Kicking Iron in the San Gorgonio Pass–Palm Springs Windmill Tours

By Paul Gipe

When my family reunion took place in Palm Springs a few weeks ago, I gave Tom Spiglanin a call. No trip to Palm Springs would be complete without an official tour of the famous wind farms of the nearby San Gorgonio Pass. And Tom is the man to call.

Spiglanin curates Palm Springs Windmill Tours a commercial operation that’s been in business off and on for nearly three decades, educating the sometimes skeptical public about what all those wind turbines are doing there in the pass.

Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.
Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin. Here he’s illustrating how the tip brake worked on an ESI wind turbine of the 1980s.

The windmill tour not only offers the opportunity to see modern wind turbine up close and personal, but also to “kick iron” as we say in the trade. While many of the early turbines have now been removed, the remains of some of them have been collected together and can be found on the grounds where Spiglanin leads his tours. You can see—and touch—the blades and drive trains of not only a Storm Master turbine—a misnomer if there ever was one–but also ESI, Sumitomo, and more. They even have a set of Windmatic 15S blades, the ones with the pop-up spoiler or air brake. It’s heaven for a windmill geek.

My family enjoyed our two hours in the cold wind and bright sun—and no, they were not forced to attend. The wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass are a sight not to miss.

Palm Springs Windmill Tour by EV Adventures some time in the mid to late 1990s.

I did this tour with Spiglanin’s predecessor decades ago. It was a hoot not only for me, but also the others on the tour who were mostly snowbirds from elsewhere in North America. Riding from one wind turbine drive train to another in an open-air golf cart is the way to see the San Gorgonio Pass amidst hundreds of windmills as far as the eye can see.

I’ve been using some photos from that tour ever since, including in my most recent book. I got a good shot of a downed ESI machine nearly buried in the sand. The photo literally depicted the end of the line for a failed design approach–downwind, two-bladed, teetered rotor—that was once popular among American engineers. At the same time you could see then what had been installed in their place, working wind turbines like those found worldwide today.

Much has changed since the tour launched in the mid-1990s. The welcome center has been spiffed up with appealing professional graphics.

Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.
Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.

Spiglanin, who comes to wind energy from the aerospace industry, gives a thorough opening introduction in the building’s small conference room, and then you step outside to board the electric golf carts.

I’ve been to a lot of wind farms around the world, and to a lot of visitor centers explaining them. There’s always been something about the San Gorgonio Pass that takes your breath away.

You can take a self-driving tour developed during Covid, but we opted for the real thing by taking the guided tour in the open-air carts. There’s nothing like being in–and at the mercy of–the elements to give you an idea what the wind turbines must endure. There’s also something about the dry Sonoran desert air and the fragrance of desert plants–the grit of sand between your teeth—that’s intriguing.

Sea of yellow desert dandelion on the Whitewater Wash with wind turbines and Mount San Jacinto in the background, April 2023 superbloom.

And we were in the midst of one of the greatest superblooms in a generation. Desert dandelion painted the Whitewater Wash a sea of yellow. Why encase yourself in steel and glass when you can reach out and touch the flowers as well as the wind turbines?

Spiglanin was joined on our tour by Rich Weideman who retired to Palm Springs after a three decade career in senior positions with the National Park Service. Spiglanin and Weideman add a level of sophistication that wasn’t present before.

Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.
Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.

They’ve taken the tour up several notches. You notice that not only when you enter the welcome center but also when you come to the stops on the tour. Each is marked by a professional-grade sign or kiosk, not unsurprisingly like you’d find at a national park.

To round out the tour, Spiglanin includes some derelict Vertical-Axis Wind Turbines that are also on the property. One bizarre version looked like a giant airfoil with a Savonious rotor attached to it.

Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Tom Spiglanin.
Bizarre Vertical-Axis Wind Turbine in the shape of a giant airfoil.

Any visitor to Palm Springs—windmill geek or not—should include Palm Springs Windmill Tours to their itinerary. Put it right up there with tours to homes of the stars of stage and screen, the palm oasis for which Palm Springs is named, and the various festivals that mark the tourist season.

San Gorgonio’s wind farms are part and parcel of Palm Springs life now, and the future of the planet can be read in the evolution of wind turbines that are spread out on the grounds Palm Springs Windmill Tours.

A group of cold but happy campers on the Palm Springs Windmill Tour with Rich Weideman (far right) and Tom Spiglanin (second from right).