From flying over bison to coasting through redwood forests, wine tasting and beach cruising, visitors to California can do it all by gondola even when far from ski country. In every major region of the vast California Republic, gondolas greet more than 250 million annual tourists, providing unique experiences and spectacular views in one of America’s most diverse states.
California Trail – Oakland Zoo
California’s newest gondola debuted at the Oakland Zoo in June, whisking guests on a three minute safari to an $80 million experience called California Trail, which features animals native to the Golden State. In some ways this is America’s first urban gondola with the top terminal located in the basement of a combination transit station, restaurant and visitor center. The Doppelmayr UNI-G system sports 17 cabins that can move 1,000 guests each hour between California Station and the new hub for wolves, bears and mountain lions. Even though the exhibits don’t open until next year, the gondola is already so popular that the zoo’s chairlift rarely runs anymore as guests binge-ride the California Trail lap after lap.
Skyfari – San Diego Zoo
The VonRoll-built Skyfari is a big reason why the San Diego Zoo grew to become the most-visited zoo in America. Since 1969, 42 four-passenger cabins have transported some 75 million riders from the east side of the park to the west. Today, the Skyfari operates more than 3,300 hours a year and an impressive 60 percent of zoo guests choose to take the ride, making it by far the most-ridden gondola in this most populous state. The lift’s four towers reach up to 89 feet, yielding zoogoers spectacular views of their surroundings and downtown San Diego. Now presented by Alaska Airlines, the ride is impeccably maintained and features updated Doppelmayr controls and automated cabin launching. Just based on ridership, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it replaced with a modern system with more capacity in the coming years.
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.
We’ve heard little about the two lift projects surrounding Lone Peak this summer, even though they will bring North America’s largest contiguous ski complex to a record 43 lifts before counting carpets. As I covered before, the biggest development is at the Yellowstone Club, where a new Doppelmayr gondola, high-speed quad and triple chair will create one of the largest beginner skiing facilities in America, though few will be lucky enough to learn to ski there.
Over at Big Sky Resort, anyone with a ticket to the Biggest Skiing in America will be able to ride the new Stagecoach double chair this winter. Stagecoach extends the long tradition of so-called lodging access lifts here, begun with Pony Express in 1995 and followed by White Otter, Cascade, arguably allfiveof theSpanishPeaks lifts, and most recently Little Thunder. Amazingly, almost half of the 43 lifts on Lone Peak and the surrounding mountains exist to create ski-in, ski-out real estate. At Big Sky Resort, most of these machines are seconds from other Boyne mountains and they have their own color on the trail map: purple.
In the five years prior to the real estate bubble bursting nationwide in 2008, a crazy 18 lifts were built in Big Sky at four separate ski operations. One of those, Moonlight Basin, opened in December 2003 as Lone Peak’s second public ski resort. The development’s first two lifts had simply connected to neighboring Big Sky Resort in 1994 and 1995. Between 2003 and 2006, founder Lee Poole and his partners went it alone, adding four more lifts including Montana’s first six-pack. Three of these were among the last CTECs off the line following the Doppelmayr merger.
As I listened to the recent Community Ski Areas at Risk Symposium and the reopening saga of Sleeping Giant, Wyoming, it sounded awfully similar to a story I heard a few weeks ago in the far northwest corner of Montana. If you draw lines between the famous ski towns of Sandpoint, Idaho; Whitefish, Montana and Fernie, British Columbia, in the center of that triangle lies the not-so-famous (but by some accounts infamous) town of Libby, Montana. Twenty miles north of this outpost of 2,628 people, Turner Mountain operates as one of America’s most unique, under-the-radar ski areas. Scott Kirschenmann, board member of the nonprofit Kootenai Winter Sports Ski Education Foundation that operates the mountain, kindly gave me a grand tour of the place that Ski Magazine once called some of the “best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.” and which Powder Magazine visited as part of its series called Montanafest Destiny, but which really survives through community support.
Though it employs only three people during ski season, Turner Mountain is anything but small. A mile-long double chair with a mid-station rises 2,110 vertical feet. That places Turner in the top ten percent for vertical nationwide, ahead of famous mountains like Alta, Kirkwood, and Loon. The lift offers hundreds more vertical than all of Liftopia’s 5 Best Lifts in North America (Silverton’s double, KT-22 at Squaw, Chair 23 at Mammoth, Peak at Whistler and Deep Temerity at Aspen Highlands.)
