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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.