Cactus to Clouds – Palm Springs to Mt. San Jacinto

Where: Mount San Jacinto State Park
Mileage: 23 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 10,400 ft
Type: Out-and-to tram

Cactus to Clouds isn’t just some hike you wake up and say I feel like hiking 23 miles today. Do not consider this hike unless you are prepared and well trained to do it. It is a very difficult and long hike.

Some training hikes I would recommend that helped me get ready for this hike are:
1. Iron Mountain
2. Mt. San Antonio
3. Mt. Wilson
4. Mt. Baden Powell
These are just a few, but I recommend doing longer hikes over 10 miles to train you with high elevation gain as you will be going from sea level to the 3rd highest mountain in Southern California.

Cactus to Clouds is a term for the hike going from where cactus lay to where clouds hover. The trailhead is at 470 ft. and Mt. San Jacinto peers out at 10,834 feet.

Important Points Along Trail:
I’ve found that the table below has helped me with the points, I checked a few sites before and had some of these printed out and updated them with what my gps showed.

Points Along Trail – to keep an eye on Elevation Mileage
Trailhead: Palm Springs Art Museum 470 ft 0 mi
Picnic Tables 1,340 ft 0.8 mi
North Lykken trail junction 1,400 ft 0.9 mi
Rescue Box 1 2,450 ft 2.2 mi
4,300 ft Pebbles 4,300 ft 5.1 mi
Rescue Box 2 5,400 ft 7.4 mi
Flat Rock 5,900 ft 8.4 mi
The Traverse Start 7,400 ft 9.5 mi
Coffman’s Crag 7,800 ft 8.8 mi
Grubb’s Notch (entrance to Long Valley) 8,400 ft 10.5 mi
Long Valley Ranger Station 8,380 ft 10.8 mi
Round Valley Campground 9,060 ft 12.3 mi
Wellman Divide 9,710 ft 13.1 mi
San Jacinto Peak 10,834 ft 16 mi
Tram Station 8,400 ft 23 mi

We parked just outside of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
101 N Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA, 92262, USA
From 10 East take exit 111 and continue on this for 9.4 miles until it turns into N. Palm Canyon Drive. Continue for another mile. Turn right onto W Alejo Rd. drive a few hundred feet and turn left onto N Belardo Rd. Continue for .4 miles and N Belardo will turn into Museum Dr. Find some parking here on Belardo and not in the museum parking lot as it is free. There is a lot that used to be free across the street, but now has a 4 hour limit on it. Make sure that you do not park in the parking lot, but on the street.

Helpful Links:
Mt. San Jacinto State Park
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway – for times and tickets
Hiking Guy’s Description of Cactus to Clouds
Mt. San Jacinto Message Board
Hikin’ Jim’s Skyline Page – original blog I used to help me prepare
Palm Springs Weather
Mt. San Jacinto Weather

This hike was absolutely epic. We started at midnight and reached the tram for a quick stop and breakfast, perfectly around breakfast time and a gorgeous sunrise. With that said, the hike wasn’t easy. As I’ve stated before, please do not take it lightly because there have been some instances where fatality has occurred because of not being prepared enough.

Before we headed to the trailhead we slipped into a Mexican restaurant to get a quick bite to eat. Oh how I wanted those chips and salsa, but I stuck to a couple tacos with some rice and beans and no salsa that would upset my stomach later. Should be just enough to get my juices flowing for the epic, long, extreme hike that we were about to embark on.

To find the trailhead, cross the parking lot of the museum. You will see a large sign that says “Welcome to the Museum Trailhead”. We took a couple of shots of our group and finally headed out around 12:20am. It was complete dark and headlights were on with our group. The first part of the trail is quite the climb. Follow signs and the white dots are going to be your best friend until the sun comes up.

The lower parts of the trail here are fragmented and it is easy to get lost in the dark. Again use the white dots to help you. If you don’t see take steps back and forward a little to find the next white dot. I had my gps and a map and we never seemed to lose the trail the entire time. At some point we were able to see the light at the Mountain Station. It looked abominably far away from where we were. Palm Springs was lit up below us, but the lights slowly faded as the sun started to come up.

