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Up, up and away in a COVID-conscious aerial tramway
By Tom Adkinson

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

palm springs aerial tramway
Tramway cars can carry 80 passengers, but not during the cautious times of the coronavirus pandemic. Image by Visit Greater Palm Springs.

PALM SPRINGS, California – Going out for a spin takes on a totally new meaning when you ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Not only are you on a graceful 2.5-mile ascent up the side of a very steep mountain, your tramcar is spinning full circles as you go.

It doesn’t spin all that fast, of course. It certainly doesn’t compare to a designed-to-scare-you theme park thrill ride, but it’s thrilling its own special way – and it’s a bit amazing that you can experience that thrill at all in a COVID-19 world.

Tramway operators have made fundamental changes and have instituted new safety protocols, evidence that the attractions industry is working to find ways to deliver travel experiences. Travelers should research businesses they might patronize and decide accordingly.

In the case of the tramway:

• Trams carry only 25 percent of their capacity. (Normal is 80 people.)
• Face masks are required on board and in the two tramway stations.
• Trams are cleaned after ever trip, including use of an electrostatic disinfectant.
• Windows are kept open. (It will be chilly in winter.)
• Tickets are timed and must be purchased online before arrival.
• Restaurant operations are significantly modified.

tramway tower
Thousands of helicopter flights were required to deliver tramway towers piece by piece. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Francis Crocker, the electrical engineer who began dreaming about a quick transit up Mt. San Jacinto in 1935, certainly never envisioned COVID-19 challenges. All he wanted to do was get from the scorching desert floor of the Coachella Valley to the cool breezes on the mountaintop.

Summer or winter, the temperature always will be cooler at the top of the tramway, as in 30 to 40 degrees cooler. Desert elevation is 2,643 feet, and the upper tramway station is at 8,516 feet. The actual peak of the mountain is at 10,834 feet. Suffice it to say, this is rugged country.

Mt San Jacinto
Hikers at the top of the tramway peer over the edge of Mt. San Jacinto into the Coachella Valley; image by Tom Adkinson.

In the winter, there’s plenty of snow where the tramway deposits you, and many visitors enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Easy trails around the tramway station lead to expansive views down to the desert communities of the Coachella Valley.

Crocker had to dream for a long time, as well as endure the slings and arrows of doubters. The idea of a tramway up the steep walls of Chino Canyon was dubbed “Crocker’s Folly.”

Legislative battles were lost and won, and World War II stalled the scheme, but approval did come. Design began in the 1950s, and construction began in earnest in 1961.

Five support towers were required, but only the first location could be reached by road. Helicopters were the solution. Pilots flew 23,000 missions during more than two years of construction, hauling materials and men to build the other four towers and the upper station.

hiking trails
A serpentine path leads from the aerial tramway’s upper station to a network of trails; image by Tom Adkinson.

Crocker’s Folly became Crocker’s Reality on Sept. 12, 1963. He rode many times until he died in 1992 and would narrate the construction story to fellow passengers, according to the tramway’s history. The rotating tramcars, the first in the world, were added in 2000.

tramway passengers
Tramway passengers have about 10 minutes to capture photographic memories of their 2.5-mile journey; image by Tom Adkinson

Since opening, the tramway has carried more than 20 million passengers and is one of the biggest attractions in a multi-city region known for golf, spas, desert jeep tours, hiking, dining and the Coachella Music and Arts Festival.

“The pandemic certainly has created change throughout the valley, and the steps the tramway is taking show that,” said Joyce Kiehl, director of communications for the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Other businesses are adapting, and new activities are being created, such as a socially distanced architecture tour and a self-drive windmill tour.”

Trip Planning Resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published October 23, 2020

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