Cactus to Clouds a.k.a. Mount San Jacinto via Skyline Trail

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.

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A Well Marked Trailhead Just Behind the Palm Springs Art Museum.

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.

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Headlamp Up & Ready to Hit the Trail!

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!

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Writing on the Rock, Marking the Way.

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.

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Hiking Before Sunrise, Climbing Fast to Avoid the Heat.

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.

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5 Miles In, Closer to the Tram Than the Museum Now.

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.

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Somewhere Before the Dry Waterfall, We Are Headed to the Highest Point in this Picture.

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.

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Sign on the Long Valley Ranger Station Wishing Us Well.

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.

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The View From Wellman Divide. Super Majestic, Right?!

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?!

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Only .3 Mile Left to Go!

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!

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C2C for Cactus to Clouds!

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!

Godspeed.

Mount San Gorgonio Via Vivian Creek Trail

Key Hike Statistics:
Distance, Trail Style: 17 miles, Out & Back
Difficulty: Difficult
Elevation Gain: ~5500 feet
Popularity: Moderate
Best Time: Early Morning; June-October to avoid snow
Dogs: Allowed, Make sure they’re capable of this difficult hike
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: At Trailhead; Adventure Pass Required
Trailhead: Big Falls Picnic Area, Forest Falls, CA

*Note: This hike requires an advanced permit from the area ranger station. Be sure to apply and receive your permit online before setting out. Permit application and info available here: http://sgwa.org/wilderness-permits/

Mount San Gorgonio is the highest mountain in Southern California rising 11,503 feet above sea level. Vivian Creek Trail is the shortest and therefore steepest route to the peak and begins at the Big Falls Picnic Area near Forest Falls, CA. It’s best to start this hike nice and early in the morning, which requires staying in the area if you aren’t from the nearby inland empire region of Southern California. We camped about 20-30 minutes away at Barton Flats Campground, which was the closest open campground in the Summer of 2016.

On the morning of our hike we, my Father-in-law and Brother-in-law and myself, woke up around 7 am in order to drive over to the picnic area and get on the trail by 8 am. This timing was pretty ideal as we finished our hike sometime around 3 pm.

The first section of the hike is quite easy as you head away from the picnic area following the dry creek bed. The trail begins as paved, looks like an old service road, but then gives way to a dirt path and eventually leads you across the creek bed. Here you’ll see a sign notifying hikers that a permit is required past a certain point. Once you’ve past by this sign the climb begins as the trail switchbacks up to the dense forest wilderness you’re about to enter. After about 1.3 miles you’ll reach the Vivian Creek Camp, where you can stay if you’ve secured an overnight permit. This is the first of the on trail camping options. There wasn’t much water at Vivian Creek Camp so if you’re planning to stay here it’s best to plan accordingly.

Continuing on along the trail, you’ll start to climb away from Vivian Creek through a mix of pine and manzanita trees. At roughly the 2.8 mile mark you’ll come to the second overnight option (permit still required), Halfway Camp. I am not entirely sure why this camp is named as such, since it is not halfway from the trailhead to the peak. It actually seems to be about halfway to nothing in particular. However, it is a lovely spot for a first break as you’ve already climbed a good bit of elevation. The climb continues past Halfway Camp starting with some long switchbacks that eventually give way to some early contours of High Creek Canyon.

At the 5 mile mark you’ll reach the best shot for water on trail, if you didn’t plan on carrying enough to go up and down. High Creek still had water when we were there in the late Summer (October) of 2016, you’d need to have a filter on hand. Here you’ll find the third and final overnight option, High Creek Camp. If I were doing an overnight trip this would be my pick for campsites since it has water readily available, permits are also required here.

Leaving High Creek starts another set of switchbacks and contours, now covered in taller pines having left the manzanitas of the initial climb behind. However, at this point the trail has risen above 9,000 feet above sea level so the tree line is quickly approaching. Eventually, you’ll reach a ridge which provides the first view of neighboring Mount San Jacinto across the valley. The ridge is right around the 10,000 foot mark, so if you aren’t used to elevation you’ll likely begin to feel its effects at this point. From here, the trail is also quite exposed having risen above the forest biome. Now you must contend with the sun above and the rocky trail beneath your feet.

This is not the steepest part of the climb by any means but the altitude doesn’t make it any easier. After what feels like a long mile or so from the ridge you’ll reach a lonely trail junction located in the saddle before the peak. It’s not far from this junction to the peak and you’ll likely get a motivating view of the peak that can put some extra energy in your legs for the final push to the top.

Be sure to locate the peak registry box and the elevation sign (most likely not attached to its post). There is something of a false peak on San Gorgonio and these markers are the indicator that you’ve reached the true peak of the mountain at elevation 11,503.

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Find the elevation sign and trail registry box on the peak!

At the top you’ll have a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape, including Mount San Jacinto, Mount Baldy and beyond. After eating your lunch at the peak you’ll retrace your steps to get back to your car at the picnic area below.

