You don't need to don your crampons and ropes to explore San Jacinto Peak. And there's plenty to do once you get to the top.
One of the most accessible of Southern California's peaks, San Jacinto and its park area are reached via the world's longest single-lift passenger tramway, which makes a spectacular ascent of almost 6,000 feet up the sheer granite side of the peak.
Completed in 1963, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was the brainchild of former electrical engineer Francis Crocker, now 88. The mountainside is so steep that much of the construction work had to be done with the aid of helicopters, there being no other way to reach the sites for the necessary support towers.
You'll see why on the way up: At one point you are a giddying 600 feet above the valley floor. Look around the tram cabin and you'll probably see a lot of white knuckles--maybe including your own.
It is a breathtaking ride--some would say scary--with a view that must be seen to be believed. Take along a sweater or jacket, because temperatures at the higher altitudes are sometimes as much 30 to 40 degrees lower than at the Valley Station.
The most commonly heard expression from people exiting the tram at the top is "Wow!"--so spectacular is the vista. Quite a few residents of Palm Springs, Whitewater and Idyllwild come just to ride the tram. Some make reservations for the tramway's special ride-and-meal combinations.
To avoid the effects of the sudden change of altitude, take it easy for a while after leaving the tram. One way to do that is to visit the theater on the station's lower level, where a 22-minute movie, "Crocker's Dream," chronicles the history of the tramway from conception to opening.
Another way is to enjoy a proper sit-down meal or the cafeteria lunch at the Alpine Restaurant, where there is a cocktail lounge, a sunny outdoor patio and a gift shop.
Or you can sign up for a mule-train ride, operated by German-born mountain man Heiko Detjens. You saddle up just 80 yards down the paved path behind the station.
With the able help of John Wallace, who doubles as a ski instructor in winter, Heiko leads five or more people at a time on a lovely 25-minute trip through Long Valley, a quiet, unsullied woodland area where the stately firs, pinon and sugar pines towering overhead lend a cathedral-like feel to the surroundings.
The rides cost $5--a steal. You have only to listen to the comments of the children to tell that it's something more special than chocolate sundaes--or at least as special.
Mules are sure-footed creatures, ideal for negotiating rocky terrain. (You might ask for a black one named Donald, a handsome, taciturn fellow who seems to know the territory pretty well and gives as smooth a ride as you're likely to get on muleback.)
A walk on the Desert View Trail, which can be accomplished in less than 40 minutes, will give you a taste of what John Muir once called--with little exaggeration--"the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth."
Where the trail winds out of the woodlands and gentle meadows to descend between great granite boulders, there is a breathtaking panorama of the desert floor about 8,000 feet below.
Let It Snow, Let It Snow
Snow on San Jacinto means dog-sledding contests and skiing, with ski equipment available for rent at the station. For those who just like to play in the white stuff, an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony is held the first Sunday in December.
And don't worry: Ice and snow do not affect the tram's operation; if anything, snow enhances the spectacular view. If you need to reassure yourself of its safety, just take a look at the size of the pulleys and counterweights in the engine room when you get to the top. Those counterweights weigh in at 83 tons, and the motor has a pulling power of 1,000 horsepower.
Located in the Alpine range between Palm Springs and Idyllwild, San Jacinto is only a two- to three-hour drive from most major Southland cities via Interstate 10.
If you like backpacking, you can hike in from the Idyllwild side. Two of the most scenic routes are the Devil's Slide Trail, starting from Humber Park in Idyllwild, and the Fuller Ridge Trail, which starts from Black Mountain Road, a dirt road off the Banning-Idyllwild Road (California 243).
Hiking Permits Required
Hikers should be aware that permits are required for day or overnight use in the wilderness areas. Jurisdiction is shared by the state park service and national forest service. For details, call Mt. San Jacinto State Park at (714) 659-2607 or the Idyllwild ranger station of San Bernardino National Forest, (714) 659-2117.
But for a daylong outing for the less energetic, the tramway route is best.
To reach the tramway Valley Station, drive east on California 111 off Interstate 10 and turn right on Tramway Road (the first major intersection in Palm Springs) and follow it to its end, 2,643 feet up at the base of the mountain.
The two 80-passenger tram cars depart about every half-hour, up and back, Monday through Friday beginning at 10 a.m., and from 8 a.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Last car up: 8 p.m.; last car down: 9:45 p.m.
The round trip tram cost is $12.95 for adults, $7.95 for children 3 to 12. Call (619) 325-1391 to confirm the schedule. After 4 p.m. a special "Ride 'n' Dine" fare of $16.95 includes a cafeteria-style meal at the Alpine Restaurant in the Mountain Station. Children, $10.50. For more information about the combination rates, call (619) 325-1440.
For information on mule rides, skiing, sledding, (619) 327-2696, and for camping permits and other park information, (714) 659-2607 .