March 4, 2004
A Desert High in Palm Springs
While nearby flatlands warm under perfect 60-degree winter weather, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway transports visitors to a pristine snow-covered forest. In just 10 minutes, this aerial tram carries passengers nearly 6,000 feet. The beautiful 14,000 acres of Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area are among the most visit-worthy in this heavily tourist destination.
As you ride in the world's largest rotating cars of the Aerial Tramway, the flora and fauna include everything one would see driving from the hot Sonora Desert of Mexico to the Transitional (alpine) Zone of Alaska. The highlights read like entries from a naturalist guide. From the main road nearest the tram, Highway 111, to the tram station, this green cienega, or Spanish marsh, nurtures cottonwood, sycamore, wild grape, mesquite and native Washingtonia filifera palm trees. Barrel cactus, cholla, prickly pear and yucca grow amid springtime wildflowers, including lupine, Canterbury bells and sunflowers.
Desert bighorn sheep, kit and gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes and ringtail raccoons also make their home here. As the tram climbs, wild apricot trees stand amid metamorphic rock, gneisses and schists. Deer and mountain lion roam among chaparral. And as the elevation rises, evergreens, firs and oaks thin as the peak approaches.
At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, there are a host of trails -- including a three-quarters of a mile loop through picturesque Long Valley, just behind the Mountain Station that introduces visitors to regional plants and animals. A much longer path, at 5.5 miles, leads to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, the second-tallest mountain in Southern California at 10,834 feet.
The ideal tram departure time is just before sunset. The reversible 80-passenger cars revolve slowly from within, making two rotations and offering spectacular views. One popular option: capping off the day with a drink in the Top of the Tram Restaurant and the Elevations Restaurant while admiring the city lights below.
Erected in 1963, nearly 30 years after its inception, the tramway was named an engineering "wonder of the world" for its ingenious use of helicopters in erecting four of five support towers; 23,000 flight missions were required to carry workers, supplies and materials for the towers and the Mountain Station.
During the summer, the mercury reaches well into the 100s in Palm Springs, but the mountain offers more than 54 miles of hiking trails, camping and guided nature walks, at almost 40 degrees cooler.
Another day, my father and I opted to hike closer to sea level at nearby Palm Canyons. This ancient home of the band of Cahuilla (Agua Caliente) Indians boasts palms that are 200 years old, many of them with the natural foliage skirts that are removed on commercial palms. These layers of dried branches encircle the trunk-like structure of these trees, which technically are massive grasses rather than trees.
We learned these facts and more by joining a guided tour with Rocky, a native Hawaiian who turned tribal ranger after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps and 10 volunteering with the San Bernadino Police Department as a rescue tracker. His desert survival skills make him a perfect guide. Rocky showed us all the edibles and how the native peoples prepared acorns, made their homes and harvested the sweet date palm fruit growing high overhead.
We wandered amid giant palms, verdant grasses and a warm, picturesque creek that smelled of sulfur due to a high mineral content. Rocky pointed out one tiny, creek-side impression where a native family would have once ground their acorns (five such mini-ditches appear in rocks throughout the canyon).
In contrast to our inspiring, mellow days of hiking, one evening we attended the raucous "Palm Springs Follies," a Rockette-style music and dance of the 1930s and '40s with performers old enough to have lived it. Amazingly youthful seniors age 56 to 86 strut their stuff in between international vaudeville acts from November through May.
Jewish impresario Riff Markowitz, a former television producer, serves as emcee for this three-hour extravaganza, leading the audience through a show peppered with Jewish jokes -- even a few relating to travel.
At one point he turned his attention to the holiday of Thanksgiving, saying no Jews were aboard the Mayflower.
"Do you know why?" he asked. "There were no first-class seats."
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located at One Tramway Road. The cost is about $20. Tramcars depart every half hour from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call (888) 515-TRAM or visit www.pstramway.com .
For more information about "The Palm Springs Follies," call (760) 327-0225 or visit www.psfollies.com .