San Jacinto Peak: Cactus to Clouds HikePosted by Adventure 16 | 11.17.2016
Cactus to Clouds Hike--With focus on the Tram to the Summit,
November 17, 2013
by Katy Andrade
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It was a beautiful fall day for co-worker Kevin Lee and me to take on Cactus to Clouds. a one-of-a kind hike that ascends from the city of Palm Springs to the summit of San Jacinto Peak. While we did complete the entire Cactus to Clouds route from the Palm Spring Art Museum at the base of the mountain, this write-up will focus primarily on the popular 12-mile section of trail from the Long Valley tram to the summit. It is a highly enjoyable stretch of trail that is challenging yet approachable for hikers of almost all levels.
Just a brief comment on the Skyline Trail, which is the section of trail from the city of Palm Springs up to the Tram: this is a very difficult section of trail. I recommend that hikers who haven't done it before go with someone who knows the route, as it can be confusing in several sections. While it is only an 8-mile segment, it is extremely strenuous and can take up to 10 hours to complete. You're climbing over 8,000 ft in elevation! Start early (I recommend at first light), because the desert heats up quickly. Take at least 4 liters of water, as it can be very hot and there is no water along the way. You will have to go over several foothills before reaching the final grueling ascent up to the tram, so this trail requires a degree of patience. However, it is quite rewarding to reach the tram, and you can expect to see an excellent example of Southern California microclimates as you climb out of the desert and into the pine trees.
Once we reached Long Valley, we started to see hikers and tourists who had opted to ride the tram up from Palm Springs. From the late spring to mid fall, I highly recommend the tram ride up and a day hike to the summit. Even for groups with small children or those who don't wish to hike very far, it's a nice escape from the desert heat to come up to the pine forest for part of a day. In the winter it's a great way to get up to play in the snow as well!
At the elevation of the tram station, the temperature dropped and it was nice to pull on an extra layer of clothing. I highly recommend bringing extra layers because the temperature can change quickly on the mountain. There are restrooms and a water spigot to refill at the ranger station. You'll also have to fill out a free permit to continue up the trail to the summit. We did encounter a ranger checking permits on the trail, so make sure to do this! It's FREE.
The 6 miles to the summit are beautiful and enjoyable. The first few miles are well treed and shaded up past Round Valley. Snow and ice can be patchy in this section in the fall and spring. At Wellman's Divide there is an excellent spot for a snack with a nice viewpoint to the southwest. The trail will continue to climb up to the right and soon exits the trees along an exposed traverse through low scrub bushes. You are nearing 10,000 ft at this point, so be ready to feel the effects of altitude and take your time.
After a few long switchbacks, the trail will finally climb up to the ridgeline where there are a lot of boulders. When you see the Sierra Club Hut, you are just a boulder-hop from the summit! The boulders can be slick and icy at times, so take care not to slip. From the summit we had excellent views in every direction: San Gorgonio Peak to the north, Mt. Baldy in the distance to the northwest, Palm Springs to the east, and the Salton Sea to the south. There are often clouds to the west, but on a clear day you can see almost all the way to the ocean. We managed to hit it on a pristine day, with no wind and excellent clarity. In good weather, it's a perfect spot to grab lunch and snap a picture by the new summit sign!
The tram ride back down from Long Valley was enjoyable after a long day of hiking. There is a restaurant at the tram station if you need a bite to eat before heading back to the desert. The Palm Springs Tram one of the few rotating trams in the world, and is an attraction in itself for many tourists.
We had an excellent day on the mountain, and which was very fortunate since it will likely be one of the last weekends of the season without snow or ice on the trail. We finished in just under 10 hours.
Technical Clothing: I packed a lightweight long-sleeved Icebreaker wool base layer in my day pack to change into at Long Valley before heading up to the summit. It was nice to have a warm, dry layer after coming up the Skyline Trail, with it being cooler at the higher altitude. I really like the way Icebreaker merino wool clothing is light and packable, doesn't hold smell, and is super soft. I also wore an ultralight hat for all-day sun protection, and a North Face soft shell for warmth on the way down from the summit.
Accessories: I use Humangear Go Toobs to consume energy gels on the run. It's nice not to have to pack a ton of energy gel packets when I can pack just one or two refillable silicone tubes. It also cuts down on the trash I have to pack out with me. I actually like to fill one with smooth natural peanut butter because it serves as a high-energy, easy fuel source for all-day, strenuous events (when sugary gels just won't cut it). It is important on a hike like Cactus to Clouds to remember to bring enough food, with a balance of easy to digest carbohydrates (energy gels or chews, etc.), protein (bars, peanut butter, jerky, nuts, etc.), and electrolytes (primarily salts, or beverage mixes such as Nuun or Vitalyte).
Other: I used a 2 Liter hydration reservoir for most of my water. This is a great way to consume water on the trail, as you can sip all day without having to think about pulling out a bottle.
Bring layers of clothing, as the weather is highly variable on the mountain. I have been up there when it was in the 70's in the middle of the day, and then we were hit by an ice storm at the summit at sunset. It's a good idea to also have lightweight gloves and a warm hat or hood just in case the temperature drops.
Also, San Jacinto Peak is high for those of us who reside at sea level! Don't underestimate the effects of altitude at 10,000 ft. If someone in your group is struggling or doesn't seem themselves (mumbling, grumbling, stumbling, dizzy, etc.), this can be a sign of altitude sickness. Don't be afraid to take breaks, eat a snack and hydrate, and assess your group to make sure everyone is in good condition to reach the summit. The mountain will always be there, so don't make the mistake of thinking it's all or nothing to reach the summit at the expense of a hiking partner's wellbeing.
Don't assume the members of your team will know the route and stay on it. It is easy to take a wrong turn, even on a well-marked trail. Everyone should carry a copy of a trail map, just in case the group gets separated and someone gets confused which way to go. It's wise to go over the details of the trail before starting the hike, just so people are aware of the major trail junctions and landmarks. I also recommend that everyone take a headlamp or flashlight, since you can easily get stranded in the dark as the autumn days shorten and there are fewer hours of daylight.
HIGHLIGHT OF TRIP
The highlight of the trip was the amazing clarity at the summit! We were very fortunate to have pristine weather and no wind. The views were spectacular, and it was warm and sunny as we sat at the summit for a well-deserved break.