Chardonnay in Palm Springs
When I drove out to Palm Springs this summer, I knew it would be hot. Hot, like pouring water over stones inside a sauna and laying down on the top berth and cooking until you can’t stand it anymore.
But I do love this bone-dry heat, and there is a stark beauty to the place: big skies, mountains, and mid-century modern architecture. Besides, this is resort country, so a pool is never far away, the AC is always frigid, and miles of lush golf courses stand eerily empty in July. I had come for the fine galleries and museums, as well as the trendy restaurants and bars with cool terraces.
What I didn’t know was that I could take an aerial tramway up 8,500 feet to a completely different climate, almost 30 degrees cooler. In the wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park, fragile meadows of soft grass, wildflowers, and pine trees grow.
The tramway itself looks like something from the future, as imagined a century ago. It was the brainchild of an electrical engineer named Francis Crocker, who looked at Mount San Jacinto from the sweltering desert floor one day in 1935 and realized how nice it would be to be up there, where it was cool. It wasn’t until 1963 that his dream was realized. And, after a modernization program starting in 1998, passengers can now ride the largest rotating tramcars in the world. As you move up Chino Canyon, you slowly turn 360 degrees as the rock face becomes sheerer and the valley sweeps out below you.
Inside Peaks Restaurant, a wall of windows looks onto the expanse of the Coachella Valley and the glittering desert cities—Desert Springs, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Cathedral City—below. To the southeast, you can even see the Salton Sea, a vast inland salt lake even more surreal than the microclimate of San Jacinto. I sipped on a glass of crisp Chardonnay and watched the sky turn from persimmon orange to smoky purple and blue. Then lights winked on in the cities below, looking like some vast desert dragon’s lair.
The last tram left at 9 p.m. We went down in a full car, the crowd more raucous than on the way up. Some, like us, had wined and dined, others were coming out of days-long camping and hiking trips in the backcountry, carrying all their gear—a motley crowd, both rugged and glamorous. As we swooshed from the mountaintop in successive dips over the jewel bed below us, we could feel the cool air slowly giving way to the heat again, until we reached the valley floor and balmy desert night.