We have visited Palm Springs a number of times in January for the warm wintertime weather. The weather was what we had expected during the day each trip with temperatures in the high 70’s and low 80’s. In fact the town of Coachella (south of Palm Springs) recorded the nation’s high temperature during one of our trips. We were staying with a group of 15 people in a time share condo. The condo was built against the base of a hill, and at night the lights would brilliantly light up the hill and vegetation. We spent our first night in Palm Springs in our condo watching movies and discussing our San Jacinto hike.
Palm Springs Tramway
The Palm Springs Tramway and surrounding scenery are one of the top highlights of any visit to Palm Springs. The next morning our group drove to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway www.pstramway.com. The Tramway Road is located on the west side of the 11 on the north end of Palm Springs – right where the Palm Springs visitor center is located. The tram takes people from approximately 2,600 feet to 8,500 feet. A one way trip takes about 11 minutes. The tram rides are offered Monday through Friday beginning at 10 A.M. On Saturday/Sunday and holidays the rides start at 8am. Riders on the first tram car always tend to be the serious hikers going for the San Jacinto summit – often young and brimming with enthusiasm.
The last trip up leaves from the bottom at 9 P.M. and returns at 10:45 P.M. During daylight savings time, the last trip up leaves at 8 P.M. and returns at 9:45 P.M. The tramway is CLOSED for maintenance up to two weeks in early September. I high light the “word” closed because several readers have told me that they weren’t able to take the tram during this time, or they were lucky and caught the tram just before its annual closing. They close because of maintenance and repairs. The adult fare is $25.95 with discounts for children ages 3 to 12 those 60 years or older. When we were there, we used our Triple A card and received a small discount, good for individual tickets up to 6 people. Note: The triple A discount is NOT given for the dinner/ride package.
For convenience, tickets can be purchased online and printed (or put on your phone for scanning) prior to your arrival. If you pay for the dinner/ride package the earliest you can go up the tram is 2:30 pm. For up to date information call: (760) 325-1391.
A visitor’s center is located at the bottom of the Tram Road – a stop here can be a good source of information regarding weather and ideas for various activities and attractions in the region. There is a walkway/bike path that parallels the tram road from the bottom to the parking lot at the top. It is surprising how many people hike from the bottom to the top – some days in the late fall and winter months we have passed many people getting a morning workout by making this steep hike.
Every car must pay a fee to park at the parking lots next to the tram entrance. There are numerous numbered parking lots – note that the road that circles the parking lot is one way.
The tram rides leave both the bottom and the top every 20 minutes. During your trip to the top in the tram car, you will listen to a recorded message discussing the construction of the tramway and the vegetation of the area. This is the largest rotating tram way in the world – your tramcar actually rotates 360 degrees (rotated a full 2x around on our ride to to the top). If you take the tram in the winter you will be quickly whisked from the desert into a snow covered alpine environment. If the day is reasonably clear on the way up, you will have great views of the Salton Sea to the south and the mountain ranges to the east of Palm Springs. Normally there is snow at the top of the tramway starting in mid November, but some years we have not seen snow until late December or even early January. When there is enough snow at the top, you can rent snowshoe and cross country skis. With over 54 miles in trails, there is plenty of open space for hiking or winter overland sports.
You cannot reserve snow equipment – it is first come first serve. For snow conditions and general weather info call (888) 515-TRAM.
The top of the tramway, called the Mountain Station has two restaurants, a bar/lounge, a gift shop, a natural history museum, and an overlook of Palm Springs and the nearby valleys far below. Many people are not aware of the overlook – once you step out of the tram simply walk up stairs to the restaurant/cafe level – then walk out any of the doors and circle around the back of the building, climbing a few more metal stairs until you reach a look out. You will be happy you did – if clear, fantastic views await.
Once you reach the top you will notice a definite temperature change compared to the bottom of the tramway. Often times when its 120 in the valley in the summertime, it can be in the 80’s or 90’s at the top of the tram.
Once we reached the top of the tramway our goal was to summit Mount San Jacinto which is 10,804 feet. Most of our group had wisely brought snow shoes as the snow was quite deep. There are over 50 miles of trails in the San Jacinto wilderness area. A permit is needed for day hikes as well as for overnight camping. This self issued permit can be easily obtained at a ranger station a quarter of a mile walk from the Mountain Station. Simply hike up the few steps to the deck of the ranger station and fill out the “permit form”. You put the top copy in the box and put the 2nd carbon copy in your back pocket. Don’t lose it – when you return from your hike you will put this carbon copy in a box at the base of the flag pole.
