Cactus to Clouds
by Peter Holleran
"If you don't start, it is certain you won't arrive."
Driving down Hwy 10 on May 29, 2003 from Banning to Palm Springs I beheld a vision of God: the awe-inspiring northeast face of Mt. San Jacinto, rising qalmost 10000’ in under four miles. Wow! This is what I had come for - a truly big hill climb. Move over Tamalpais, Whitney, Pikes Peak, this dwarfs them all. San Jacinto is huge. The route I was to climb - and run as much as possible - was the well-worn but unofficial (and “officially” closed but not illegal) east-facing route known as the Outlaw, Chino, Skyline or, more commonly, Cactus to Clouds Trail. Starting in downtown Palm Springs at 400’ and rising steeply to 10804’, Mt. San Jacinto boasts vertical unmatched almost anywhere except Kilimanjaro, Denali or Ranier. Even Everest from base camp to the summit is just 11500’ - and all of these require passage over snow. San Jacinto, therefore, may be the biggest runnable hill climb in the world. Just the first 11 miles rise 8000’ before cresting at Long Valley near the top of the Palm Springs Tramway ( a piece of work in itself that rises 5800’ in just 2.5 miles - approximately twice the vertical of the new gondola at Heavenly Valley in Lake Tahoe). It is then 5.5 miles and another 2500’ climb to the summit. Along the way one goes from Sonoran Desert to Alpine zones, passing first palms and cacti, then schrub chapparel, followed by manzanita, oak, ponderosa and pinyon pine ending on a boulder-strewn summit.
A pre-dawn start is required to avoid rising desert temperatures. The idea is to ascend to cooler elevations as the day warms up, thereby keeping the ambient air about the same. Once over the lip and above Long Valley it is quite comfortable on all but the warmest days, 30-40 degrees less than Palm Springs. The first day I was there it even rained and hailed for two hours. The trick with San Jacinto is to go late enough in the spring for the snow to have melted but early enough to avoid the summer heat, which generally means May-early June (or alternately, late fall before the snow returns). The long stretch to the top of the Tram is without water so hydration packs are in order. I carried a two quart unit and a 20 ounce water bottle, the minimum for a fast climber. An average hiker needs more. I didn’t run out of fluid but should have, and therefore got dehydrated and low on electrolytes, requiring an hour break at the Tram station to refuel and recover before going further. If you do it right you WILL run out, according to a Tram employee and fifth-place Pike’s Peak Marathon finisher who uses Cactus to Clouds for his training runs. After a certain point, moreover, turning back is not an option because you will be descending into the midday heat, and are unlikely to meet anyone on the trail to offer assistance. If you do meet anyone stupid enough to start up in the middle of the day they will likely be more in need of help than you are. Several years ago a guy began hiking in July at 10 a.m.. The Tram was closed for maintainence and he tried returning the same way and got lost. After running out of water he lit a signal fire to attract attention down in Palm Springs. He started a forest fire and was rescued by helicopter.
While San Jacinto is lower in elevation than Whitney or Pike’s Peak and can successfully be summitted after just a night in Palm Springs, for a comfortable climb a moderate amount of acclimation is desirable. For that purpose I cancelled my reservation at the downtown Motel 6 and detoured off Highway 10 at Banning onto 243 and drove up the other side of the mountain towards the rustic community of Idyllwild to spend two nights at 5800’ nestled in the pines at the small and quiet Dark Canyon Campground. Other options are Fern Basin, Marion Mt., or Mt. San Jacinto Campgrounds, the latter in Idyllwild itself and within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Showers are available there for $1.00. For the squeemish conventional lodging options abound. The next morning I drove down to Palm Springs to ride the Tram and took an exploratory hike up to Wellman’s Divide at 9700’ in order to get the lay of the land and see how much snow cover remained on the upper trail. Large patches were intermittently present above 9000 feet and I lost the trail briefly at one point above Round Valley. I learned “when in doubt follow the footprints.” In general, however, the trail was in excellent condition and well marked.
