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Aerial Tramway Pushes the Vertical Limit

The 11-minute ride from desert floor to mountaintop inspires awe among visitors.

June 06, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the most stunning views afforded by the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is from the rocky canyon floor, looking up. The cables appear impossibly long and thread-like. They begin at a sharp angle and become ever-steeper as they span skeletal towers to the towering canyon rim, where the walls are all but cliffs.

By then, the tram cars have gained more than a mile in elevation--and are still climbing at an angle that looks almost vertical.

"We're going up that?" Marion Rodgers exclaimed to her husband, Calvin, as they stepped from their rental car and saw the tramway for the first time.

Fear somehow intensifies the beauty. Beauty intensifies the fear. They flicker in a tourist's mind in ways that are difficult to express. Marion Rodgers laughed after reaching the top and talked about visiting the Colorado Rockies and Georgia's Stone Mountains. This 11-minute tram ride was more--beyond breathtaking.

"You're closer to God, I'll tell you that, " she said. "That's what it does to you--makes you realize man is so humble."

Calvin Rodgers expounded on the rock formations near the top--ledges and outcroppings in a palette of colors, dotted with firs growing out of the canyon walls. The escarpments are fringed with brush, eroded by storms, broken and cut to show a thousand beguiling patterns in the granite.

"It's just awesome," he said.

No attraction in California is quite like the tramway, opened in 1963 and improved two years ago with the installation of Swiss-built round cars that rotate twice during each trip up or down the mountain. The new cars have the look of flying saucers. They lift 80 people at a time from a desert oasis at 2,643 feet to a pine forest 8,516 feet up the side of Mt. San Jacinto.

The trip passes through five distinct ecological zones. The barrel cactus and yucca plants of the bottom give way to sycamore, cottonwood and black maple. Higher up there are manzanita and mountain mahogany, pinyon pine and scrub oak, wild apricot and evergreens. Hiking trails meander through the dense forest at the top.

"What fascinates me is the difference between that side of the mountain and this," said Wanda Wojnarowki of Kansas City, Mo. The lower, west-facing slopes are dry and barren and covered with rocks. The top is green and lush. In the winter, it gets heavy snow.

Temperatures on the mountain are often 30 degrees cooler than down below. That fact was the motivating force behind construction of the tramway, the brainchild of an electrical engineer named Francis F. Crocker. It is said that Crocker was visiting nearby Banning one hot day in 1935 and peered up longingly at the snow-capped peak of Mt. San Jacinto. Almost immediately, he began devising plans for a tramway, a project that became known as "Crocker's Folly" in the many futile years that followed.

Two early legislative bills to create the tramway were vetoed. World War II intervened. Funds were raised. The Korean War caused further delay.

Finally, in the early 1960s, helicopters began flying missions into Chino Canyon--23,000 trips, without accident, to construct support towers and the mountain tram station. Built for just over $8 million, the tramway is owned and operated by the state and is prized by residents of Palm Springs.

"You can swim in your pool in Palm Springs in the morning and go up the tram and ... take cross-country ski lessons in the afternoon," said David Aaker, a resident for eight years. He and his wife, Faleen, have yearly tram passes that cost $120 apiece. They take the tram up for dinner or evening coffee and dessert, Aaker said.

"You can watch the lights come on all over the Coachella Valley and ride the train down at night," he said. "It's absolutely fabulous. From my backyard, I can watch the tram cars go up at night. It's really relaxing. There is not a lot of light pollution here. There are no street lights. The stars here are fabulous."

If Aaker sounds like a chamber of commerce executive, it's because he is. But plenty of outsiders also rave about the tramway. Victor Yap, a tropical fish breeder from the Philippines, is one.

"It's just wonderful," Yap said upon reaching the top. "As scary as it is, it's exciting as well. It's like riding a roller coaster."

Tower No. 3, as the tram nears 6,000 feet, accounts for the only real bump in the ride. Crossing the tower, the tram car kicks and sways disconcertingly. "If you have bad balance," tram operator Craig Tyerman tells his passengers, "you may want to hang on."

The swaying brought nervous laughter from Yap's wife, Nina, and their two young daughters, Colene and Pammy. "I know they got scared, definitely," Yap said. "When the tram rolls and pitches, and you have a backdrop of the stony mountain, it just magnifies the scariness and excitement."

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