sun set over the mountain, so that when we boarded the tram car again and began moving, we had a beautiful view of the city lights below. Once again we completed two and a half rotations as we rode, but this time to upbeat music instead of the informational narrative we’d heard on the way up.
In some ways, I’d compare the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway; both take you up about 8000 feet from the city below for some beautiful views. If I had to choose one over the other for my family, however, I’d go with the tramway. The 10-minute ride is much easier for kids than the hour-plus of Pikes Peak, and you can stay at the top as long as you wish.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was one of the high points of our California trip, especially since it was unique and not what I expected when I first thought of California.
If You Go:
- Call for ticket prices before you go. The after-4 discount is not listed on the website, although a ride-and-dine package is.
- Bring a sweatshirt or jacket, even if it’s warm in the valley. We were comfortable with sweatshirts on in mid-February.
- Don’t lean on the glass while the tramway is moving. Your feet will rotate right out from under the leaning part of you.
- Remember your camera.
- Go up just after 4 p.m., grab something to eat, enjoy the view, and come down after dark for a varied experience at a lower price.
- Check to see if any special activities are available during your visit.