I had heard about Cactus to Clouds a year ago, but the hiking book “100 Great Hikes in and Near Palm Springs” described it as long, dry, and difficult to follow for first timers and, not being eager to become a statistic, (“taking the path less traveled by, and having it make all the difference” - like winding up dead!), I searched the internet for a group to climb it with. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to run it with me but found that several groups would be hiking it one weekend so planned on joining them. That way if I ran into trouble at least there would be people coming along behind me. It turns out that the trail is pretty well defined and easy to follow. Rocks are painted with white arrows at frequent intervals. Still, it was nice having the security of a group. It turns out, in fact, that quite a few groups were hiking that day, all of whom I passed on my way up. (For those who want company climbing Mt. San Jacinto, here is a link to an avid hiker who makes Cactus To Clouds a regular pastime).
The route begins on the North Lykken trail at either of two locations, the Palm Springs Desert Museum or the west end of Ramon Rd., which join one and a half miles up on a rocky saddle (elev. 1750’) near a large sign saying “10 miles, 7000 feet”, and warning hikers not to attempt the trail unless accompanied by someone who has done it before and to carry plenty of water. From here the Cactus to Clouds trail officially (or unofficially) begins. Our group gathered in the pre-dawn darkness at the Desert Museum and embarked at 5:00 a.m., with the temperature in the upper seventies. I was impressed by two fast hikers, Kim and Frank, who quickly built up a sizeable lead. Didn’t these guys ever hear of a proper warm-up, I asked? It was all I could comfortably manage to keep up with them, although I left them in the dust later. The trail begins steeply from the desert floor with only slight moderation after the first few miles. One quickly rises above the surrounding neighborhoods, climbing beyond one cactus covered peak after another. It was quite exciting. The houses below get smaller and smaller as the morning sun gets higher and higher. The air slighty cools, but sun and exertion take their toll. I should have taken counsel from the thick saltly sweat pouring off my arms and legs and drunk more generously from my camelback; I was to pay for not doing so later. After a mile a sign was posted saying the trail was closed from January to June because of a Bighorn Sheep population. They roam over a 50,000 acre habitat, however, and we didn’t see any, and apparently they are not that easy to spot. (I had dreams of running ahead by myself and getting butted off a cliff somewhere but fortunately such fears never materialized).
After reaching some picnic tables one turns left and continues climbing. The next section of trail gazes down into Tachevan Canyon for 2.5 miles. After some time the trail takes a marked northward (right) turn and begins a long climb along a serrated ridge. After a while there is a small downhill, followed by a left turn and a short steep climb that brings the massive upper slopes below the Tram into view. They look almost within reach but 40% of your climbing time remains. The trail descends again briefly and then climbs northward again. After a final little downhill the trail heads mostly to the west and straight up. A large flat rock is seen to the left at approximately 6000’, and a lone oak tree soon after. Pines are visible above and welcome shade is just ahead. The final 2000 feet, however, are very steep and seem to never end. A prominent rock castle is reached at around 7200’ (visible to the left). The trail veers right across several gullies which can be dangerous when there is ice and snow. It then goes nearly vertical in the direction of a sharp rock tooth known as Coffman’s Crag, rising very steeply 700 feet before topping out at terrace-like Long Valley. The Tram is then a short ways to the right and a hundred feet or so up a spiralling paved walkway, which oddly but by universal agreement seemed to be the hardest part of the climb. I took four and a half hours to this point, but sub-four would have been possible had it been a little cooler and had I drunk all the water in my pack, reducing extra weight and avoiding dehydration and feeling sick. The fastest hiker took five and a half, the slowest ten. The Tram employee did it in three, and the record, of course, is even less than that.