Round Valley Hike
The hike to Round valley is about 2 miles each way so approximately 4 miles round trip. This is a nice introduction to the hiking of this area – not too short and not too long. You will need to fill out a permit as described above before you hike this trail. The trail to Round Valley is also the same trail to Mt. San Jacinto (hike described directly below). Allow 1 hour each way. It is a fairly gentle climb up to Round Valley mostly under the cover of the alpine trees. Round valley is a very small valley – in which there are some designated camping sites. You can return the same way you hiked out from the tramway station, or you can hike another 2 miles longer and return via Willow Creek
San Jacinto Hike
The hike to San Jacinto is about 12 miles round trip. We started our hike around 9:30 but as it turned out we should have left a bit earlier. It had snowed the previous day and the trail crew had just blazed a trail through the snow before we left. This meant that the part of the trail near the tramway was packed from people hiking, but as we got closer to San Jacinto and away from the foot traffic those who didn’t have snowshoes on started post holing and sinking up to their waist in the snow. For the first couple of miles the trail winds through the trees and slowly climbs in elevation. It eventually reaches a meadow and from there becomes quite steep.
A friend and I were without snowshoes and we could not keep pace with those who had snowshoes on so we split apart from the rest, not wanting to hinder them from having a chance of summitting. My friend and I left the main trail and started climbing straight up a steep hill which we thought was one of the sides of San Jacinto. After a lunch break and much struggle in the deep snow we reached the top only to be disappointed to see San Jacinto still in the distance. By this time it was a little after 2 P.M. and we estimated that the summit was still another 2 hours away. We both decided to hike for another hour and see where we were in relation to the summit.
We continued hiking and soon we could see that we had over estimated the amount of time that it would take to get to the summit. After about one hour and 20 minutes we summitted. We thought the others from our group had turned back but in fact they were on the far side of the summit. From the top there are tremendous views of the south land. We had 360 degree views. In the west you could see Catalina Island. To the north you could see the San Gorgonio mountains, along with San Gorgonio mountain (11,500 ft). To the south you could see the entire Coachella valley and the great Salton sea shimmering in the distance.
A note of caution. We were hiking on a clear day and the sun was shining. As long as you kept moving you remained warm. However, the top of San Jacinto was extremely cold and very windy. Wear the proper gear. On this hike I was extremely glad to have a waterproof jacket and waterproof shell pants. Sunglasses are a must. Most people had snow shoes and waterproof shoes on. I did not, and I suffered because of this.
My friend and I left the summit at 4 P.M. with the rest of the group. We knew that we would be hiking in the dark but the trail back was all downhill. After a group discussion we decided to hike off the trail and slide down a steep hill. We dropped over 1000 ft in a matter of minutes by sliding down. By dropping this distance we again caught the fast disappearing golden rays of the sun. The group stopped for me because by this time my feet felt like they were frozen. My toes could not move and I could barely feel my feet. I took off my shoes put my feet in one of the snow boots someone had lent me. This provided a short term solution and I was able to continue on.
After a while the sun dipped behind the mountains and we were soon thrown into darkness. Fortunately the darkness was temporary as the moon soon rose. We could not find the trail but we knew that we were hiking in the general direction of the tramway. My friend and I, both without snow shoes, were exhausted by this point. My friend’s knee was bothering him and he was having a difficult time walking in the waist high snow. We kept dropping elevation and entered a small river channel. Some of us were starting to wonder if we were really lost. We all stopped for my friend and I to rest.
I removed my shoes once again but this time I wrapped my bare feet in a plastic bag. After we started moving again I noticed a huge difference and my feet stayed warm as we continued to hike. One of the physically stronger members in the group lent me his snow shoes. This helped me considerably, for the first time all day I was not sinking into the snow.
Eventually we reached some ski tracks and fortunately those led back to the main trail. We had left the summit at 4 P.M. and we reached the top of the tramway at 8 P.M. This return time was inflated due to our cross country travels. If we had stayed on the trail we probably could have hiked back in an hour and a half or two hours. The relief at seeing the lights of the tramway was immeasurable.