Mt. San Jacinto - Cactus to Clouds Trail


Trail Stats


Distance - 20 Miles

Elevation Gain/Loss - Over 11,000 ft.

Max Elevation Reached - 10,850 ft.

Difficulty Level - Very Strenuous

Trailhead - Link





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Jerry Schad calls the Cactus to Clouds (aka Spines to Pines) hike "a hoot". I am going to keep it simple - it's hard!!! This is the hardest hike to get to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto. This, in my opinion is the hardest hike in Southern California. It has even made it on to Backpacker Magazine's list of America's hardest dayhikes! (Note - There are several other trails to the summit. The Devil's Slide Trail is described here.)


You start in Palm Springs at an altitude of about 450 ft., which is virtually at sea level, and ascend to the summit more than two vertical miles at over 10,800 ft. in a matter of about 15 miles. En route, you pass the Palm Spring Aerial Tramway's Mountain Station at about 8,500 ft. 


Like always, the trail stats speak for themselves. However, I would like to point out the following. Feel free to take them as very serious "caveat hiker"!!


1) Start before dawn. You must, in the interest of making it all the way to the summit and beating the desert heat. 

2) Carry enough water. Remember, you are hiking the east facing slopes of a desert mountain for the most part. The first reliable source of water is at Mountain Station.

3) Train. Don't expect to succeed if you haven't done a hike with more than 4000 ft. of elevation gain in the last month. 


Be warned that unlike on most other hikes, you have crossed the point-of-no-return pretty much within the first few miles on the trail. Should you get into trouble of some sort, you will be faced with the tantalizing choice between continuing the arduous climb, or turning back towards the desert floor which is likely a lot hotter that when you began the saga.


The initial part of this hike is on what's called the Skyline Trail - a loop of sorts that starts and ends in Palm Springs. This part of the hike seems to have been used and abused. Fellow hikers have "trailblazed" so many false trails, wrong turns and switchback cuts that you are guaranteed to lose your way ... at least briefly. It helps to remember that the only way you should be headed is "up", and sooner or later, you are back on track. Starting from the parking lot of the Desert Museum, you make your way uphill and come to a set of picnic tables. Further on, you come accross a sign that reiterates the importance of carrying a sufficient supply of water. This also marks the intersection with another trail starting from Ramon Rd. in Palm Springs. 


Continuing further, you negotiate your way through typical Southern California desert vegitation to an altitude of 4,300 ft. which is clearly marked on the ground with neatly arranged rocks. Here on, the trail is a lot easier to follow. If it is still before dawn, you should be able to see a bright light at Mountain Station. Climbing on, you find a white bucket placed along the trail for water donations and obviously to aid you if you are in dire need of a drink yourself. But don't count on it. This bucket could be empty. 


Beyond this point, the trail gets significantly steeper. Again there are several stretches where switchbacks have been cut and the resulting "new trail" is a lot steeper than it need have been. The soil is often loose making walking even harder. Next, you enter a thin pine forest which seems to be growing denser as you climb. Soon, you get to a plateau at about 8,500 ft. where  Mountain Station is located. Here you can take a well deserved break, get a decent hot lunch and a cold drink. But don't get too comfortable yet. Your job is only half done ... there is more mountian out there, and the trail beckons.


From the station, the trip to the summit and back is a mere 11 miles. The elevation gain is a rather trivial 2500 ft. Continue if you are up for it. But don't be upset if you choose not to. You have successfully made it to Mountain Station, which is a big feat in its own right. 


Collect your wilderness permit at the Long Valley Ranger Station just outside Mountain Station and continue on to the summit via Round Valley and Wellman's Divide. The trail is well marked. There might be some water available at Round Valley. Again, don't count on it.


Return to Mountain Station and take the tram down to Valley Station in palm Springs. If you still have some energy left, reflect on what motivated you to do this hike and whether you will ever return. You can request the staff at the Valley Station to call you a cab if you need help getting back to the trailhead. 


Elevation Profile



Trail Log

Oct. 31st, 2009


Started from San Diego - 10:30 pm on the 30th

Started from Trailhead - 12:45 am on the 31st

Reached Mountain Station - 10:15 am
Resumed walking - 11:10 am 

Reached summit - 3:00 pm

Started walking back - 3:30 pm

Reached Mountain Station - 6:00 pm


Track Analysis - Link  

Photos - Link 


Notes -


Sachin. D and I set out on this hike. This was my second attempt to summit using this trail. The earlier (unsuccessful) attempt is described below.


We started very early to give ourselves enough time to summit. Being fairly slow hikers, we used up all the time we had. It was plesant down in Palm Springs. The tempreature must have been in the lower 60s. We took our first break at the picnic tables. We had to hike in the dark till the water bucket, where we had breakfast. At Mountain Station, after a quick lunch, we evaluated out situation and decided we were good to continue both from fatigue and time perspective. 


We got to the summit and back in good time. It was just about getting cold up there. Nothing that a sweater or a light jacket would't handle though. However things probably did get very cold overnight, for we saw the puddles along Long Valley Creek frozen solid. 


I suffered a mild headache near the summit, possibly due to the altitude. Could even have been the sleeplessness.


:: :: :: ::

Oct. 3rd, 2009


Started from San Diego - 11:00 pm on the 2nd

Started from Trailhead - 1:45 am on the 3rd

Reached Mountain Station - 12:30 pm
Resumed walking - 3:00 pm 

Reached Round Valley - 4:30 pm

Started walking back - 4:45 pm

Reached Mountain Station - 5:50 pm


Track Analysis - Link  

Photos - Link 


Notes -


Seven of us set out on this hike. Two out of the seven were backpacking on this trail (Not recommended at all!) The rest of the group left them behind sometime after the picnic tables. The group further split in two groups and eventually three. I reached the tram station at 12:30 pm. One member of our group wasn't well prepared for this hike. This caused significant delays in regrouping at Mountain Station as per our original plan.


When we resumed walking, it was almost clear that we wouldn't be able to make it to the summit and back in time for the last tram departing from the mountain. Still we decided to see how far we could press on. The group managed to get to Round Valley. Continuing any further seemed pointless since the summit was now certainly beyond reach. We turned back and made it to the tram station in good time.



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