California is home to an extremely diverse array of topography, often allowing distinct biomes to exist in close proximity, in some cases just feet apart. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mount San Jacinto State Park, where park visitors can cross five distinct biomes in a mere 10 minutes.
Located in Riverside County, Mount San Jacinto State Park covers 14,000 acres. In those 14K acres, the park sees a rise in elevation from 2643 ft to 8516 ft, affording a great variety of flora, fauna, and weather patterns, making this a prime destination for families looking to go beyond the typical tourist destinations and explore the true Southern California.
Getting There & Getting Started
The main entrance to Mount San Jacinto State Park is located 5 minutes outside Palm Springs, about 2 hours from Los Angeles/Orange County and San Diego. This entrance lies within the Sonoran Desert, where temperatures routinely exceed 100F in the summer, making the entrance area an inhospitable place to spend the day.
Instead, visitors can spend a few minutes exploring the the Valley Station here at the main entrance (check out Popp Park, just off the station's patio, for some fun identifying paw prints), then ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to the Mountain Station. During the 10-minute ride, the tram ascends 2-1/2 miles upward, carrying passengers from the desert zone, through 3 transition biomes, to an Arctic/Alpine zone at the top. Up here, temperatures can be as much as 40 degrees cooler in the summer than temperatures down below.
- Cost (at time of publication): $24.95 adults, $16.95 (ages 3-12), $22.95 (ages 65+) Summer and annual passes available.
- Ascent Schedule: Trams ascend every half hour, beginning at 10a.m. Mon-Thurs, or 8a.m. Fri-Sun. The last tram goes up at 8p.m. Sun-Thurs, or 9p.m. on Fri-Sat.
- Descent Schedule: Trams descend every half hour. The last tram heads down at 9:45p.m. Sun-Thur, or 10:30p.m. on Fri-Sat.
- Closed: The tram generally closes for annual maintenance for two weeks in the fall. In recent years, this has occurred in September; however, in the past, it has been in August. Confirm tram is operation before planning a fall trip.
- Contact: Confirm current pricing and hours by calling (888) 515-TRAM, or visiting www.pstramway.com.
- Caution: The tram is a rotating cable car. Visitors with a fear of heights or who experience motion sickness should line up early to be the first to enter the tram, then seek a spot as close to the center as possible. There is only one bench seat right behind the conductor's stand in the center of the tram; it will fill up quickly, so race aboard if you will need a seat. All other passengers stand for the journey, which affords a phenomenal view for those who can stomach it.
Hiking the Park
For families, we recommend the Desert View Trail, which begins from the Mountain Station at the top end of the tramway. Very active families might be underwhelmed by mention of Desert View Trail's mere 1.5 mile length. However, this trail packs a lot into its minimal distance; so much that our extended family group (which included kids ages 1-1/2 to 13, plus adults) spent 3 hours on this short trail.
Alternating between open grasslands, pine forests, and rocky cliff edges, the Desert View Trail is home to diverse wildlife. We spied numerous squirrels, a racoon, and countless birds by day, plus a deer and the sound of distant coyotes after dark.
In addition to the animal sightings, the rock formations along Desert View Trail are a big hit. Both kids and adults love scrambling up the boulders, giving hikers a more strenuous workout than this trail's almost-flat terrain otherwise might.
And the pièce de résistance of the Desert View Trail? The desert view, of course. Five "notches," or overlooks, offer phenomenal views of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley area; hikers even report seeing as far as the Mexican border on good days.
Timing Your Visit
For families with flexible schedules, we recommend arriving at Mount San Jacinto State Park in the afternoon and sticking around for sunset. After exploring the Valley and Mountain Stations, hiking the Desert View Trail, and having dinner (bring a picnic or grab a bite at the cafeteria-style Pines Cafe in the Mountain Station), head back outside for sunset.
Repeat half of the Desert View Trail, beginning at the Mountain Station, going clockwise along the ridgeline. (Counter-clockwise takes hikers inland, away from the "notches," which are the best vantage points.) Our favorite spot for sunset views is Notch 3.
If the kids can take it, stay until after dark and do some star-gazing. The night sky here is bursting with stars, thanks to minimal light pollution in this remote and elevated area. There is also a greater possibility of seeing and hearing more wildlife once the sun sets and the crowds thin out. Just keep an eye on the time so you don't miss the last tram down the mountain. (See schedule above.)
How was your trip to Mount San Jacinto State Park? Did you see wildlife? The sunset? Stars? Share your experience in the comments. We'd love to hear it!