Key Hike Statistics:
Distance, Trail Style: 21 miles, Out & Partial Back
Difficulty: Extremely Difficult (like, the hardest)
Elevation Gain: ~10,300 feet
Popularity: Light to Tramway; High Above Tramway
Best Time: Very Early Morning; Fall/Spring (sweet spots between too hot and too cold)
Dogs: Not Allowed in State Parks
Bathrooms: At Tramway
Parking: At Trailhead; Parking Structure for Shade
Trailhead: Palm Springs Art Museum
*Note: This is the write up of my Cactus to Clouds hike which is one of America’s most difficult day hikes. If you are a novice hiker or haven’t been training recently but want to get to the peak of San Jacinto please consider hiking Mount San Jacinto via Aerial Tramway.
Mount San Jacinto is one of Southern California’s most recognizable features, rising seemingly out of the desert floor to the impressive height of 10,834 feet above sea level. Because of this prominence and the fact that one can hike from the desert floor to the peak directly makes it a coveted check mark for the serious So-Cal hiker, and many beyond the region as well.
On this, my first, attempt at Cactus to Clouds I was hiking with my Brother-in-law. We stayed at a motel in Palm Springs in order to get an early start on the trail in the morning. We woke up at 3:30 am for a quick breakfast and headed over to the Palm Springs Art Museum where there is a parking structure near the trailhead. Using the parking structure is recommended since your car will be sitting in the desert sun all day while you’re hiking.
We were on the trail right around 4 am, headlamps and all. The reason for such an early start is that even in late September, when we did our hike, the temperatures in Palm Springs will reach the upper 90s. The goal is to gain as much elevation as quickly as possible. Reaching the 4,500-5,000 foot mark before dawn is ideal as that’ll be high enough to mitigate the heat from getting to you later on as you climb.
The trail is well marked to begin with, even in the dark. Locals maintain the bottom few miles of the trail and they do a pretty darn good job. White marks blaze the trail and are fairly easy to spot when the headlamp hits them. The trail begins with a set of switchbacks as you quickly get away from the desert floor. After just under a mile you’ll reach some lonely picnic tables. At this point you’ve already done close to 1,000 feet of climbing!
The next landmark on the trail will be rescue box 1. The rescue box sits around the 2.5 mile mark and about 2,300 feet above sea level. Here you’ll find a metal box with reflector tape. The box contains some first aid supplies as well as some emergency water and snacks. Feel free to add a small water bottle to the cache if you have extra, and only take something if you absolutely need it. What you take won’t be available for someone who may be in a life or death situation. This is a good time to mention that I carried 3 liters of water from the trailhead to the tramway where I refilled back up to 3 liters at the ranger station in order to get to the peak and back. I recommend that amount or more depending on how much water you tend to drink while hiking.
At this point, as we have, you’ve likely noticed that you’ve been climbing for nearly 3 straight miles and it’s tempting to stop and take a break while you still have the pre-dawn early morning cool air. It’s wiser, however, to continue on and keep gaining as much elevation as you can before the sun starts warming things up. We made it to about 4,300 feet before taking our first breather slash snack break slash sunrise gaze. At this elevation there are rocks arranged to mark 4,300 feet. These rocks also mean we had reached roughly 5 miles, more than halfway! …to the tram.
After the 4,300 rocks the climb lightens up for a little while, though don’t be deceived, it’s not over. There is about 2.5 miles to reach rescue box 2. Rescue box 2 looks exactly like the first rescue box and sits about 7.5 miles from the trailhead and roughly 5,400 feet above sea level. After the climb of the early morning the 1,100 foot climb from the 4,300 rocks to rescue box 2 over 2.5 miles seems like a walk in the park. And you’ll only need to climb another 500 feet or so to reach the flat rock of a dry waterfall. This is the 8.5ish mile and a great place for another break. The climb gets significantly more difficult from this point.
From the dry waterfall there is 2,500 feet of constant, steeply graded climbing over the 2 miles to reach Grubb’s Notch, the entrance into Long Valley where the aerial tram resides. From Grubb’s Notch it is a short spur trail over to the Long Valley Ranger Station where you will need to fill out your day hike permit for the rest of the hike. The ranger station is just short of 9 miles from the trailhead and just under 6 miles from the peak. Fill up your water at the ranger station if you need to, we did. Ask the ranger which hose is for potable water, no need to get sick for no reason.
Take a few minutes to rest up at the ranger station, but try not to linger long enough to let your legs freeze up there is still 6 miles to the peak and 6 miles back! Once you’ve set off from the ranger station the trails are much wider and much more well marked than the Skyline Trail that got you into Long Valley though it may not seem like a breeze after the morning’s endeavors like it would if you came up the tram. After 1.5 miles on the trail we come to the Round Valley area. Here, when the conditions are right you’ll find a seasonal ranger station, camping, and a lush meadow. There was some re-vegetation in progress when we visited so most of this was not accessible, but that wasn’t why we were there in the first place so on we went.
Wellman Divide is the next trail milestone. This is area is a grouping of rocks in an open space near a trail junction overlooking the desert below. This is a great place for another rest and maybe lunch if you don’t mind not eating your lunch at the peak. Wellman Divide is just over 13 miles from the desert floor where you started and sits around 9,700 feet above sea level. From the divide the trail stretches another 3 miles with 1,134 feet left to climb…not too bad, basically there, right?!
With just .3 left to the peak you’ll come to the last trail junction where a sign gives distances to the various landmarks in the area. From this sign you’ll have a relatively easy .3 miles up to the peak, first seeing the hut that sits just below the peak. From the hut, you’ll scramble up some rocks (to the left of the hut if your looking at the front of said hut) to find the sign at the peak marking the elevation of 10,834 feet. Huzzah!
After leaving the peak, enjoy your basically all downhill jaunt back to the tram at Long Valley by follow your footsteps back. Hopefully, you’re pace hasn’t been slow enough to be hiking back in the dark and racing time. The last tram departure time varies by season so you’ll want to check the schedule and make sure to factor that into your plan to avoid having to do an accidental Cactus to Clouds to Cactus in order to get back to your car. Once you’ve gotten to the bottom of the tram you’ll need to call a cab or hail and Lyft/Uber to get you back over to the Art Museum.
This hike is consistently listed on just about any list of America’s hardest day hikes so completing this feat warrants a pretty solid sense of accomplishment so soak it up!