There are many ways we travel in the United States: bikes, buses, cars, trains, and airplanes, to name a few. But unlike other countries around the world—Bolivia, Hong Kong, and Turkey for example—Americans don’t often use gondolas or tramways as transit, especially in urban areas.
That could change, though, with urban areas in the U.S. considering proposals for gondolas and cable cars to efficiently move people from place to place. The Chicago Skyline project wants to use cable cars to transport tourists along the city’s riverfront, while in Austin the Wire proposal would create an aerial system akin to a "moving sidewalk" that would be much less expensive than a comparable light-rail system.
Trams, gondolas, and funiculars can supplement mass transportation systems and provide innovative solutions in steep, rocky, or densely populated terrain. We’ve rounded up 10 international urban gondolas in a previous article, and now we turn our gaze to a different mode of transit found here in the United States: aerial tramways.
Although people frequently use gondolas and trams interchangeably, they are actually different systems. While a gondola uses cabins suspended from a continuously circulating cable—and usually has dozens of cabins—aerial trams use two larger cabins that simply shuttle back and forth on the cables.
Trams in the United States are rare and most often used for sightseeing or to access skiing in states like Alaska, Utah, and Wyoming. But a handful of trams—like New York’s Roosevelt Island tram and the Portland Aerial Tram—move Americans through cities. To see how they’re used in different contexts, here are 9 trams across the United States.
Mount Roberts Tramway in Alaska
As the only aerial tramway in southeast Alaska, the Mount Roberts Tramway opened in 1996 and runs May through September. The base sits at the cruise ship dock in downtown Juneau and cars rise 1,800 feet through the rain forest to the station up top.
Largely functioning as a tourist destination in Alaska’s capital, the Mountain Roberts Tramway offers access to panoramic views, hiking, and a visitor’s center—including a theater—for thousands of people each year, many of them on excursions from cruise ships.
The Jackson Hole Tram in Wyoming
With a reputation as one of the best ski lifts in North America, die-hard skiers and snowboarders love the Jackson Hole tram for its access to expert ski terrain. But the tram is also open in the summer and provides non-skiers with panoramic views, access to hiking, and a thrilling ascent of 4,139 vertical feet to the top of Rendezvous Mountain.
The original Jackson Hole tram made its maiden voyage on July 31, 1966, and could take 62 skiers at a time. That tram was decommissioned in 2005 and a new $31 million tram opened in December 2008.
Roosevelt Island Tram in New York
When it opened in May 1976, the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway was the first tram in the country to be used for urban transportation. It was originally developed as a temporary mode of transit while Island residents awaited the completed of the subway link.
But the subway station connecting Roosevelt Island to Manhattan didn’t open until 1990. By that time the tram had become a popular and necessary mode of transportation, serving 2 million passengers annually until it shut down for renovations in March 2010.
The tram underwent a $25 million modernization that replaced every component of the system except for the three tower bases that support the cables. It can now carry a maximum of 109 passengers in each cabin and today is popular with both locals and visitors looking for a view of the city skyline.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in California
Another tram used largely for sightseeing, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world’s biggest rotating tram car. It travels over two and a half miles along the cliffs of Chino Canyon to Mount San Jacinto State Park.
The journey takes about ten minutes, during which the tram cars slowly rotate to provide views. The Mountain Station at the top—set at an elevation of 8,516 feet—boasts two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, two theaters, and 50 miles of hiking trails.
The original tram—which opened in 1963—had standard tram cars and was considered a marvel in construction engineering thanks to the rugged landscape and the use of helicopters to erect four of the five supporting towers.
Portland Aerial Tram in Oregon
As one of the few urban trams in the United States, the Portland Aerial Tram opened in 2007 as part of a public-private partnership that aimed to revitalize Portland’s South Waterfront neighborhood. The tram also helped to connect downtown Portland to Marquam Hill, home to the Oregon Health & Science University’s main campus—Portland’s largest employer.
The tram travels 3,300 linear feet from South Waterfront to Marquam Hill in a short four-minute trip. Each cabin can hold 79 people, and the lower tram terminal is connected to the city’s vast transportation network of buses, shuttles, streetcars, and bike lanes.
Fun fact: The tram cabins are named Jean and Walt after Jean Richardson (the first female engineering graduate from Oregon State University) and Walt Reynolds (the first African American to graduate from the University of Oregon Medical School). Jean and Walt rode their namesake cabins for a naming ceremony in 2007.
Squaw Valley Aerial Tram in California
Another tram built for ski access, the Squaw Valley aerial tram climbs over 2,000 feet in California’s Lake Tahoe. The ride takes about 10 minutes in total from the base to High Camp, a high-alpine dining and shopping resort located at 8,200 feet.
The tram also operates in the summer and was first constructed in 1968 with an occupancy of 120 people in each car. The tram is notable for a devastating tram accident that killed four people and injured 31 others in 1978. A new car was installed 7 months later and in 1998 Squaw Valley modernized its cable cars. By 2008, the Squaw Valley cable car had safely delivered 45 million passengers.
Sandia Peak Tramway in New Mexico
Located on the eastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, the Sandia Peak Tramway is a popular tourist attraction that ascends 4,000 feet in about 15 minutes to the top of Sandia Peak.
Inspired by similar trams in Europe, Robert Nordhaus—one of the founders and owners of the Sandia Peak Ski Company—made the tram a reality and hired engineers from Switzerland to tackle the steep, rocky terrain. The tram cables are supported by only two towers between the terminals, and the first trip occurred on May 7, 1966.
Each tram car can carry 50 passengers up the mountain and the tram makes about 10,500 trips each year. At the top of Sandia Peak, passengers can hike, mountain bike, and ski from December through March.
Alyeska Resort Tram in Alaska
Traveling from the Hotel Alyeska 2,300 feet in elevation to the top of Mt. Alyeska, this Alaskan tram serves the ski resort in the winter and tourists in the summer. From the top of the tram, visitors can see for miles, including views of seven glaciers and the peaks of the Chugach Mountain range.
The upper tram terminal provides access to an observation deck, telescopes, and hiking trails.
Snowbird Aerial Tram in Utah
Another ski-based tram, the Snowbird aerial tram opened in 1971 to move passengers from the base of the Little Cottonwood Canyon 2,900 vertical feet to the top of Hidden Peak. When it first opened the Snowbird tram was one of the longest and largest tramways in the world, and the cabins were one of the first to offer doors on both sides for efficient loading.
Around 100 people can travel in each cabin, and the tram has been continually upgraded since its opening. In 2015, Snowbird added the Summit, a 23,000-square-foot lodge that sits at 11,000 feet and offers a restaurant, restrooms, and event space.