This hike is no joke. It requires patience and perseverance as it is straight up at times. You’ll be surprised, as we were, at how much the switchbacks you climbed earlier in the day look very much like slides as you make your way down them on the way back. Be careful not to move too quickly that you may misstep on the way down because of this.

Godspeed.

Mount San Jacinto Via Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Key Hike Statistics:

Distance, Trail Style: 12 miles, Out & Back
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: ~3000 feet
Popularity: High
Best Time: First Tram (Typically around 8am); June-October to avoid snow
Dogs: Not Allowed, CA State Park Rule
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: Plenty at Tram
Trailhead: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Palm Springs, CA

Mount San Jacinto State Park is one of my favorite places in Southern California. It’s a diverse forest area near the desert city of Palm Springs, CA. The main event and name sake of the park is Mount San Jacinto, which rises 10,834 feet above sea level. Famed outdoorsman John Muir said of San Jacinto, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth.” I’d say that Mr. Muir was hyperbolizing a bit here, if I didn’t agree with him.

The easiest way to find yourself in the park is the take the aerial tram from Palm Springs, CA. There is plenty of parking at the tram station which sits on the northwest corner of town. Be sure not to forget anything in your car for your hike if you plan on heading to the peak of San Jacinto as you’ll not want to come back once you’re on the tram-car up. It only takes about 15 minutes to get from the bottom station to the mountain station at Long Valley. Depending on your season you’ll want to make sure you have the appropriate clothing and gear for your hike. If you’re hiking in the Summer you’ll likely be good to go in your typical day-hike attire, though even in the Summer the temperature at the mountain station can be some 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor. Any other time of year and you’ll want to be a bit more prepared for just about anything. San Jacinto can receive large amounts of snow at times; making trail spikes and ice axes essential for the cold weather adventurers.

When heading for the peak from the tram I recommend getting yourself on the first tram of the morning if you can. The tramway makes the Long Valley area quite popular because of it’s ease of access so if you don’t want to wade through crowds of people to start your hike it’s best to get up the tram early.

Once you’ve reached the mountain station you’ll follow the paved pathway a few hundred feet to the Long Valley Ranger Station. Here you’ll need to fill out your day-hike or overnight permit. All groups entering the wilderness area past Long Valley are required to have a permit. While doing your paperwork the friendly ranger will likely let you know that it’s about 12 miles from the ranger station to the peak and back. He’ll also ask you about your water situation (there is a hose for potable water around back for filling up should you need it). I carried 3 liters on my hike and it was more than enough for me.

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Sign on the Long Valley Ranger Station says it all.

You’ll set off for the peak on the well-defined trail on the opposite side of the ranger station from which you came. This portion of the trail is sandy and well trod, weaving through large boulders popular with the rock climbing community. It’s quite common to see climbers roaming around in this areas with their crash pads strapped to their back looking for their next bouldering challenge. As the trail makes its way out of Long Valley and into Round Valley it becomes softer, leaving the rocks behind and getting into some lush tree cover. During the busy season you’ll find a seasonal ranger station in Round Valley roughly 2.5 miles from the ranger station at Long Valley. There is minimal climbing between Long Valley to Round Valley, so the next section of the hike is where you’ll gain a lot of your elevation as you climb up to Wellman Divide. Round Valley is posted at 9,100 feet above sea level, which means about 1,734 in gain left to the peak by my math with about 3.5 miles left to cover.

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The next stop on the hike, however, is Wellman Divide. The trail is still under great tree cover and on soft ground as you climb through the forest up to the divide. You’ll gain the roughly 600 feet of elevation needed to get from Round Valley to Wellman Divide which sits at around 9,700 feet above sea level and gives you your first glimpse out into the expansive desert below. This is one of my favorite spots in all of southern California to sit and enjoy a snack, lounging on a large boulder just to gaze out as far as I can see.

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As I said, rocks and views at Wellman Divide.

Once you’ve soaked up all you can at Wellman Divide it’s time for the final stretch of the hike to the peak. There is just over 2 miles left from here to the peak and a climb of the remaining 1,134 feet. As you leave the divide the tree cover opens up and you’ll start to notice the afternoon sun if you’re hiking in the Summer. Sun screen up if you haven’t already because you’ll be leaving the majority of the trees behind as you climb higher and higher and they become more spread out. The trail becomes somewhat rocky as it contours along the side of the mountain and then back again. Though there are some rock stepping here and there the trail is well graded for the climb not terribly strenuous despite not being the soft and forgiving surface it once was under the trees.

After about 2 miles from Wellman Divide there is a sign of hope, literally a sign. This sign marks the peak junction and lets weary hikers know they are a mere .3 miles from the peak. The trail to the peak continues to be well-marked as it has been all day until you come to the hut that rests just below the peak itself. If you’re within earshot of those getting their first view of the hut you’ll often hear yelps of joy as many believe this to be close enough to celebrate. In actuality the peak is maybe 100 feet from the hut. This is the only portion of the trail that is not well marked, and it’s understandable why, as the trail gives way to some giant boulders that must be scrambled upon in order to give that lovely altitude sign at the top a big ol’ hug.

