Shaney Hudson takes the the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway from the stifling hot desert floor to the top of the snowy mountain
It isn’t even 9am but already the temperature is rising. Outside, wind farms tick over lethargically, the scrubby bushes around them slouching as the desert floor bakes. Inside the car, the sun seeps through the windscreen, making us fiddle with the air conditioning and peel off layers of clothes.
We’d been on the road for three hours now, driving from San Diego to Las Vegas, and were ready for a break. Breakfast in Palm Springs had been the plan, but when we saw the billboard for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, we decided to turn off. We were making good time, and in our heavily regimented travel schedule we were ready for a random adventure.
Built in the 1960s over a period of two years, the tram takes 15 minutes to climb two and a half miles from the Sonoran Desert to the alpine wilderness of the San Jacinto Mountains.
At Valley Station it’s baking hot, but the sight of a family piling out of their car in ski gear makes us jog back to the car to grab our jackets. A sign by the entrance to the glass-encased rotating tram tells us it’s icy, windy and that there’s no visibility up top. But reassuringly, it also lists the restaurant specials.
From our glass bubble, the city of Palm Springs looks insignificant against the vastness of the parched, drought-riddled Coachella Valley. The yellow and red landscape seems barren and restless, crisscrossed by geological faults, the mountains and canyons strained, crumpled and desolate.
“Is there snow up on the mountain?” I ask the conductor.
He nods. “There’s three foot of snow going to fall this weekend, and the bad weather should hit any moment. You’re lucky you’re getting up there now.”
There can be as much as 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) difference in temperature between the desert floor and Mountain Station — but today I’d wager it’s more. The cold engulfs us when the doors open, and a howling wind has closed the upper observation deck.
However, the valley tucked behind it is in a protected pocket, and we head down the slippery path to the Discovery Trail, located in a grove of lush green alpine pine forest. The snow and green is a sharp juxtaposition to the heat and dust of the valley floor.
We’re a half-mile in when the sun decides to show itself. For a brief few minutes, the white snow shimmers like glitter. Squirrels scurry about and a jaybird bickers with a smaller bluebird in the trees. Breathing in, there’s a perfume of earthy vanilla and sweet butterscotch from the Jeffrey pines that shoots up towards the sun, and it is pin-drop quiet.
But just as suddenly, the sun retreats and the clouds send shadows that transform the forest. The promise of bad weather looks to be fulfilled, and we head back towards the tram, just as the first snowflakes begin to fall.