This past Saturday I made my return to the Skyline Trail on Mount San Jacinto. This mountain and the small town of Idyllwild have quickly become one of my favorite places in Southern California over the past year. If you are unfamiliar with San Jacinto I highly recommend heading to Idyllwild for a short weekend and getting a small dose of the incredible trails that can be found all over the area. Not to mention the Pacific Crest Trail that runs right through there on it’s non-stop connection from Mexico to Canada.
The Skyline Trail is unique and we’re incredibly lucky to have it so accessible in Southern California. It makes up the majority of, and the toughest part of, the Cactus to Clouds route. Cactus to Clouds is a trek that begins at the trailhead behind the Palm Springs Desert Museum at an elevation of approximately 450ft and will take you to the peak of San Jacinto at 10,834 ft! There are taller mountains in the US but you’d be hard-pressed to find a longer climb, gaining over 10,000 ft in just about 17.5 miles. The Skyline trail will lead you to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, here you have three options, continue to the summit, take the tramway back down, or head back down the way you came. I’ll go over all three of these in a little bit more detail so you know what to expect but first you need to know about the most important factor when attempting this hike/run.
Without a doubt, the most vital consideration when doing this is the time of year and the weather. I know people that have done this hike in mid-summer, started at 3AM and had temps in the 90’s at the trailhead. This is highly unadvisable, plan to make this a spring/fall hike the summer is very dangerous. Palm Springs sees triple digit temps over 100 days a year, so needless to say, it get’s HOT! At almost all times of year, especially if you are hiking, you really need to start this before sunrise. Once you start, you are beyond the point of no return within the first couple miles for the majority of the year and descending in to the heat can be significantly worse than continuing up if you aren’t prepared.
No matter what time of year you do this, you can expect a drastic temperature swing between your starting location and the tramway and then again at the summit. For example, this weekend while the temps were perfect and the trail almost entirely snow free to the tram, there was waist deep snow to get to the summit. It’s imperative that you do your homework ahead of time and know what you are getting in to. Have the right clothing, gear, and hydration to set yourself up for success!
Starting in the dark wouldn’t normally be a problem for a hike or run but as you can already tell, this is no normal trek through the local park. The first few miles of trail are blazed with small, white dots painted on the rocks to denote the “true” path. Unfortunately, even with the brightest headlamp, unless you are looking directly at the dot you’re going to miss it. With a trail this difficult to follow there have become countless alternative routes that criss-cross themselves until it become fruitless and frustrating to try to follow what should be the right way. The best you can do is keep your head on a swivel, find as many white dots as you can, and keep going UP.
After a while the trail will become a little easier to follow, aided by the sunrise over the desert, and you should be fine for the majority of the trip to the tram. The only other point that becomes an issue is just as you are approaching the final push to the tram. There are a hand full of large trees down that have diverted the path and at times it becomes more of a scramble than a hike. Remember, keep going up and when you start to see the sky breaking through the trees you’ll know you’ve almost reached Grubbs Notch and you’ll be at the tram in no time!
Fastest Known Time Route (Approx. 12 Miles; ~8,000 ft of gain)
If you’re goal is to do the standard route used to determine a Fastest Known Time (or FKT) then the route ends at the door to the tramway. I’m not sure why, but I assume the need for a permit to the top is the reasoning for having the FKT only go this far as there would be some variance in how long it takes each person to get the permit and continue on. If this is your plan, then you can head in to the Tramway, get yourself some food and drink, and wait for the next tram to the desert. I believe the one-way price down is $12 but the biggest concern with this would be getting back to your car. You can take a taxi for about $25 or I would recommend doing this with a friend and having a car waiting for you at the tramway. If you choose this option, know that the tramway lot doesn’t open until 6:30AM so you will need to drop the car off the night before.
By the way, the FKT is a ridiculous 2:21:18. Over an hour faster than my 3:30 and change and just a mind blowing time knowing how I felt when I hit the tram. I think Brett Maune is part mountain goat!
Full Cactus to Clouds (Total of 23 miles; ~10,384 ft of gain)
If you would like to complete the entire journey, which I highly recommend, you’ll need to stop in the Long Valley Ranger Station for a free wilderness permit to continue to the summit, be sure to hit the tramway before to refuel and rehydrate. The girl working the cafe was nice enough to let me fill my pack with water from the soft drink dispenser for free and they also have a decent selection of food and drink options for sale if you didn’t bring enough with you.
Once you get your permit you can follow the signs to the summit about 5.5 miles away. While you are still going to be gaining another 2,500 ft, this stretch is a breeze compared to what you’ve already done so head up to the summit and enjoy the views along the way and at the top. This is a beautiful section of trail but you will have a lot more company with you than you did for the first 12 miles. As mentioned earlier, weather will become a factor here again. Know what to expect at the summit and have the proper clothing for the full trip. Don’t risk getting there to find out you are under-dressed, cold and still have another 5.5 miles to go to get back to the tram.
Cactus to Clouds to Cactus or C2C2C (Total of 35 miles; 10,384 ft of gain and descent)
In case this adventure wasn’t quite enough for you there are a few more options, the first is the one I think most people at least contemplate: C2C2C. You’ve made it all the way up, you don’t feel like having to get a cab back to your car, and it’s all downhill from here, right? Yes, but…
Here’s the deal, if you pick the right time of year and are fit enough, this is achievable. However, you really need to be careful if you are planning this route. I’d recommend doing Cactus to Clouds on it’s own first so that you have a better idea of how long it will take you to get to the summit. It’s going to be important to know how long you will be on the mountain to properly prepare your nutrition and hydration needs. Prepare for a huge temperature increase as you descend. If you take on the full route you will inevitably be coming back to the desert during the hottest time of the day and it’s no joke. Again, do your homework, know what to expect, and plan for even higher temps than the forecast is projecting.
This past weekend I did the FKT route and back down; I opted not to go to the summit to avoid deep snow, get home at a reasonable time, and because I was pretty spent from the climb. I made it to the desert floor in about 2:15 with high-70s to low-80s temps and still drained 2 liters of water. Be sure to rehydrate well at the tram before heading down and take more water with you than you think you’ll need.
As you can tell from the link at the top, there are a large number of trails around San Jacinto and all of the ones I have experienced are fantastic. These other trails provide plenty of options if you want to do some exploring, make a weekend of the trip or just get in a bigger day. If you have a significant other than isn’t into doing C2C, and he/she is incredibly generous, try to talk them in to a weekend at Idyllwild. Have them drive you to the Museum in the very early morning (an hour + each way), then you can take Deer Springs Trail to Humber Park in Idyllwild after reaching the summit. (After typing this out I need to make sure I stop by the florist today, I can’t believe my wife did this for us last time!)
Anyway, get creative and go explore. It’s an amazing place to have access to and if you plan ahead you’ll have a great time!
Adventure Planning Information
Weather in Palm Springs: http://www.wunderground.com/weather-forecast/US/CA/Palm_Springs.html
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: http://www.pstramway.com/
Website for purchasing tram tickets, weather at the tram, cameras of area at Long Valley Ranger Station
San Jacinto State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636
Summit Post: http://www.summitpost.org/cactus-to-clouds/155924
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