Known for its fall-line skiing, 60 percent of Turner’s terrain is rated black diamond, though there are plenty of intermediate cruisers. From 1961 until 2001, a Constam T-Bar built mostly out of wood – the longest surface lift ever built in the US – served the same profile with a crazy 18-minute ride time. The “new” Riblet double chair, built entirely by volunteers with parts from Stevens Pass and The Summit at Snoqualmie, improved that to 11 minutes. The project used zero helicopter time and no paid contractor, only locally-available equipment and $92,000 (plus a $128,000 low-interest loan) from the Libby Area Development Authority. Skiers donated to sponsor individual chairs and towers. The sign on tower 1 reads simply, “Life is Good.”
You probably don’t know about this lift, even though it has the largest vertical rise of any gondola in North America. Yes, more vertical than if Vail had a top-to-bottom lift and more than the (much newer) gondolas at Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Silver Mountain and Aspen. You wouldn’t know how cool this lift is from the tiny ticket booth and parking lot, or from the tramway’s Facebook page, which lists it as “permanently closed.” Despite all signs pointing to a lackluster roadside attraction, the Wallowa Lake Tramway, as it’s known, is incredible.
Situated at the far shore of its namesake, past the end of an abandoned railroad and at the dead-end of a 13-mile road, it feels like a trip to the Alps with high mountain peaks all around. Opened in 1970 after two years of construction at a cost of $700,000, the tramway was conceived as the launch point for a large ski area, so the cabins have ski racks. Although skiing never materialized, nearly fifty years later the gondola serves as a scenic throwback for the lucky few who venture six hours from Portland or 4.5 from Spokane or Boise (the local Lions Club opened a ski area nearby called Ferguson Ridge in 1983.) Those who trek to the Wallowas are rewarded with a 3,700′ vertical lift to 8,256′ Mt. Howard with monster mountain views along the way and a shimmering blue lake below.
Few lifts in the world are as iconic as the Snowbird Tram with its 125 passenger red and blue cabins rising from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Hidden Peak. When it opened in 1971, the tram was one of the longest, largest and most powerful aerial tramways in the world and remains so today. In his 168-page book dedicated to this machine, Walt McConnell said of the tram, “It was loaded with innovative features and immediately became the symbol of Snowbird.” A timeless style combined with recent upgrades mean the tram is sure to remain an icon of the Wasatch for years to come.
Decades after the founding of nearby Alta, Ted Johnson envisioned a carefully-designed, 40-acre resort village with modern American design anchored by a tramway. After a trip over from Vail, Dick Bass agreed to join team Snowbird and provide financial backing. Ted quietly began buying mining claims in Little Cottonwood Canyon while still working at Alta. In Ted’s mind, a tram was the only lift to build and the route to Hidden Peak was clear. “The awesome massiveness of the tramway and its terminal buildings-to-be set the stage for the bold architectural statements of all of Snowbird,” he declared. He went public with the Snowbird development in 1966, forming Snowbird Design Group.
A National Park away from Colorado’s flashy chondolas, six-packs and cabriolets lies one of the world’s oldest operating tramways that is also one of the coolest. A ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway takes you back to August 1955 when Robert Heron opened America’s first scenic tramway on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Heron Family still owns the operation which stands much the same as it did 61 years ago. The tram whisks eight tourists at a time up Prospect Mountain from Memorial Day through Labor Day for $12 apiece and shows no signs of modernizing any time soon. General Manager Steve Barker leads a team of dedicated mechanics, operators, attendants and support staff who return to the tram year after year.
The Estes Park Tramway ascends Prospect Mountain’s 1,060 feet in one free span, reaching 200 feet in the air at times. Two cherry red cars manufactured at a shipyard in 1955 were designed for 12 passengers but now hold up to eight modern Americans. A brisk trip at 1,400 feet per minute lasts two minutes and twenty seconds yielding a capacity of 280 passengers per hour in each direction. At the top, guests are treated to panoramic views of Estes Park Village, Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Robert Heron got his start in 1937 with Kennicott Copper designing material tramways after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. Stearns Roger Manufacturing later hired him to design portable tramways for use by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. After testing at Fort Hale, Mr. Heron’s design debuted in Italy at the Battle of Riva Ridge carrying food, ammunition and water up and American casualties down a 1,500 foot mountainside. In 1945, Robert and his brother Webb founded Heron Engineering which built its first lift – a single chair – at Aspen Mountain. The Heron brothers went on to build the world’s first double, triple and quad chairs at Berthoud Pass and Boyne Mountain. Heron merged with Poma in 1970 and the rest is history. Robert Heron was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1985 and passed away in 1999 but his legacy lives on at Estes Park and the 33 other sites that still operate his lifts.
