Where can you sit poolside and bake in the 90+ degree sunshine in a lounge chair one day, and hike in snow the next without ever packing a bag? Why, Palm Springs, CA, of course!
I say my goodbyes to Jim and Gayle in the Joshua Tree south boondock, with plans to meet up further north this summer. We are off to pursue our mutual passions, which for me means soaking in Desert Hot Springs, while they are off in pursuit of more Pickleball.
I have long been intrigued about the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. What on earth is a big tram system like this doing in the desert? So I am eager to experience the ride up. Besides, Palm Springs is in for another heatwave over the weekend with temperatures predicted to spike to 96 degrees. I can’t believe I am doing something so touristy as a tram ride on a Sunday, but it is “hot, hot, Africa hot,” and I need a rush of cool air.
I do some research to see what hiking opportunities might there be two and a half miles up the “Tallest Tram in the World,” and I learn that not only is there hiking, but there are over 50 miles of trails up there! I could hike all the way to nearby Idyllwild! With a little advance planning, I could have even met Jim and Gayle, now in nearby Jojoba Hills, for lunch. But there is also one little factor that will determine how far I can go….SNOW??
I get an early start. It’s so hot back down in Desert Hot Springs that I plan to spend the greatest part of the day at the top in the cool mountain air. Even if I can’t go any further than the Nature Walk, I’ll hang out during the heat of the day in “The Lookout Lounge.”
But I soon find out it’s going to be an expensive escape! The $25 tram ticket to the top, I can justify. It’s a pricey piece of construction, obviously. But it’s the additional $5 price gouge to park in a lot in the middle of nowhere that really irks me. Good thing I have just driven 4 miles up a steep “turn-off-your-air-conditioner-to-avoid-overheating” hill to get here, otherwise, I might have turned around in protest.
The tram will take just 10 minutes to travel two and a half miles, starting at an elevation of 2,643 feet, ending at the Mountain Station, elevation 8,516 feet. I race to be in the best position possible, alongside an open window facing back down the hill so I can get some good photos on the ride up, only to learn that it is a rotating car! Riding in one of two opposing cable cars, we will make a 360 degree rotation up the mountain. Albeit impressive, it’s also a bit disorienting as my feet move while the hand rail is stationary. I have ridden many trams, but never one that rotates!
It’s a brisk 45 degrees when I arrive at the top, and though I was looking forward to some cooler air, I am not sure I expected this big of a drop. Thankfully, I’ve extra layers in my pack.
Even though it is only 9:30am on a Sunday, already the top of the mountain is beginning to get crowded with foreign tourists. I head first for the exhibits, as I know the crowds are only going to get worse throughout the day. Once I have satisfied my curiosity by touring the Mountain Station facilities and the overlooks, I head down Long Valley to the Ranger Station in Mt. San Jacinto State Park. In order to go beyond the Nature Trail, one must obtain a Wilderness Permit from the Ranger Station. There is no fee for the permit.
I ask the Ranger about trail conditions, and he cautions me that the 5 mile loop trail I hoped to do is covered in snow.
“Since you don’t have micro-spikes or crampons, you might be better off to stick to the 1.5 mile Nature Trail.”
“I had really hoped to complete the loop to Round Valley and back via Willow Creek.”
(Looking condescendingly at my bare legs) “There’s some deep snow up there.”
“I hiked the Mendenhall Glacier in shorts.”
“You are gonna need to cross a stream that’s ankle deep. You’ll get your shoes wet.”
“That’s okay, they’re Goretex.”
“It’s a much more challenging trail now due to the snow we had last week.”
“I’ll go until I reach the boundary of my comfort zone, then I’ll turn around.”
“You’ve got all the essentials?” (pointing to a board that details out the 10 Essentials)
“All that…aaannnd a space blanket!”
Wilderness Permit now obtained, I head out into the “wilderness” (100 yards from the Mountain Station) where I am delighted to see there is no one on the trails. Right away, I encounter snow, but it is hard packed and easy going for a while. But then, I reach an area where it gets icy, and my boots begin to slip a bit. To complicate matters, it is a pretty steep slope down a ravine leading to the stream. I consider turning back, but stop and think about the throngs of tourists behind me. Where I stand now atop the muffled snow, all I can hear is the running stream below me, while just a few feet back are crying babies, screaming kids, and Asian and Indian (Read my stereotype “LOUD”) dialects. Instead I decide to just take it slow, inching my way along, while cursing my decision to only bring one hiking pole!
Standing in the middle of the “ice field,” I can’t see terra firma ahead of me or behind me. Up ahead a “trail angel” approaches, a micro-spike-wearing State Park volunteer. “Where ya headed?” I tell him I had hoped to do the loop to Round Valley and back via Willow Creek, but am considering whether I should turn around. “You’re halfway through the worst of it. If you’d planned to make the loop, you may as well keep going. Willow Creek gets more sun, so you should be fine on the return.” So after a nice chat about the merits of micro-spikes, I press on.
Once I see the “outhouses,” I know I am only a half a mile from the Seasonal Ranger Station in Round Valley, my planned lunch stop. I have the area all to myself, so I find a big, flat boulder in the sun. It’s a glorious day and the weather is nothing short of perfect. By now, it must be approaching the mid-sixties in the sun. As I stretch out and enjoy my lunch, I ponder how this hike has stimulated all five senses. The sights are spectacular. The sound of nothing more than birdsong and my own breath muffled by the snow. The vanilla and butterscotch mixed with evergreen scents of the tall Ponderosa Pines. The feel of the cold snow beneath my boot soles. And the taste of my peanut butter and banana sandwich on carrot, raisin and walnut bread from the Aspen Mills Bakery….all while pondering the crowds just 2.5 miles of snow-crusted trail behind me.
Aerial Tram: Twenty-five dollars
Parking Fee: Five dollars
Solitude in the cool, crisp mountain air? PRICELESS!