The first part of the trail is called the Museum Trail until it passes the picnic benches and hits a junction. The trail to the left is the North Lykken trail and to the right is the Skyline Trail. Make sure you veer to the right and stay on the Skyline Trail. The junction sits at about 1.9 miles from the trailhead.

After the benches and junction the next major point will be the first rescue box. We took a short break here since we had gone about 2.2 miles and 2000 feet in elevation gain. I didn’t know what the rescue boxes were for, but according to reading online later, they were installed after a higher volume of rescues on the trail. The boxes each contain some food, water and a cell phone to call 911. Please only use if you are in dire need of some help.

We continued after a short snack up to the 4,300 foot mark written out in pebbles. This was a little over 5 miles up, which also meant that we were halfway to the Ranger Station. From here the climb isn’t as gruesome as what we had just endured up to the second Rescue Box. We all seemed to be doing pretty well and continued on to an are where there was a Flat Rock. I actually don’t believe I saw it, but I knew we were absolutely close as we were 8.2 miles into the trip and the sun began to rise above the horizon.

We took a little longer break here to watch the sunrise and again refuel ourselves for the hike to the Ranger Station. The travers are to Coffman’s Crag view had a few rough patches of uphill. The whole group started to slow down a bit, but till the Grubb’s notch the constant elevation gain let up a little. After a few breaks along the way it was such a good feeling to reach the notch, it was a little before 9:00am when we reached Long Valley.

I really enjoyed this part of the hike mostly because we had gone into the trees, the contrast with the colors and some snow on the ground was fabulous. Not to mention few hundred yards away we saw a small group of deer grazing. With the group all together we headed up to the tram to warm up/cool off and have some lunch, ok I guess it could be called breakfast. For about an hour everyone did their own thing, either napped, chatted at the table or checked out the gift shop.

After filling up on water, we finally decided to head on the trek up to Mount San Jacinto at 10:15am. We still had just under 6 miles to reach the summit. Before continuing on the rest of the hike, make sure that you fill out a wilderness permit at the Long Valley Ranger Station. Everyone is required who passes beyond this point and heads up to Mt. San Jacinto.

After filling out the permit, head behind the Ranger Station to continue on the San Jacinto Peak Trail. The trail was a gradual climb up to Round Valley Campground and there were more people on the trail at this point. We honestly didn’t see anyone until we hit the notch earlier into Round Valley. The campground had patches of snow here and there. Round Valley Campground is one of four hike in campgrounds; it is the only one with toilets and benches in case anyone wants to take their break here.

The trail is well maintained here and signage is also very easy to find. After the campground the trail heads towards the Wellman Divide. Make sure to take the trail to the right at the fork, but before there is an area where you can get quite a view. From here you have about 2.2 miles. At this point I was leading on the trail and started to fade, literally fall asleep while walking. I asked for a short break, took some GU chews and that held me together till we reached the summit.

There will be a well-marked saddle before the summit, follow the trail for .3 miles to the summit. You will pass by a stone cabin that can be used as an emergency shelter. We took a look inside and actually left a couple of snacks that I had left and didn’t need in the shelter. Hopefully someone would need them more than I did at that point. From here the scramble up was possible about another hundred feet. There it was perched in the rocks, the sign that I had seen in pictures. The view was incredible from up here.

It was 1:45pm and we had finally made it all 16 miles to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto that lies at 10,834 feet. We waited till the entire group showed up and toasted a small shot of Hungarian Palinka while our beer cooled down in the snow in the shade under one of the rocks. Quite a few people had reached the summit at this time, but we did have a few minutes to take some shots with the infamous sign.

We didn’t leave the summit until 3:00pm, which was probably a bad idea because we still had to take the tram down, get a ride to the cars and drive back all the way to Torrance and get up the next morning for work. Though it didn’t take as long to get down, we ended up reaching the Tram at around 5:15pm. We all grabbed a beer for celebration of finishing and took the

Note to self:
I was asked if I would ever do this hike again and honestly yes I would. Maybe one day I’ll do Cactus to Clouds to Cactus. Perhaps I should add that to the goal list.

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