I escaped Jackson Hole’s early snow this weekend and headed southwest, destination tramway number fourteen on my hit list. One I should have gotten to long ago, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the king of North American jig-backs with a ridiculous vertical rise of 5,873 feet. That’s second highest in the world, though the German number one was retired in April with a replacement not scheduled to open until December, giving SoCal’s tram the loftiest lift worldwide title for the moment. At 2.5 miles, it’s just 317 feet longer than Jackson’s Big Red but with almost 1,800 more vertical in Chino Canyon. A modest sign points to the tram from a traffic light 670 feet above sea level on the edge of Palm Springs and the access road (Tram Way) and the tramway combine to lift visitors to 8,516 feet on Mt. San Jacinto. Of all the lifts I have ridden, this one rivals the best, both in terms of the core machine and the impressive operation surrounding it.
Francis Crocker, an employee of the California Electric Power Company first envisioned the tram while on vacation to Palm Springs in 1935. It took almost thirty years and a war for his dream to come alive, beginning with the creation of the Mount San Jacinto Winter Park Authority by the California legislature in 1945. Construction began in 1960 and from the day California Governor Pat Brown cut the ribbon in September 1963, the tram was a hit. It would be the first of seven large aerial tramways for VonRoll in the United States.
Construction was funded through $8.15 million in private bonds and helicopters flew some 23,000 missions to construct four of the five towers and the mountain station, where between 30 and 40 workers lived for 26 months. The 227-foot tower 1 required two monster cranes to erect. Without a road to the rest of the towers or the top, helipads were constructed and temporary tramways fashioned to haul loads exceeding the thousand pound payload capacity of early Bell helicopters. Even today, the top four towers sport helipads and cannot be reached from the ground.
After 37 years helping people beat the heat of the Sonoran Desert in ten minutes, the seven-member board that oversees the tramway operation voted to rebuild the tram for a new millennium. A few years earlier, Doppelmayr had acquired the ropeway division of VonRoll and its American Tramways subsidiary. The combined company was awarded the modernization contract and a new Doppelmayr-branded tram debuted November 6th, 2000. The 18-foot wide, 80-passenger circular cabins mandated major remodeling of both dock structures and raising/widening of tower crossarms. New controls were provided by Frey AG Stans and upgraded cabins manufactured by CWA (both also now subsidiaries of Doppelmayr!) Most moving parts were replaced. The rebuild ultimately cost $11 million with 14 weeks of feverish work. Nine months after the grand reopening, Doppelmayr bought Garaventa, forming the dominant reversible tramway builder we know today.
Like most large tramways, the system features two track ropes on each side that are slipped down the saddles about every 12 years. A 40 mm lower haul rope and 45 mm upper rope form a socketed loop together with the two carriages and pass through a 120-ton counterweight up top or around the drive bullwheel below. The track ropes have their own counterweights inside the valley station, which is filled with deflection bullwheels.
The most unique feature of the new tram is rotating cabin floors, which move around central operator stands. I got to experience one trip turning and one without and my take is the feature works best when the tram is crowded. The only other floor-rotating cabins ascend Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. CWA’s “Rotair” cabins first debuted in 1992 at Titlis, Switzerland and those were replaced with complete rotating versions in 2014. The four new Skyway Monte Bianco cabins in Italy also rotate and were built by Carvatech.
More than 18 million people have ridden the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and the operation runs morning, noon and night 350 days a year. The tram’s ten parking lots sometimes fill but crowds are managed well with tickets sold for specific trips and available online. There are museums, cafes, theaters and shops to enjoy while you wait. I walked right on both ways this weekend, good news because I still have six more American trams left to ride: Alyeska, Gatlinburg, Jay Peak, Roosevelt Island, Sandia Peak and Stone Mountain.