Hiking Trails

Cactus to Clouds (Skyline) Trail to San Jacinto Peak 5.24.14

The Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs, California, to San Jacinto Peak is a hiking trail with the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the lower 48. My GPS tracked the total elevation gain at 10,823 from the start in Palm Springs until we reached the summit some 14 miles later. Backpacker Magazine has this one listed as #5 on the 10 Toughest Day Hikes. They write ,”Two fun ways to put your pain in perspective as you churn up the unmaintained trail: The trek to San Jacinto’s 10,804-foot, boulder-strewn crown is only 800 vertical feet shorter than the climb from Everest basecamp to summit-and comparable to doing more than a thousand flights of stairs. ” Also, famous long distance hiker Andrew Skurka lists this as one of his favorite day hikes. Gearing up for our upcoming treks in the Alps, Julia and I are really kicking up the difficulty of our training. I’ve always felt it’s better to train way above the requirements of a trek, that way you can relax and enjoy things once you get started.

(Flickr: See All Cactus to Clouds Photos at this Link)

Cactus to Clouds Google Earth Track
Cactus to Clouds Google Earth Track

We started this hike fairly early at 5:30 AM. I read reports of some hikers starting as early as 3:00 AM. I can understand this if you’re a slow hiker, but hiking for that long in the dark robs me of many of the reasons I enjoy the trails. Staring at pitch black and the highlighted area projected by my head lamp can get old really quick. 5:30 ended up working out really well for us as we got to watch the sunrise and enjoy the cooler temperatures of the morning desert air. It’s worth mentioning that there is a parking structure that allows you to park free of charge all day right across the street from the Palm Springs Art Museum. The Skyline trail starts off right behind the museum parking lot and ascends rapidly amongst cacti, brush, and an assortment of beautiful desert geology.

Art Museum
Art Museum
Free Parking
Free Parking

The trail climbs rapidly for the first few miles and then levels out just a bit. As we were catching our breath from the initial climb, we took in a beautiful sunrise. To one side, there was the vast expanse of desert yellow, traced by never ending rows of sand weathered windmills. To the other side was Palm Springs, a polygon of green in an otherwise water starved wilderness. It’s hard not to shake your head when looking down on Palm Springs from above. I don’t know how much water is used or where it’s coming from, but to have golf courses and grass lawns in an area so inhospitable to such plant life seems rather wasteful.

Palm Springs Views
Palm Springs Views
Palm Springs Views
Palm Springs Views

Once you get about a mile into the hike you’ll see a sign informing you that no water will be available for the next 8 miles. There are a few rescue stations and fellow hikers leave behind bottles of hydration for those not smart enough to bring it for themselves.

8 Mile Water Warning
8 Mile Water Warning
Rescue Station #1
Rescue Station #1

It took just under 6 hours to reach the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Ranger Station. This is the point at which you can physically and mentally relax. Even though there are still roughly 5 miles to the summit, the hardest part is over. All that remained was a relatively level hike to the summit, a brisk walk down, and a tram back to Palm Springs. After the solitude of the Skyline trail, the crowds at the ranger station had us feeling like we were at Disneyland. Many people take the tram up just to shuffle around and eat. I’m sure the Memorial Day weekend and gorgeous weather increased the crowd size as well. It wasn’t much of a problem though, just like the majority of trails starting from tourist spots, the crowds grow thinner as you get farther away from the trailhead.

Almost to the Tramway
Almost to the Tramway
Ranger Station
Ranger Station

It’s incredible to see the stark shift in flora as the elevation inches upward. From desert to forest, the cacti turn to trees, the gravel turns to granite slab, the oxygen grows thinner, and the air grows cooler. Where before there was nothing but dry earth, the ground is now running wet with snow melt, and the icy remnants of a storm still lingers in the hidden shadows of each mountainside. The surrounding beauty helped us make quick work of our ascent to the summit. Just before the final boulder hop to the top of San Jancinto Peak, a small hut structure offers a nice picnic and rest stop for those that have made it this far.

Summit Hut
Summit Hut

After climbing over 10,800 feet over 14 miles, we finally made it to the summit. Puffy clouds hung to the southern views and clear skies stood between us and San Gorgonio. Hikers and backpackers of all stripes relaxed upon the boulders and soaked in the views. This hike is surely difficult, probably the hardest I’ve ever done…but it was well worth it, and I know we’ll be back to do this one again soon.

San Jacinto Summit
San Jacinto Summit
San Jacinto Summit
San Jacinto Summit

I'm Drew, creator of Trail to Peak. Trail to Peak brings content to life on the web through breath-taking photography and captivating video. I launched Trail to Peak in 2014 with a goal to inspire readers to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. I have traveled to 19 countries, walked Camino de Santiago, hiked the John Muir Trail, trekked through the Andes of Peru, and am constantly seeking new adventures in my home state of California. Joining me on my weekly adventures is my partner, Julia, our son, Owen, and our two goldendoodles, Isla and Lilly.

10 comments on “Cactus to Clouds (Skyline) Trail to San Jacinto Peak 5.24.14

  1. Pingback: SoCal Six Pack of Peaks Training for 2014 | Do You Even Hike?

  2. When can we do it again?

  3. Anonymous

    Drew,

    Hello again! What a “Cactus to Clouds” hike! you just really get around!

    Well, it is the eve of my departure to journey to Spain to walk the camino…I fly from Orlando to Miami, and on to Madrid, a train to Pamplona and a shuttle to SJPDP. If I had known earlier I was starting from SJPDP, I would have flown to Paris instead, but…

    I am very excited, and yes, a little nervous, but I look forward to the whole experience (May 26 – July 4) I start the hike on May 28.

    Thanks for the inspiration…so many of my friends are planning the Camino through watching your documentary just recently…you cannot imagine how inspiring it is!

    okay…better check the back pack before turning in for the night!

    buen camino amigo!

    gilberto

    • Gilberto! It’s time for your journey to begin!! I’m so excited for you to start walking the Camino. Will you be blogging? If so, send me a link to your site.

      I’m happy to hear others are able to use my Camino video for planning and inspiration. That was a large part of why I made it.

      Buen Camino, Gilberto!

  4. Pingback: Gear Review: Scarpa Spark 8/10 and Rapid LT Preview | Trail to Peak

  5. Did you have to train for cactus to clouds specifically or did you see it as a challenge you were pretty much up to from the start? Are there seasons for this hike or could I go now? I live in L.A. and am currently bored. I need a new challenge to look forward to. Maybe I could hop on over to Palm Springs and hike Cactus To Clouds? Or must I wait for snow to leave?

    • I didn’t train specifically for C2C, but I was in pretty good shape for it. The best time to hike this is April, May, September, October, and November. The summer months are just too hot, and the winter months have snow and ice chutes that can be a bit dangerous. You could try it now if you have experience on snow and ice. If not, I would wait until the Spring thaw.

  6. Great guide, thank you. I have a trip report and guide on my blog in case it’s helpful for folks planning the hike:

    https://hikingguy.com/hiking-trails/hiking-la/cactus-to-clouds-hike/

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