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A sign of hope, only .3 miles left to the peak!

From the top you’ll get an even more breath-taking view than that at Wellman Divide of the seemingly endless desert scape surrounding Mount San Jacinto is almost all directions. This is also another fantastic place to lounge on a boulder enjoying your meal, your accomplishment and the view.

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My Brother-in-law (Erik, right) and I at the top.

Once you’ve gathered yourself to begin the descent back to the tram you’ll simply retrace the steps that brought you up, only much faster (careful) because, well, gravity.

Godspeed.

Mount San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) Via Baldy Bowl Trail

Key Hike Statistics:

Distance: 9 miles
Trail Style: Out & Back
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: ~3,900 ft
Popularity: Very High
Best Time: Early Morning
Dogs: Allowed
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: Ample, Adventure Pass Required
Trailhead: Manker Campground, Mt. Baldy, CA

For hikers in Southern California there are a few peaks that make it onto a regional ‘must hike’ list. Mount Baldy (also known as Mount San Antonio) is certainly one of those peaks. Mt. Baldy sits northeast of Los Angeles, towering over the community of Rancho Cucamonga directly south of the mountain. The peak of Mt. Baldy reaches 10,069 feet above sea level making it the tallest peak in the San Gabriel mountain range and the third tallest peak in Southern California.

The hike to the top of Mt. Baldy starts from Manker Campground just north of the small community of Mt. Baldy. I drove up from San Diego with my brother-in-law after work on a Friday so we could camp at Manker Campground and get up and hike in the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t factor in the holiday weekend (we accidentally planned our hike for Labor Day weekend). So naturally, when we arrived at Manker there were no campsites open. We did a quick drive through the campground anyway in the hopes of a miracle before we drove down the mountain road a little ways to find a quiet turnout to park and sleep in the car. We weren’t the only ones in said quiet turnout either, which should have been our first sign about the trail population for tomorrow.

After a night of choppy sleep in my Subaru we awoke (for the final time) around 7am and headed back up the road towards the trailhead. When we reached the trailhead we were surprised (although, in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have been) to find a fleet of cars lining the roadway. We squeezed the Subaru into a tight spot off the road a fair ways down the hill from the begin of the trail. After gearing up we hit the trail right about 8am.

The trail up Mt. Baldy from Manker Campground is an easy one to follow, it’s actually more of a dirt road to start. After maybe a quarter mile on the dirt road you’ll reach San Antonio Falls which must be year round because it was still running when we were there on September 5, 2016. From here the dirt road trail continues behind you (presuming you’ve stopped to look at the falls for a second). At this point you’ll want to keep a watchful eye to the left as you hike if you plan on taking the Baldy Bowl Trail (shortest but steepest route to the peak). About a third of a mile after the falls a trail will break up the slope to the left of the dirt road, this is the Baldy Bowl Trail. If you want to take the Ski Lift Trail to Devil’s Backbone to the peak you’ll want to continue down the dirt road to the right. We veered left at the fork.

From the fork in the trails, the climb begins. You’ll wind up and up from around 6,500 feet where the split is to the Sierra Club Ski Hut which is nestled just below the actual bowl of Mt. Baldy around elevation 8,000 feet. Here is a good spot to take a breather, eat a snack and prepare for the next half of the climb to the top. From the Ski Hut you’ll have about 2 miles to the peak and another 2,000 feet elevation gain to contend with as you contour your way across the bowl along the now aptly named Baldy Bowl Trail. The trees become a bit more sparse as you draw closer to your goal and finally you’ll emerge from the trees all together as the peak becomes visible. Enjoy the panoramic views from this point on. With clear weather you’ll be able to see out to the Pacific to the west and the Mojave to the east.

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Once the time has come to leave the top of Mt. Baldy you have the choice of returning the way you came or taking the Devil’s Backbone to the Ski Hut Trail which will also get you back to your car at Manker Flats. I typically recommend going back down the way you came unless you are familiar with the other trail to get you back or are with someone who is.

Another note about this peak hike, plan on foot traffic. As I mentioned, we inadvertently planned our hike for a holiday weekend which no doubt increased the amount of hikers. Once we reached the Ski Hut there were people having picnics, evidently many of which not really planning on going further than that. Leaving the Ski Hut we had to navigate a line of hikers of varying paces. My brother-in-law and I are pretty experienced hikers and were pacing quicker than a good number of these hikers who started their climb earlier in the morning. I would advise trying to avoid these heavy traffic weekends if you are a hiker that likes to move at your own pace instead of the pace of the 5 person hiker group you’ve just caught up to until there is ample room for them to step out and let you by.

Godspeed.