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Mt San Jacinto (10835')

Cactus To Cloud (C2C) – Mt. San Jacinto (10835’)

Duration: 1 day
Date: 19 April 2014
Distance: ~23 miles (~18 miles is what I did)
Difficulty: Strenuous (Extremely strenuous in summer!!)
Trail: Museum at Palm Springs (~520’) -> Skyline Trail -> Long Valley (8415’) -> Round Valley Trail -> Peak Trail -> San Jacinto Peak
Best time to do this hike: March/early April/October.
Gear: Layers – super hot at the bottom to super cold at the top. Microspikes/Crampons depending on snow conditions at the top.


Photos: here

Other links:
REI – here
Summit Post – here
Hikin Jim's blog - here

I’ll start off by stating that this trip memoire is going to be a long one just like the hike itself. It is one of those hikes that I will always remember for quite a few reasons, which shall become evident further down this page. So without further adieu lets get to the hike!

I was glad to be invited to this “crazy” hike. Crazy – I call it crazy because of the sheer nature of this trail. As the name suggests “Cactus to Clouds” pretty much starts in the desert (Cactus) and finishes with a summit attempt of Mt. San Jacinto Peak high up in the mountains (Cloud). It is ~17 miles to the top/summit with an elevation gain of ~10300 feet. I have listed out the mileages, elevations and times in a table at the end of this memoire. The oven like temperatures at the trailhead make it a very daunting task to retreat once above 4000 feet if necessary. So this hike is pretty much a “do-or-die” hike. There is no water throughout the skyline trail till lone valley and owing to the temperatures, one would need to carry at least 4 liters of water + electrolytes. Proper planning is a required for any hike in general but this one needs a “detailed plan”. Do not attempt this without planning and if possible try to do it in a group.

Coming back to the hike, the super fit folks in this group were Jai, Abe and Kelvin from LA and around and Jugal, PT and I from the bay area. The three of us drove to LA from the bay area on Friday reaching the motel at half past midnight or a little later. We were to start the hike at 4am so that we could compensate for the rising temperatures due to sunrise by equally gaining altitude (1000 feet per hr) making sure our body temperatures and the outside temperatures don’t change drastically. But with just 4 hours to sleep we decided to start the hike at 5am instead. We got up early and drove to the trailhead. By the time we got there, it was 5:30am. After an inaugural picture of the trailhead and the group, we started the hike. It was almost 6am and the sky was already brightening.


The trail from the very beginning climbed up radically. A tough climb all way to what the human eye could see was our goal. About 30 minutes into the climb & thanks to me following the “wrong” white paint dots we were lost. Having lost about 30mins or so, we finally we got back onto the trail. We hurried up the trail to make sure we were still on schedule to out run the sun as far as possible. There was a nice cloud cover in the east that gave us a little more time for that. We were ascending quite fast. I’d assume we were doing about 1100 feet per hour. The flora that can be found here is typical to the desert region. I could see various kinds of cactus plants all around. By 6:45 or so, we were at the picnic tables after the first of the few markers on the trail. The first marker was a chalk/paint sign that says that it’s 8miles to the top no water for the next 10 hrs. From the picnic tables, the trail took us to up the next mountain. This trail reminded me of the scramble I did on the way to the summit of Mt. Tallac in the lake Tahoe area. Each mountain uncovers another taller one behind it. This kept happening.

We spotted the first of the two rescue boxes along the trail. The rescue box consists of a telephone that can be used to call for help, a bottle of water and some trail mix. This makes it quite evident about how treacherous this particular trail is. Majority of the people just take the Lone valley tram up to the tram station at 8415’. The sun was now out slowly increasing the temperature. It wasn’t very bad until 11am. The next marker was the 4300 feet marker laid out in stone. It marked the half way mark atleast by altitude to the tram station. The next marker was the sign that said Palm Springs (5miles) with an arrow to the left. The trail goes on from the opposite direction. I am not sure the intent of this signage but my guess would be for the people hiking down the mountain. The arrow points to nowhere. After a couple of minutes, we spotted the Rescue box 2 and then after what seemed to be never ending walk, saw a bucket with the same useful stuff (water, trail mix) in it (What I’d assume to be rescue box 3).


