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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway celebrates 50th anniversary

By Megan Terlecky, News Channel 3 Anchor & Reporter, megan.terlecky@kesq.com
Published On: Sep 06 2013 08:29:16 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 07 2013 10:17:22 PM CDT
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -

It's been labeled an eighth wonder of the world and it's right in our back yard.  The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.  Since 1963 more than 13 million people have taken the famous tram from the desert floor to the middle of the San Jacinto mountains. 

"I thought it was amazing," said visitor John Wade.

50 years later and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway still takes your breath away.

"See the views of the desert, down to the Salton Sea, it was great," said Wade.

A tram car suspended on cable, takes visitors from the desert floor up 6,000 feet to the heart of the San Jacinto mountains in just ten minutes. 

"It's incredible to think that something as technologically as advanced as this has been going for 50 years," said visitor Lindsay Wade.

But the vision for this easy escape to the mountains started even earlier than the 1960s, in fact, it was 30 years earlier. 

"The founding fathers, Francis Crocker, Earl Coffman and Culver Nichols,  they sort of started this back in the 30s," said Tramway spokesperson Lena Smith. 

The idea came about because of something the Coachella Valley knows all too well, the summer heat. 

"One of the reasons it was originally built was so that people could go up to the mountain where it was nice and cool," said Smith.

Designing the project took time and money.  After delays from World War II and the Korean War, the State of California green-lighted the project, but construction crews had quite the task.

"50 years ago, this was nothing but large boulders," said Smith.

With no roads, helicopters were used to transport supplies. 

"Not the big helicopters like we are talking today, we are talking little helicopters, little bell helicopters, they were the work horses of the tramway," said Smith.

Over 26 months and over 8 million dollars in bond raised funds, a new way to get to the top of the mountains that over look Palm Springs was born. 

"It's 6,000 feet in about 10 minutes.  It's quite a ride, when you look at it, it looks very steep, it is one of the steepest standing tramways in the world, but it is very fun and very safe," said Smith.

"It's staggering what they did, what 50 years ago," said John Wade.

In 2000, the engineering wonder was upgraded to include a revolving car giving visitors a 360 degree view all the way to the top. 

"It's amazing I've been up one of these amazing rides before in Europe, but I've never been one that goes round and round as you are going up and the view were absolutely amazing," said Lindsay Wade.

It's a view Lindsay Wade and her husband traveled all the way from England to see.

"I would definitely do it again, yes it's lovely," said Lindsay Wade.

At the top of the tramway, it is a completely different world.  It's 30 degrees cooler and it's no longer a desert, it's a lush forest.  Home to more than 54 miles of hiking trails, the tramway provides unparalleled access to the San Jacinto wilderness.

"We are going to take a hike after we get off the tram and then explore around the mountains," said visitor Tyler Savoie.

"I love to go on the overlook and the desert view trails," said visitor Janet Alexander. 

Alexander has been exploring the area for the nearly 13 years.

"Nice day trips, a little lunch along the way, it makes a wonderful day off," said Alexander.

In the winter, the top of the tramway can see up to 8 feet of snow.  It's perfect conditions for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and even the building the occasional snowman. 

"You can be in your swimming pool in the morning and jump in your car and within 10 minutes you are up in the snow," said Smith.

There is also 2 restaurants, gift shops, a natural history exhibit and viewpoints. 

"This is one of my desserts, I have to say, I look forward to being able to come up, maybe once a week, twice a week if possible," said Alexander.

But that's not always possible, twice the tramway was threatened by wildfires and they were forced to shutdown. 

"Back in the 80s we had a large fire here that came probably within a few miles of the tramway," said Smith.

Just this summer, the Mountain Fire came within a mile and a half of the popular landmark. 

"The fires have come close but have not harmed the tramway in anyway," said Smith.

Part of the reason, is the tram itself.  For both wildfires it transported equipment, firecrews, even water to areas that would have otherwise been inaccessible.

"The firefighters did a wonderful job of protecting us," said Smith.  And preserving the natural beauty that generations have now grown up with.

"We have people that come back generations after generations to go and see the snow or they go up to have a picnic because this is where their parents brought them when they were kids," said Smith.

As the tram celebrates 50 years, they are already looking ahead. 

"In the future we will be looking for new and better things to add to the environment," said general manager Rob. W. Parkins.

Already plans are in the works to make it even easier to go hiking.

"I can get down there getting back up is a bit of an experience, we call that heart attack hill by the way," said Parkins.

Within the next two years a motorized track will be built to take you to the trailheads from where the tram disembarks.

"We hope to be here for another 50 or 100 years would be even better," said Smith.

For tickets and more information click here.