The highest, longest and most expensive aerial tramway system in the world will open this month at the Sierra Nevada National Park in Northwestern Venezuela. Teleférico de Mérida, as it’s known in Spanish, is really four separate jig-backs built in series totaling a crazy 40,735 linear feet with a vertical rise of 10,464 feet. Garaventa won a contract in 2011 to replace ropeways built along a similar route in the 1950s that closed down due to safety concerns in 2008. The world-leader in tramways spent the last four years building four lifts that would each be notable but combine to form an unparalleled 7.8-mile journey from the town of Mérida to 15,633-foot Pico Espejo. Of note, the world record for the longest tramway in a single section still belongs to the 3.5-mile Wings of Tatev, also built by Garaventa and completed in 2010.
The four original ropeways at Mérida were built by Haeckel of Germany and Habbeger of Switzerland and opened in March 1960. Interestingly, both of those companies came under ownership VonRoll and later the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Seven 36-passenger cars carried riders to Pico Espejo until 2008, when Doppelmayr advised the Venezuelan government the tramways had reached the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced. The Venezuela Ministry of Tourism, which owns Teleférico de Mérida, opted to invest $468 million towards modern tramways and all-new facilities.
With the Olympics opening tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the world looks to a seaside metropolis with more than six million residents and the first South American city to host an Olympic Games. While Brazil has no ski resorts, Rio features aerial lifts ranging from hundred year-old tramways to modern gondolas connecting the city’s favelas to the regional transit network.
The famous Sugarloaf Mountain twin tramways were among the world’s first cableways of any kind when they debuted in 1912. A century later, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff championed development of a five-section Poma gondola connecting some of Rio’s largest slums, modeled after the pioneering gondola network in Medellín. In 2013, Doppelmayr built a three-station gondola in Morro da Providência, serving more than 5,000 residents in one of Rio’s oldest favelas. Further urban cable projects proposed for Rio have faltered as the city works to combat challenges we’ve become all too familiar with leading up to the Games.
Teleférico do Alemão is one of the largest and most complex gondola systems in the world with six stations and 152 10-passenger Sigma Diamond cabins. Built by Poma and operated by private train company SuperVia, Teleférico do Alemão opened July 7, 2011. The system is capable of transporting 3,000 passengers per hour over 2.2 miles of dense neighborhoods in 16 minutes. The lift changes angle four times, including a 100-degree turn at Alemão Station.
70,000 residents are eligible for two free rides daily on the gondola, which links favelas in the Complexo do Alemão to the Bonsucesso train station. Six expansive rooftop stations that feature banks, stores and social services rise above the favelas. The gondola system cost approximately $74 million to build and serves 9,000 daily riders. Initial ridership estimates of 30,000 per day have not been realized as Rio has struggled to attract non-residents to ride the teleférico through crime-ridden neighborhoods. Unlike in Medellín and La Paz, residents have criticized the construction of an expensive gondola through communities that lack electricity, clean water and basic sanitation.
South American cities are world leaders in urban cable transport, with 24 urban gondolas either opened or planned in Bogotá, Caracas, Guayaquil, La Paz, Lima, Medellín and Rio de Janeiro. I’ve written extensivelyaboutLa Paz, Bolivia’s capital that went all in on cable transport with eleven gondolas either operating, under construction or planned. But a full decade before the creation of Mi Teleférico in La Paz, Metro de Medellín opened the first of three Metrocable gondola lines in Colombia’s third largest city. Metrocable Line K was the first urban gondola to seamlessly link with a subway anywhere in the world, providing under-served and poor neighborhoods access to the city’s transport network. Metrocable’s J, K and L lines, with ten stations over 5.8 miles, now compose a quarter of the Metro de Medellín network. All three Metrocable lines are 8-passenger monocable gondolas built by Poma.
Line K debuted in 2004 with a shockingly low construction cost of $26 million. Its four stations branch off from the Acevedo Metro station over a length of 6,798 feet, giving three neighborhoods access to the core subway Line A that opened in 1996. This gondola rises 1,309 feet with a rope speed of 5 m/s. Metrocable Line J opened in 2008 at a cost of $47.5 million, serving four more stations from the terminus of the shorter subway Line B. Line J is longer than the original K at just under 9,000 feet. A ride with seamless transfers between buses, two Metro subway lines and two Metrocable lines costs less than a dollar.