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Wilderness express

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway whisks visitors up Mt. San Jacinto in minutes. Now a proposed people mover would take them farther, into a spectacular valley. Is Southern California's second-highest mountain about to become less wild?

October 11, 2005|Ann Japenga | Special to The Times

THE trip to the top of Mt. San Jacinto is as easy as hopping into a gondola via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and soaring one vertical mile above granite escarpments, lodgepole pines and waterfalls spilling into gorges choked with wild grapevines. It's a slice of the Sierra and prelude to a challenging hiking path with a controversial future.

Disembarking at 8,516 feet high, you find there's a 400-yard serpentine paved ramp that leads down to Long Valley, where trails to the summit and elsewhere begin. It is perhaps the most hated sidewalk in California.

Clomping down the steep grade is bad enough; climbing up is misery. Some people haul themselves up by the handrail, others push up a few yards at a time, then fall gasping over the rail. Even state park rangers -- men and women with bulging calf muscles -- complain. "It never gets any easier," says ranger Jed Reghanti.

To ease bellyaching and blisters, a new idea has emerged: Install a Swiss-engineered people mover, the Monorack, a mountain-worthy variation of a monorail, that will extend the machinery atop the mountain farther into the wilds. The idea comes from the folks at the Mt. San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, which operates the aerial tram. They think whisking visitors effortlessly up and down the ramp makes sense and is a logical extension of the tram.

The concept of a people mover seems fine for many day-hikers who schlep the grade, which sometimes is called Heart Attack Hill. For many people who are disabled, overweight or aging, smoothing out the rigors of the hiking path makes sense. On a recent day, Florence Allen, a Burlingame resident with a lung condition, struggled up the incline. When she heard about the people mover idea, her comment was: "Oh, how nice."

But to many environmentalists, building a people mover in mountain backcountry is an unnecessary and unwarranted intrusion into the wilds. Environmentalists bitterly fought, and lost, when the aerial tram opened in 1963. Forty-two years later, the debate is being renewed. Some worry a people mover would lead to creeping commercialization and wreck the natural experience.

Set in an amphitheater of craggy peaks and lodgepole pine forests, Long Valley is the heart of Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based advocacy group, says that by making this shortcut, "they're making wilderness less wild. The wilderness near the people mover isn't going to be wilderness at all."

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A history of conflict

AT the stroke of 10 on weekday mornings, Mt. San Jacinto starts to hum just like the grumbling spirit Tahquitz in Native American legends of the mountain. This growl is not coming from Tahquitz, but from the tramway's five towers, 27 miles of cable and 600 tons of steel.

The first gondola lifts above the granite spires of Chino Canyon and about 10 minutes later, bumps into the dock at the 8,516-foot-high mountain station. Men with toddlers on their shoulders and women in flip-flops step off the tram platform, walk through the lodge and out the back door to face the steep concrete ramp that leads from the mountain station down to Long Valley.

For most people, the tram is the only way to get to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. You can't drive to the summit, and the trails from the desert floor are so steep that only the hardiest hikers attempt the ascent.

Jeff Morgan, a Palm Springs spokesman for the Sierra Club, has a season pass for the aerial tram and rides it almost every week to reach his favorite hiking trails. "It's there, so I use it," he says.

Yet despite its popularity, the tram, and the very notion of mechanized transportation on the mountain, has a history of controversy.

At one time, it was uncertain whether the tramway would be built. Its construction was the subject of a 17-year dispute, one of the most protracted conservation battles in Southern California history. The leader of the fight was Harry James, a former silent-film director who helped preserve the San Gorgonio wilderness and founded the Desert Protective Council. In the 1940s, James and his Sierra Club allies objected to the proposed tramway route that crossed a section of federal wilderness area and encroached on a state park known for its primitive allure. They feared it would open a wedge into the wilderness.

James "saw the tramway as a mechanistic intrusion that would destroy, or at least seriously harm, the wilderness nature of this high mountain country," wrote John W. Robinson in "The San Jacintos."

Today, some environmentalists say the tram should be dismantled, just as dams and urban developments in national parks should be removed. Building a people mover, they argue, only mimics a bad trend, and at a time when many funiculars -- think Mt. Lowe Railway above Altadena and Mt. Tamalpais Railroad in Mill Valley -- have disappeared.

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