Distance: 20.3 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 10834' (Mt. San Jacinto)
Elevation Gain: 10614'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 8.49
Max Slope: 50.7%
Round trip time: 12 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 272 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free parking across from Palm Springs Art Museum, $12 tram ride down
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
Cactus to Clouds is an epic day hike that starts in the desert near sea level behind the Palm Springs Art Museum and ends on top of Mt. San Jacinto at 10834'. Most of the gain (about 8000' of the 10000'+) is done on the Skyline trail that starts behind the museum, though some people start on the Lykken trail that intersects with Skyline low on the ridge. A lot has been written about the Skyline Trail, and Backpacker Magazine ranked the full Cactus to Clouds as the 5th toughest day hike in America (a caveat being hikes with trails). Here is an illuminating paragraph from Hikin' Jim about Skyline:
This is a committed route. What do I mean by "committed?" There is no way to abort a hike once you start. In other words, once you get onto Skyline, you're committed. If you go up, but get too tired to continue, you (in hot weather) can't just head back down. As you head down, the temperature will increase. You're essentially descending into an inferno. From what I've read, this seems to be the pattern for most of the people who have died on Skyline. They started up, got into trouble, headed down into the fiery furnace of the desert, and succumbed to the heat. Again, I'm not trying to scare anyone off who knows what they're doing; I'm just trying to be responsible and present what are the very real objective dangers.Because the weather is relatively mild in April, it is one of the safest times to attempt Skyline. October is also popular. I began loaded with 100 oz of water and 96 oz of G2 Gatorade. The water only needed to last until I could refill at the ranger station, but it didn't, forcing me to use more gatorade on Skyline than planned. The Gatorade was meant to last the entire hike (it did), though I could have detoured to the Mountain Station store if necessary. I packed extra layers and chemical warmers to deal with the cold at the higher elevations. What I failed to anticipate is how much snow was on the trail from the Long Valley ranger station up. The previous days storm had dumped a few inches of snow around the tram, and as much as 10 inches on the summit (according to the ranger). I had gone without waterproof boots and would pay the price.
I left home just before 1:00 AM for the drive to Palm Springs. I picked Sean up at 2:00 AM and we got on the Skyline trail around 3:15 AM. I parked in the Palm Springs Art Museum parking lot, but found a parking violation warning on my windshield when I returned. Better to park in the Free Parking structure across the street to avoid being towed. The lower parts of the Skyline trail are notoriously fragmented. We got lost multiple times, but every time we did, we went straight up the hill until we intersected the trail again. It was not an ideal strategy, but it worked. We passed the park benches, but missed some of the other landmarks I've seen in trip reports. Palm Springs lit up the night sky and for quite a while, we heard loud rave music coming up from below. Eventually, we learned to follow the white dots painted on rocks to keep us on track. At some point, we spotted a light from Mountain Station that appeared a discouraging distance away. By sunrise, we were at 4000'. It was cold and we welcomed the warmth from the sun.
We took a break at a clearing around 5300' near the remains of a campfire. We refueled and followed the winding single track trail up. We could barely make out Coffman's Crag, and I could tell the worst of Skyline was reserved for the top. After hitting the manzanita section, the trail went mercilessly up with many fewer switchbacks. After 7000', we started hitting patches of snow, and shortly after Coffman's Crag, light slushy snow covered the trail. It wasn't really a hazard, just messy. We had a good pace going until the last 2000' of Skyline, where I slowed down significantly. We didn't see a single other soul on the Skyline Trail. It took 7 hours to reach the Long Valley ranger station where we got a permit to continue.
The ranger at Long Valley told us conditions were icy near San Jacinto and we shouldn't go without microspikes. Of course, we made the attempt, and the snow was slushy, not icy past Jean Peak. This is where I paid the price for not having waterproof boots. The slush on the trail could not be avoided and eventually my boots and socks were soaked and freezing. I soldiered on to the summit where a half dozen people were shivering from the cold temps and strong wind. Sean and I stayed long enough to take some photos and video, but didn't linger on the windy summit. I was concerned about my freezing feet and sped up my descent. After a mile or two, the energetic descent had restored the blood flow and feeling to my toes and I was no longer concerned about damage. We got back to the Aerial Tramway and bought our tickets down. The Service Desk was nice enough to call a cab for us and it was waiting when we got to the bottom. We left Palm Springs battered and wet, but victorious.
Animated GPS track
Other Trip Reports:
Cactus to Clouds route description (Peaks for Freaks)
Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (Peaks for Freaks)
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