San Jacinto Peak (Cactus to Clouds)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, One of my brothers, two of his friends & I started out on a journey to do the ultimate day hike in Southern California and hike the Cactus to Clouds trail (also know as the Skyline Trail) to San Jacinto Peak (10,834 feet, Coordinates: N30° 48′ 52” W116° 40′ 42′) . After about 45 mins into the hike, one of my brother’s friends had to terminate his ascend and head back (it’s always good to know your limits). The climb to San Jacinto Peak is an amazing, very challenging, rewarding and a very difficult one.

The Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs, California, to San Jacinto Peak is a hiking trail with the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States and it’s a very hard way to get to Mt. San Jacinto Peak. The trail is also known as the Skyline Trail, it climbs 8,000 feet from the desert to Long Valley where it joins with the main trail to the summit with a total elevation gain of 10,700 feet. The trail is 10 – 11 miles to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Mountain Station (Tram), in Long Valley, or 20 miles to San Jacinto Peak and back down to the Tram. The hike is very challenging and interesting. One will pass through several distinct climate zones, from the desert in Palm Springs to the alpine zone at the top of Mt. San Jacinto. The hike is very difficult and can be dangerous if one isn’t prepared. There is no water on the trail. Backpacker Magazine ranks the hike as one of the hardest day hikes in America.

I carried approximately 2 1/2 litters of water. Which really wasn’t enough. I was very conservative with my water. I took my last sip of water when I reached Long Valley (Tram & Ranger Station). I really can’t imagine hiking this trail during the late spring or summer time frame. If I did …… I believe that I would have to carry at least 2.5 – 3 times the amount of water. It’s desert …. where the temperatures stay high around the year. The hike is very difficult and can be dangerous if one isn’t prepared. One can also run into snow and ice during the winter months. The best times of year to attempt the climb is during the October to mid December time frame and then during the late April to late May time frame. Once late December / January rolls around there will be snow and ice on the mountain and one will require crampons. When June approaches, the temperatures really starts to sore to extreme temperature levels. One just needs to be prepared for the heat and start the hike early in the morning. People have died on the trail. Many others have been injured and had to be rescued because of dehydration.

If your seeking a challenging and a long hike, you’ll enjoy this one. The Cactus to Clouds trail isn’t a very publicized trail and not very well marked at the beginning of the trail. The trail head starts behind the Palm Springs Art Museum 101 Museum Drive and Remon Road, (back right hand corner of the parking lot). One will have to look a bit for the start of the trail. The hike up from the desert floor to the upper tram station is approximately 10  - 11 miles, 8400 ft gain. It’s almost equivalent to doing a marathon in terms of time, energy and focus. The first part of the hike is no joke! Make sure you stretch out and loosen up before beginning the hike. The elevation and altitude gain is essentially continuous and starts right away at the trail head. There isn’t any type of little warm up trail. The first 1/3 or so of the trail is marked by white dots, spray painted on rocks. Initially we had to kind of blaze our own tail a bit. After that you’ll be able to see / follow a trail (of some sort). The higher up the mountain, the more defined the trail is. The trail is not officially maintained by the California State Parks or the Bureau of Land Management. Over all, one shouldn’t have to much difficultly in following the trail.

We started out between 7:30 – 7:45 am after parking a car at the Tram Station and driving over to the Art Museum. The temperature was in the high 40s / low 50s when we started. Within a short period of time and about 1 1/2 miles into the trail things started heating up quickly. We rested at a flat area where a couple picnic tables were and we started to remove layers of clothing.  From this point, the tail is officially called the Skyline Trail until Long Valley. Once one passes the 1/3 to 1/2 way point, there’s no turning around. It took us between 7 – 7 1/2 hours to reach Long Valley. On average it takes anywhere between 7 – 11 hours to make it to the Long Valley. The temperature hit a high for the day of about 80 degrees. It felt much hotter. With the sun setting quickly (3:15 pm) behind the mountain and the increase in altitude gain …..the temperature started to drop quickly. After working up a good sweat, the body really cool off when the sun starts to set.

On the climb up, one will go over and around a lot of rocks & boulders that are in a million shades of red & brown. One will also see barrel cactus, smaller lizards, a potential rattle snake and other amazing animals that are living in the different climate zone. It’s beautiful in the Long Valley area with the tall pine trees. A deer was even spotted in the Long Valley area. Once one reaches Long Valley … one will be able to refill on water and get something to eat at two restaurants located at the Ranger & Tram Station. If you continue the hike from Long Valley to Mt. San Jacinto Peak, the hike is about 11 miles round trip with about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. At the top, one will have a spectacular view!

From Long Valley, we bought a one-way ticket and took the Tram down the mountain. The Tram is one of the largest in the US and has a rotating floor. Allowing everyone a great view of the mountain and the Palm Springs Valley as the Tram descends down the mountain.

A few before the hike notes -

  • Call the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Mountain Station (Tram), verify that they will be open on the day of your hike, ask about pricing, ask about what time the parking lot opens for the day and the schedule for the last Tram down the mountain. 
  • The Tram shuts down for one week every year. 
  • The cost for a one way ticket down the mountain for us was $12.00. 
  • The last Tram down is at 9:45 pm nightly.
  • The parking lots open up at 6:30 am. If you plan to start your hike earlier in the morning, one can park a car in the lot the night before.
  • Get into shape.

What to bring -

  • Lots of water.
  • Headlamp and/or flashlight for early starters.
  • Cell phone (should be able to receive a signal while climbing up the mountain and at the Tram / Ranger station.
  • Sunglasses, Sunscreen, Hat ….
  • Non perishable snacks (power / energy bars).
  • Gloves.
  • Removable top layers.
  • Camera.
  • Hiking pole(s) (Not a must, your preference).
  • Money for Tram back down the mountain and for potential drinks & dinner at the Tram / Rangers station.