Monday, April 28, 2014

Cactus to Clouds

Hiked: 4/27/2014
Distance: 20.3 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 10834' (Mt. San Jacinto)
Prominence: 8319'
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.

Start of the Skyline Trail

Palm Springs Art Museum from the start of the trail

Park Benches and North Palm Springs in the background

Rescue Box #1

Distant light from Mountain Station


Sean coming up the trail

Sunrise over Palm Springs

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.

Still a long way to Mountain Station

Flowering cactus

Rescue Box #2

Unofficial rescue box (Florian's cache?)

Shadows on the mountain

Snow capped San Gorgonio in the distance

Looking back at Palm Springs from the manzanita section

Striations in the rock

At Coffman's Crag

Sean at Coffman's Crag

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.

Snow in Long Valley

View from Wellmans Junction

Rushing through the slush

Mt. San Jacinto

Final climb to the Aerial Tramway

Coming down fast from miles above you

Animated GPS track

Other Trip Reports:
Cactus to Clouds route description (Peaks for Freaks)
Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (Peaks for Freaks)

Would you like to know more...?


  1. Thanks, Derek. It is one I won't forget.

  2. Can't believe you guys made this one! New elevation gain record! Keep hiking! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Joseph,

      Hope you enjoyed the report. It was a new elevation gain record for me, my calves also gently reminded me this morning.

  3. Ouch! But cable car down I take it? As the reward...

    1. Yep, the standard C2C ends at the tram. The C2C2C route includes the remaining 8000' descent. The timing of a descent from the tram is tricky because of severe heat issues if you descend too early back into the desert.

  4. Truly epic hike at a strong pace. Very nice work.

    1. Thanks, Noel. Not sure about strong pace, but epic yes. I think you may be building up to it. :)

  5. Yes, that is Florian's bucket which unfortunately some people are treating as a trash can. :(


    1. Hikin' Jim,

      Thanks for that piece of info. We suspected that was Florian's. It is such a valuable resource, I can't believe people are trashing it.

  6. How much time did the trail take

    1. Pranav,

      The Skyline trail to Mountain Station took us 7 hours, then another 5 hours 45 minutes for the round trip to San Jacinto summit.

    2. Did you apply for a permit to accomplish this hike? If so, what did you include as your entry location and exit location? Campground? Thanks!

    3. Roman,

      You don't need a permit for the entry at the museum. You do need a permit for hiking from Mountain Station to the summit and you can pick up one at the ranger station once you make it up to Mountain Station. You can also refill water there so it is a convenient stop.

  7. Did a summer ascent, left at 1am. Tough but doable. Thanks for your guide, was very helpful. I put my trail guide up as well, hopefully it will compliment your great guide.

    1. Cris,

      Nice work finishing C2C. Glad my report was helpful. Your report is very detailed. The quantity and quality of C2C beta is really stacking up on the Internet. Hike on!