From this point one can call it a day without shame and ride the Tram down, or sign in by filling out a (free) permit at the Long Valley ranger station (a short distance down from the Tram) and continue on towards the summit, an hour to an hour and a half of running or two hours or more of brisk hiking. With proper planning it is not necessary to detour by climbing up to the Tram building to refuel (although cold Mountain Dew and Gatorade sure taste good), for drinkable water is available at the ranger station. Further up, however, signs warn that water filtration is necessary. (Some locals say they haven’t filtered their water in twenty years with no ill effects, so the choice is up to you). The trail from here to the top is mostly an easy to moderate grade and entirely runnable - if you have any energy left after climbing the first 8000 feet, that is. The temperature at the top of the Tram was comfortable and never rose above 67 degrees (whereas the midday high for the entire week in Palm Springs was 100-110). From Long Valley the signed trail winds two miles through pine forest and along mountain streams to arrive at the deep grasslands of Round Valley (9100’). Water is available and campsites are nearby. Despite its gentle grade I didn’t do much running to this point until after I consumed two-thirds of hiker Frank’s uneaten vegetarian sushi which seemed to have a remarkable, almost electric, effect on my energy. (The hikers had caught up to me after my one hour break at the tram station plus another twenty minutes lost backtracking to the ranger station because I had forgotten to fill out a permit. However, Frank was no slouch. He claims to have reached the summit of Pikes Peak in 4:17 WALKING during the same race (2002) that I took 4:49 RUNNING. Granted that was a slow run, but it still doesn’t seem possible, for I don’t remember seeing anyone pass me walking at Pikes Peak, but I guess I’ll have to take his word for it. In any case, at San Jacinto I showed him who was boss, and gained another hour and a half on both him and fellow hiker Kim on the upper mountain). The slightly salty but high glycemic carbs of the sushi felt like rocket fuel compared to which my sugary performance bars were nothing but energy-draining candy, and after soaking my shirt and hat in the nearby stream to cool down I attacked the trail with renewed vigor like a man reborn.
The trail rises more aggressively in the next mile to a major junction, Wellman’s Divide, where expansive vistas open up, and then turns right (north) for a final 2.7 miles. (From Wellman’s Divide a trail leads down the back of the mountain to Idyllwild allowing for various loop options). Continuing northwards, a small snowfield may be crossed earlier in the season, depending on conditions. After some time a number of steeper switchbacks are encountered, but nothing like what was found down below. I think the trail guides use the term “steep switchbacks” for the benefit of the casual hikers who only begin their climb from the top of the Tram. Those who have done Cactus to Clouds may wonder where the steep switchbacks are! One-third mile from the summit a final junction is reached. Take the one for San Jacinto Peak. This is a fairly open section. A stone shelter with a summit log inside is passed on the right, but depending on your final ascent route you may not notice it until you are on your way down.
I entered my name and email address in the log (which is regularly updated on-line) writing “Cactus to Clouds”, but had second thoughts if it was such a good idea leaving contact information after confessing to being on a closed trail. I wondered if I would receive a citation when I got home, but decided that my signature would be circumstantial evidence at best. Continue on for several hundred feet over a large boulder field to the actual summit. You may find yourself post-holing in deep snow between the boulders. Savor your achievement, and gaze to the northeast down the sheerest angle of descent in the United States. Route 10 is a LONG way down.
Naturalist John Muir said that the view from the summit of San Jacinto was "the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth." This was, alas, before the smog-laden expansion of the greater L.A. area. Still, on a clear day numerous other high peaks and the Salton Sea are visible. Most prominant is Mt. San Gorgonio across the valley. After you have had your fill of the grandeur take a leisurely one hour jog back to the Tram for a well deserved ride down to Palm Springs. Be prepared for the heat which will be somewhat of a shock after the pleasant upper mountain temperatures.
Total vertical climbed on this route, adjusting for the several small downhills and a final walk back up to the Tram station, is 11000’. By any standard that is impressive.
One final logistic. Since the base of the Tram is several miles from the start of the trail, to get back to your car it is necessary to either call a cab, hitch a ride, or leave a car parked in the Tram parking lot overnight (necessary because the road to the Tram is blocked early in the morning).
If you have any more energy you can try climbing San Gorgonio, at 11502 feet the highest peak in Southern California but with only half the vertical from trailhead to summit as Mt. San Jacinto. The Vivian Creek trail rises 5400’ in 7.8 miles which while shorter is, however, comparable in steepness to the lower portion of Cactus to Clouds (8000’ in 11 miles). You can then complete the Southern California "Big Three" by climbing Mt. San Antonio (Baldy).
The aerial overlay of Cactus to Clouds depicts the alternate route starting at the west end of Ramon Rd. The path from the Palm Springs Desert Museum would come in from the right and meet the outlined trail at the first bend left. Note that the third orange dot from the bottom is just to the left of the top of the Tram. From there to the summit (the fourth orange dot) is still more than five miles.
The steepest ascent of San Jacinto is via the infamous Snow Creek Route on the northeast face, a dangerous Class Four scramble requiring ice axe and crampons in winter. Here is one climber's account of a narrow brush with death.