During a recent visit from family, we took the famous Palm Springs Aerial Tram up to Mountain Station (see photo of Mountain Station here), the entrance to Mt. San Jacinto State Park. The ride is quite dramatic, rising almost 6000 feet from a dry desert Chino Canyon bottom to an elevation of 8516 feet at Mountain Station, in less than 15 minutes. The Swiss-made aerial tram cars have a rotating floor so that passengers get the full panorama during their climb without jostling for position. Once you arrive at Mountain Station, you have a choice of activities. You can visit the gift shop, catch a snack or a meal at the Peaks Restaurant, or exit into Long Valley and take some of the hiking trails in the state park. We ended up doing all three of those.
There are two short interconnected loop trails in Long Valley itself: the 0.75-mile Long Valley Discovery Trail and the 1.5-mile Desert View Trail. If you do both of those, because of their connection in the middle, the total distance is only a bit more than two miles. Both trails are moderate to easy terrain for walking. There are 54 miles of trail accessible from this site, so if you want more strenuous hikes, those are readily available. We did the two shorter trails, stopping to see the panoramic vistas of the Desert View Trail north towards the Morongo Valley, and northeast, out over Indio and the Coachella Valley. On the Discovery Trail, we found quite a few more of the selection of mountain birds and animals available at this site. The area is not without its dangers, however. The most significant risk is of panhandlers like this Lodgepole Chipmunk, who uses a potent combination of petite cuteness to wheedle food out of unsuspecting visitors. Nor is that the only type of freeloader present here. The California Ground Squirrel (see one here) uses a very up-front strategy of begging and posturing. State Park signs warn strongly against feeding these guys, but we saw lots of people doing it anyway. Another serious hazard is presented by the most charming rogue of them all: the Stellar’s Jay. Unlike the other predators, these “attack” in packs once a generous food source has been discovered.
Once up and walking around, we saw and heard a lot of the normal southern California mountain bird cohort. Easiest to hear but difficult to actually see were the Pygmy Nuthatches, which were quite common, but tended to stay well up in the trees. The Oregon race of Dark-eyed Junco was also common there. Violet-green Swallows flew through occasionally, and Western Bluebirds were quite common all over, while the House Finches tended to stay right around the lodge. We saw Mountain Chickadees feeding their fluttering begging young in several places. There were Brown Creepers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Wood-Pewees and at least one American Robin. White-headed Woodpeckers were fairly common in the trees over Long Valley; we saw or heard several. One nice surprise was a Green-tailed Towhee that was feeding on the ground, but flew up into the pines when startled (see photo here). Other creatures we observed included lots of Western Fence Lizards up on top, and this handsome Granite Spiny Lizard (see photo here), appropriately perched on a granite rock face at the lower terminus of the aerial tram.