The trail was getting steeper and relentless. The temperature was also pretty high. We had a couple of hikers passing us. We took multiple breaks to catch a breadth. I now don’t remember where but at a point, we were in the shade of some boulders. It seemed like a great place to boulder and climb (may be in winter :-D). When we reached the 6500 feet altitude, we started seeing signs of greenery. The landscape took a turn to resemble the more familiar alpine environment. There were conifer trees and the sky looked beautiful. The long valley tram station, which is part of the Mt. San Jacinto state park, could be seen far away. It was nestled amongst other peaks and mountain ranges. The weather started feeling a lot cooler than how it was down at the trailhead. 

The trees now provided a shaded trail. Although the trail was steeper and was gaining altitude quickly, the shade made it a lot nicer to hike. The pine trees now were the majority of the flora along the trail. It was ironic to find out that the MOST steep and difficult part of this hike was yet to come. The next 2 miles was going to be relentless and extremely difficult providing a sense of never ending ness, and it actually did. The climb was painful. Trudging along, looking at the farthest point (the state park) and slowly heading towards it was all that we did. At a point, we could see the tower that was part of the tramway ferrying people up and down this mountain.

After a while, we came to the next visible marker that I had read about in other blogs – the potato. It’s a massive stone structure that resembles the potato. The trail weaves through the mountains along the ridges towards the potato. From that point, the trail shoots upwards (just before the potato). This is the “GrubbsNotch”. It is one hell of a climb but at the end, you see flat land that looks extremely inviting. Kelvin and I reached this point, which is at 8415’, followed by Abe and then came Jai. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I got to meet the great Fernando who has climbed this route more than 350 times with record timing. We took a very long break, which is something I would regret later. At 2:45 pm, already 1.5hrs off schedule, we decided to head to the ranger station to get the permits & head to the peak. Jugal and PT had decided to call it quits and head to the tram station. I’m sure if it weren’t for Jugal’s ankle problem, he would have perfectly made it to the top.

Guess what happens next, we spent quite some time trying to find the ranger’s station. Finally by 3:15pm, we got to the ranger station. We (Abe, Jai, Kelvin & I) got the permit and headed out to the peak. The time read 3:20pm. After the super difficult Skyline Trail, the round valley trail seemed like a piece of cake. It was an easy hike. Going a little higher, we found ice all along the trail. It wasn’t too much so we did not have to use micro spikes or other snow/ice traction devices. We passed the round valley camp that is at 9100 feet and continued ahead on the same trail. 2.7 miles into the hike of the total 5.4miles to the peak, we came to the junction of the round valley trail and peak trail. This must have been at 9700 feet. From here, the peak trail was about 2.7miles with an elevation gain of about 1100 feet, which isn’t bad but it was already 5 past 5pm.


We decided to call it a day and rested there for a while, clicked a couple of pictures and then decided to head back. Just before leaving Kelvin changed his mind & called it a lets just get there attempt to hike to the summit. I was for a while taken by this idea. We ditched the bags and got everything ready for the big push. Abe had decided to get back down to the tram station. We exchanged maps and we were all ready to go. At that moment, I took out my mobile to check the time & snap a picture of the map and to my bad luck I dropped it and the screen cracked. It was 5:15pm. The last gondola trip down from the trap station was at 9:45pm and if indeed I got to the peak in about 1hr 15mins (for 2.7miles), I’d then have 3hrs (6:30pm – 9:30pm) to get the 6miles down hill from 10835 to 8415 feet. This pretty much sounded like a trail run downhill and I wasn’t very thrilled by this idea.

My leg for the first time in a long time, on a long tough hike, did not pain and I did not want to risk a downhill run. Knee pain due to ITBS is bad!!! I guess thanks to my mobile falling off and taking a bad beating, I got back to my senses and decided to turn back. So Abe and I were now going back to the tram station. Before wishing Kelvin and Jai all the best for their summit hike, we decided on the turn around time of 6:30pm. I thought they would be able to easily make it. We got back to the tram station. To our surprise, after all this hiking, we faced a switchback nested hike up to the tram station (must have been about a 100 feet or so). Once at the tram station, we filled our tummies up good with pizza, lasagna, veggies and more coconut water.

