Mt San Jacinto

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | California hikes

Hiking Mt San Jacinto from Palm Springs (Cactus to the Clouds)

The "Cactus to the Clouds" hike was ranked fifth most difficult day hike in the continental USA by Backpacker Magazine. (I would add "on a trail" because otherwise i can come up with dozens of tougher hikes in the High Sierra).

The "Cactus to the Clouds" trail leads from Palm Springs (146m) to San Jacinto Peak (3302m) in a very long day. There is also a famous aerial tramway that takes tourists from Palm Springs to a point 2.5 hours from the summit of San Jacinto. Most hikers only hike from the upper tramway station to the summit and back. The "Cactus to the Clouds" title, though, refers to the hike from the Palm Springs museum to the summit of Mt San Jacinto.

Because you start at such a low altitude, this hike has one of the biggest elevation gains in California (possibly the biggest if you only count hikes on official trails, and definitely bigger than Mt Whitney). Because Palm Springs is in the desert, the temperature is often unbearable between april and october. Because San Jacinto is pretty high, there is snow at the top in winter. Therefore there is no good season to do it: it is challenging in any season, and so challenging that the rangers (as of 2010) refuse to provide any information in order to discourage hikers.

The main trailhead is behind the art museum in Palm Springs. From I-10 take Hwy 111 into Palm Springs, pass the tramway road and continue into downtown. Turn right when you see the sign for the art museum. Drive to the back parking lot and look for the sign for hiking (101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA). There is another trailhead at the intersection of West Ramon Rd and La Mirada streets, but it is just a detour: turn right into Ramon Rd and proceeed to the (western) end of the street.

The total distance to the peak is about 29kms (20 kms from the museum to the tramway station and 9 kms from there to the summit), to which you have to add 9kms to return to the tramway station, for a grand total of 38 kms (most people return down by the tramway). But it's the elevation gain that is the real killer: almost 3,000 meters to reach the summit of San Jacinto Peak (3,302m). Most people hike it in spring or fall, and even then the temperature for the first few hours is significant. Consider a very early start in order to gain elevation before sunrise.

It is about 20 steep kms from the museum to Long Valley, where the upper tram station is and the ranger station is. At the ranger station fill out a permit form to continue up to the top (9 more kms).

The ride down by cable car costs $12 (2010).

The fastest way to hike down (if you don't want to take the cable cars) is probably Devil's Slide via Saddle Junction to Humber Park near Idyllwild at the end of Fern Valley Rd that you reach via Jameson Dr from hwy 243 just north of Idyllwild.

If you take the tram down to Palm Springs, the last car down should be at 10:30pm on weekends and holidays. The distance between the Cactus to the Clouds trailhead in Palm Springs and the lower tramway station is approximately 4kms: shuttle cars, walk 4 kms or good luck with public transportation.

Note: the rangers of the Mount San Jacinto State Park (paid with your tax money) are extremely unfriendly, and discourage people from doing the Cactus to the Clouds hike. In 2010 they refused to provide any information that would be useful to the hiker. I quote the ranger i spoke to in june 2010: "You have to figure it out for yourself".

If you are doing this in summer, check the weather forecast before starting: you will not believe the temperature; and start very (very) early. Ideally, by 9am you want to be at the upper tramway station. In 2011 it took me 5 hours hiking as fast as possible with no stops from the museum to the upper tramway station.

Absolutely no water along the trail until the tramway station. When you reach the plateau with the tramway station, there is everything: souvenir shop, water fountains with cold water, etc. The ranger station is very near the tramway station. As you reach the plateau, it's about 500 meters to the ranger station. From there you can continue straight to the summit of Mt San Jacinto.

The hike from the museum to the plateau is relatively uneventful (other than the breathtaking grade). There are many trails to choose from but they all go the same way. They keep intersecting and it might feel confusing in the dark but i think it's difficult to get lost: just go uphill. The last section before the plateau is basically the equivalent of scrambling up a ravine, but at that point you see the cables of the tramway so you can't miss it. At the plateau you hit the trail (and probably tourists). Follow the trail to the ranger station avoiding the loop of the nature trail. In about 500 meters you should see the ranger station. Take a picture of the trail map because here a mistake will send you to the wrong destination. Most tourists do shorter loops so the crowds will not take you where you want to go. From the ranger station to the peak you will be tired but the hike itself is mild. It is almost flat for a while, and then a series of very long tedious switchbacks take you to the top.

  • Start at the museum's trailhead
  • Picnic tables (20')
  • Rescue 1 (1h20')
  • First plateau (1h45')
  • Flat trail coasting the valley from south to north (2h 50')
  • Rescue 2 (3h45')
  • First pine tree (4h35')
  • First view of the tramway (4h50')
  • Plateau of the tramway (5h15')
  • Ranger station (5h30')
  • San Jacinto Peak (7h45')
  • California State Parks
  • Camping: lots of campgrounds near Idyllwild
  • Forest camping
  • If you plan to hike only from the upper tram station to the summit, there are two campgrounds about 30-45 minutes from the station: Round Valley (28 campsites) and Tamarack Valley (12 campsites). Needless to say, they must be reserved way in advance: 951.659.2607
  • Don't count on sleeping at the trailhead: Palm Springs is notoriously hostile to people sleeping outside

    Palm Springs trails

    • Hwy 38, northwest of Palm Springs, is called "Rim of the world highway".
    • San Gorgonio is the highest mountain. It can be reached from Vivian (30 kms hike roundtrip).
    • West of Palm Springs is San Jacinto. San Jacinto can be reached from Idyllwind or Palm Springs. From Idyllwind there are many trails: the shortest and steepest is from Fern Basin (the Marion Mountain trail, 10 kms). From Palm Springs one can take the tramway ($20, 15 minuts) and then hike 3 hrs to the peak.
    • Highway 243 that leads from 10 to Idyllwind is a great mountain road that affords spectacular views
    • On the way to Palm Springs: Cabazon (factory outlet for many of the world famous boutiques, and the famous gas station with the dinosaurs), wind turbines (and very strong winds).
    • Agua Caliente, south of Palm Springs, has trails to its canyons.
    • Indian Canyons