Urban Height-Seeing

Trams in North American cities provide families with the opportunity to go sightseeing from above. Here are some of the best.
By: Matt Villano
The Roosevelt Island Tram carries passengers over the East River.

The Roosevelt Island Tram carries passengers over the East River.

It's a bird! It's a plane! No — it's an aerial tramway, a type of incline lift in which an enclosed cabin is suspended from 1 cable and pulled by another. Trams in North American cities such as Portland, OR; New York; Palm Springs; and Vancouver, British Columbia, provide families with the opportunity to go sightseeing from above. Here are some of the best.

Portland Aerial Tram, Portland, OR

The most exhilarating tramway in North America is also one of the newest: the Portland Aerial Tram. This sleek, $57 million method of public transportation opened in 2006 and travels between the South Waterfront terminal, adjacent to the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Health & Healing, and the upper terminal at the Kohler Pavilion on OHSU's main campus.

Traveling at 22 mph, the passenger cabins rise 500 feet on the 3-minute trip over Interstate 5, the Lair Hill neighborhood and the Southwest Terwilliger Parkway. 

On a clear day, views from the tram are breathtaking. As each cabin climbs, riders can look out on the Willamette River and the eastern edge of the city, which boasts a number of skyscrapers. In the distance, they can see the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington, including the usually snowcapped Mount Hood.

After riding the tram up and back, wander into the South Waterfront neighborhood and marvel at some of the area's new eco-friendly development. There's not much infrastructure in this part of town yet, but the new Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen in the John Ross Tower is a great place to relax over a bowl of pho.

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Grouse Mountain Skyride, Vancouver, British Columbia

Rising nearly 1 mile to the top of its namesake peak, the Grouse Mountain Skyride offers unparalleled views of Vancouver, the nearby Gulf Islands and the sparkling Pacific Ocean. 

While the tram is fun just about any time of year, the best time to go is in the winter, when towering Douglas fir trees that line the mountainside become covered with snow. During the slow-going 12-minute ride, the trees look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Peering down on them only adds to the sense of wonder.

But there's more to the tram than merely the ride itself. In the summer, families can check out the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife (included with mountain admission), where 2 orphaned grizzly bears and a timber wolf play in a protected and secure sanctuary. During colder months, winter sports reign supreme; daily rentals for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are available for an additional fee.

For dinner, visiting families can enjoy a meal at the Observatory restaurant at the Peak Chalet, where entrees such as salmon and halibut have a Northwestern flair. Afterward, check out the movie at the Theatre in the Sky, which showcases a breathtaking scenic overview of southwestern British Columbia from an eagle's perspective.

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Roosevelt Island Tram, New York City

The Roosevelt Island Tram in New York City is perhaps the most iconic tram in North America, as well as one of the oldest. It opened in 1976 and runs along the northern side of the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge, connecting Roosevelt Island to Manhattan's East Side.

Views from the tram are incredible. As the passenger cabins cross the East River at 16 mph, riders can look back on Midtown skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building, the Citibank Building and the Empire State Building. Another treat: an aerial view of the United Nations complex, just south of the bridge along the river.

Talk about bargains: The 4 1/2-minute ride costs about the same as a basic subway fare. Pop-culture fanatics will love knowing that they're riding part of recent history; the attraction had a cameo in the 2002 Spider-Man movie during the climactic battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin.

Save for the views of Manhattan, there's not much to enjoy on the Roosevelt Island side of the tram. On the Manhattan side, however, families with a hankering for sweets will love Serendipity 3. This upscale diner serves lunch and dinner, but it's famous for its frozen hot chocolate and the $1,000 Golden Opulence Sundae, which comes with top-shelf ice cream, chocolate and an edible, 23-karat gold leaf.

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Palm Springs

In Chico Canyon outside Palm Springs, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway climbs more than a mile from the floor of the Coachella Valley to near the top of 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto. The 10-minute ride transports visitors to a different world, as the temperature at the top can be 40 degrees colder than it is at the base. 

As the passenger cabin chugs skyward, riders can marvel at views of Palm Springs and the Palm Desert, as well as the hundreds of windmills that convert breezes into energy on the valley floor. The Salton Sea in southeastern California is also visible, and from the very top, vistas stretch all the way to Mount Charleston outside Las Vegas.

Passengers disembark at the Mountain Station in the alpine wilderness of Long Valley and Mount San Jacinto State Park, where they can hike 54 miles of nature trails, take a burro ride or play in the snow during winter months. Backcountry camping is also available with a permit.

Two restaurants offer very different dining options atop Mount San Jacinto. The Pines Cafe, a glorified cafeteria, offers a variety of menu selections, while the Peaks Restaurant offers a contemporary California menu that features a variety of fresh vegetables and greens from the Coachella Valley. Both eateries are open for lunch and dinner.

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