The wait at the tram station letting the gondola’s go down was a long one. The gondolas were departing initially every 15mins, then it it was in 30min intervals and then finally the last two were at 9:00pm and 9:45pm. The 9:00pm gondola left and we were pretty much the only hikers left. The few other folks with the long valley tram employees and the last of the shopkeepers were waiting for the last ride down while cleaning and closing up shops. We were now a little worried and Abe checked with an official as to what would happen if a hiker missed the last ride down. The answer was pretty scary – the building would be locked so the hikers would have to just take shelter in the wild or outside the building on the concrete path that leads to the tram station/building or hike down all the way to the museum at Palm Springs. The temperature that night would have gone down to 0 Celsius which is quite cold & not a very enjoyable experience to be stuck outside. The tram operator told us that they could probably wait for a couple of minutes if we were sure our friends were almost back.

At 9:25pm, 5 minutes before lockup and 20 minutes before the last tram ferry, Jai and Kelvin showed up – completely worn out. They indeed made it to the peak (Cactus-to-clouds). They actually did run down quite a bit. I was happy I had decided to not go up to the peak. If it wasn’t for the timing and the delays, I’m sure all of us would have gone up the peak that day. What was waiting for us was a beautiful 10min ride from the tram station at the top to the tram station at the bottom in Palm Springs. This ride was an absolute delight to me. The only thing I wondered was the fact that we took 15 odd hours to get up to the summit and now we were taking 10 minutes going all the way down. Human engineering and technology has indeed made things a lot simple and efficient.

A nice night of sleep followed by a lazy Sunday at Jai’s – Pizza’s, the chipotle fiasco, the drive back to bay area.. This is how my weekend turned out to be an awesome one.

A couple of things I remembered during this hike:
A quote - “Going up is optional, coming down is always mandatory” – Ed Vestures
Turn-around-time – One of the most important thing in mountaineering and summit attempts. (100 feet from the summit – past turn around time, just head down….)

This is one of the few summit hikes that had a summit time after 12:00 noon which was even remotely possible owing to the fact that there was a comfortable gondola ride back down.

Pics: here

Hike Info:

Getting there: Skyline trailhead (Museum – Palm springs). Get there before sunrise if you plan to do the C2C.
Parking: If possible get two cars and park one at the tram station. It is about 6-7miles from the trailhead behind the museum. Gate at tram station opens only after 6am. So park outside. At the trailhead, there’s a multi-level parking structure opposite the museum. Avoid parking in the museum parking lot to avoid citations.
Food/Water: Carry atleast 4litres of water + electrolytes. If you are physically fit and quite fast (1000+ feet per hr), you could just get by carrying a little less (In spring/after summer). I wouldn’t even attempt this hike in summer.
Other info: Follow the white painted dots up the skyline trail. If the trail becomes tougher than it is, narrower with required scrambling, then you are off trail.

Credits: Google & SummitPost

Trail table:
 Description   Altitude (feet) Distance from bottom (miles) Time
 Museum (Trailhead)    450 0 5:45am
 Picnic Tables ~1360 ~1 6:23am
 Painted Rock ( No water next 10 hrs) ~1400 ~1.2 6:30am 
 Rescue Box 1 ~2500 ~2 7:17am 
 4300 rock arrangement (might not be there.... ) 4300 :-D ~4 8:58am 
 5 mile marker (Palm springs with arrow) ~5000    ~5 10:26am
 Rescue Box 2 ~5400 ~6 10:42am
 Water bucket (Rescue box 3?) ~5700    ~6.5 11:04am
 Potato Rock    ~7500 ~9 1:52pm
 Grubs Notch ~8400 ~10 2:19pm
 Ranger Station ~8415 ~11 3:06pm
 Round valley trail & Peak Trail Jn ~9700 ~13.7 4:54pm
 Mt. San Jacinto Summit (Jai & Kelvin) 10835 ~17 6:20pm
 Tram Station 8415 ~17 7:10pm/9:25pm (Jai & Kelvin)
** Very approximate timing taken from picture timestamps. Distance & altitude as well. Please refer other blogs for accurate details.