Today, the tram is one of the biggest attractions in Southern California. The eight-and-a-half-minute ride beginning at the Valley Station up North America's sheerest mountain face passes through several life zones on its way to the mountain station at 8516 feet (2600 m) above mean sea level. The trip has been likened in terms of geologic and climatic change to a motor trip from Sonora to the Canadian tundra.
Passengers disembark at the Mountain Station in the alpine wilderness of Long Valley and Mount San Jacinto State Park. The air can be as much as 40°F (25°C) cooler at the top than in the desert. Visitors can walk along nature trails, take a burro ride or even play in the snow during the winter months. Back-country hiking can be done with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. There are two restaurants at the summit, one of which specializes in fine dining. Both stations have gift shops specializing in Aerial Tramway-related merchandise as well as educational toys.
The view at the top can stretch northward for more than 200 miles (300 km) on a clear day, all the way to Mount Charleston north of Las Vegas. Views to the east and west can stretch as far as 75 miles (120 km); the Salton Sea is plainly visible to the southeast.
A theatre with a series of user-selectable presentations is located at the Mountain Station as is a display of taxidermied local fauna, each of which met their ends either by accident or by poaching. The presentations, voiced in large part by local radio personalities, were created by local television station KESQ-TV and by the state park service.
The tram was first proposed by electrical engineer Francis F. Crocker during a 1935 trip to Banning, California, with newspaper publisher Carl Barkow. During the heat of the day, Crocker's gaze fell upon the snow-capped, 10,804 foot (3293 m) high peak of Mount San Jacinto to the east. Crocker immediately decided to build a tram up the face of Chino Canyon, a proposal that one newspaper dubbed "Crocker's Folly."
Toward the end of the decade, Crocker named the co-manager of the famed Palm Springs Desert Inn, O. Earl Coffman, to chair the construction committee.
Both World War II and the Korean War shelved the project. In 1960, Crocker approached California governor Earl Warren to get permission to resume it. Warren agreed, and construction began soon afterward. The unprecedented use of helicopters in the construction of four of the tram's five towers helped the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway earn a reputation as one of the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished.
In 2001, the original cars were replaced by cars that rotate slowly, offering riders a 360° panoramic view of Chino Canyon and the valley floor. As it was in 1963, the only way up the mountain to deliver supplies and water is via the tram cars themselves. Supplies are loaded into the passenger area before the attraction's opening while fresh water is pumped into storage tanks in the car's underbelly.
The original cars are now on static display near the entrance to the Valley Station.
A recent mascot is "Ranger Raccoon." The radio voice of Ranger Raccoon is that of Chuck Kourouklis, one-time production manager for the Desert Radio Group, a radio broadcasting conglomerate based in Palm Springs. Kourouklis, whose own speaking voice is of a rather low register, said he created the mascot's high-pitched voice by "mixing the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz with the band AC/DC."
The original mascot was a deer named "Trambi." The current local radio spots feature a pair of talking trees, "Patrick Fir" and "Peter Pine."
Both tramway stations were designed by notable mid-century architects.