My boys, Ellis and Jack, wanted to take their first backpacking trip. Mount San Jacinto seemed like the logical place to go. I had taken their older brother there for his first trip about six years ago, and had been up once before that with Brett Collingwood for the first time. I knew the hike from the tram station to Round Valley was doable for the kids (eleven and nine), and that at the very least we could make Wellman Divide with its long view the next day. If all went well and they were feeling fine, we would go on to the summit. So I started watching the weather and checking the snow from the Palm Springs Tram web cam, and by the middle of June things started to look good. A call to the ranger station in Idyllwild confirmed that we would be able to get a campsite during the week on the day of our trip so we decided to drive up on Thursday June 23.
We packed the truck up Thursday morning with our stuff, a full pack for me, and lighter packs for the kids, and got out of Torrance about 10:00. Traffic wasn’t bad and we made it to the Tram station about 12:30, including a stop in Beaumont for a hamburger for the boys and a last good cup of coffee at the Starbucks for me. There was no crowd, so once we got the stuff unloaded and our tickets we were on the next tram and at the top by about 1:00. Once at the top we loaded up our packs, and the first mishap occurred. I had forgotten a tether for my sunglasses (you always forget something), and as I bent down to pick up my pack, down went my twenty year old Suncloud glasses and one of the arms broke off. No sunglasses for two days is a disaster for me, and I hoped it wasn’t a bad omen. In any case, Megan would be happy, since she thinks the glasses make me look too old.
After dealing with my grief, we went down the ramp and made a quick stop at the ranger station for a permit. It was closed and I didn’t see any camping permits, only day hike permits, so I filled out one of those, wrote that we would be camping at Round Valley, and off we went. The sun was out, but it wasn’t hot, and there was no-one else on the trail with us, to start anyway. Seemed like it was going to be a good day. Not ten minutes into the hike, Jack spots water in the creek. That was a big surprise to me, because on my other two trips it was dry as a bone. In any case, it was fun walking over the two logs that pass for a bridge early on, after which the trail goes up a little. We ran into the first few people we were to see right after the bridge, a dad and his teenage son. I asked them where they were headed, they told us they were going to Round Valley to camp, and then up to the top the next day. I wondered if we were going to have crowds after all, since the first people we ran into had the same plan as us, but wasn’t too worried, and off we went. We ended up passing and being passed by those two nearly all the way to Round Valley. About a mile and a half into the hike we passed those two for the last time and were alone for a while. I wondered what was going to happen with them because the dad seemed to be huffing and puffing a bit, and the son didn’t look much happier. I was feeling pretty good because the kids were skipping along and seemed not to notice the effort. We stopped a few times to dip our hats in the creek and ambled along a comfortable pace. The only other people we saw were a group of older folks about a quarter of a mile out of Round Valley. They told us there was another group already at Round Valley headed up the next day, and that the trail was good all the way to the top.
We made it into Round Valley about 2:00, maybe 2:15, and went to the Ranger Station to get a camp site. I remembered from my trip with my oldest that there was a good camp site right up the hill from the station, saw that it wasn’t taken on the site map at the station, and signed up for that one right away. We set down our stuff, and I let the kids go off and play on the rocks and in the creek while I set up camp. As I was setting up camp, the dad and son we had seen on the trail came by our camp, obviously headed for the other site a bit more up the trail. I was glad to see they hadn’t had any troubles on the easiest part of the trip. I figured we would see them in the morning and would ask how they were doing.
Even though it’s a wilderness area, and you aren’t supposed to make any improvements, somebody had set some logs around a flat rock at the campsite. These made a great table and chairs, and I cooked up some Chicken and Noodles and Chicken and Rice, with a little Raspberry Crumble for desert. We had some cocoa (instant coffee for me), played cards, told some stories, and then went to bed about 8:00. We all had cold weather bags, but the weather was beautiful, and we didn’t really need them, it couldn’t have been lower than 50 that night.
We woke up at 6:30 in the morning to another beautiful day. We had oatmeal, power bars and cocoa (more coffee for me) for breakfast, and packed up camp. After we had the sleeping bags and pads, and tent taken down, I let the kids go play while I did the rest of the packing. The boys brought water up from the spigot by the creek near the ranger station and helped pump it, and we were ready to go. The boys each carried a quart of water, and I carried a back pack with lunch, extra water, first aid, etc. I had shown the boys the scouts list of the ten essentials, and made a point of showing it to them as we left to reinforce that it really is something you should bring if your out by yourself.
We had not seen anyone since we got to camp, and I was sure that we were the first ones out on the trail. We left at 8:30, did a little cross country from the campsite, found the trail and headed up to Wellman Divide. We found some snow patches across the trail in spots, but had no real trouble finding the trail. I showed the boys the ducks by the trail, and they thought it was such a great idea, they started setting they’re own. I think by now, you could walk from Round Valley to Wellman Divide stepping on nothing by the ducks they set. It didn’t seem like it did any harm, and they had a good time being trailblazers.
We made W.D. in about an hour and had a little snack and took some pictures. My original plan had been to make sure the kids made it that far, and then assess how they were doing. I was happy to note that they were doing great, and were itching to keep going. My second gear hassle got me when the buckle on my hip belt, I came up with a work around and we left for the summit.
Up to this point we had been by ourselves. We made the traverse along Jean Peak and were at the switch back up to the traverse across San Jacinto. We had a little trouble here because of snow on the trail and were picking our way along towards what we could see was the trail up ahead when we heard voices down the hill in the direction I thought the Tamarak Valley trail lay. We didn’t see anyone though and continued on up the slope of San Jacinto. About half way up the slope I looked down and saw a couple of people working along the bottom of the slope. I gave a little wave and we continued on. Another ten minutes or so and we saw two guys coming up the trail towards us. I told the boys to take a little break so we could let them pass, I could see they were really trucking along. Jack didn’t like this one little bit, and wanted to push on so we could beat them up the hill. I thought discretion was better exercised here and we waited to let them pass. The two guys came up and I asked them if they had come up the Tamarak Valley trail. They said no, “…you wouldn’t believe the way we came up.” Apparently they had lost the trail after the first traverse and had been bushwacking around looking for the trail, and when they saw us, they headed our way, sure we were on the trail. They told me they had come up from Humber Park, and were headed to the top and back down again. They looked to be in good shape, were pretty well equipped, and took off with a friendly wave back. I figured we would see them again either at the top, or on their way down.
After their encouraging words about how close we were, my boys picked up the pace, and we were closing in on the top within the next ten to fifteen minutes. Jack tripped a few times on the trail, and I was concerned that he was either tiring or needed some food and told them that if we didn’t see the top by noon, we were going to sit down and have lunch where ever we were. I didn’t have any need to worry though because right about then we rounded the last corner and we at the gentler slopes beneath the summit. Again we had to pick around for the trail because of snow, but it wasn’t hard to find the top and the hut near the top. My only concern was finding the trail easily on the way down, but that was for later. While the boys were exploring to hut, the two guys that had passed us came back down. I talked them into taking a quick picture of us.
After taking the picture, they warned us to stay left on the way up the boulder field at the top because of snow to the right, and said their final goodbyes (they told us they had to hustle because they wanted to make it back to Humber Park by four). We thanked them and scrambled up to the top for lunch. It was 11:30. We had made it to the top in three hours. I was pretty happy with the boys for their effort and told them so. We enjoyed our lunch at the top, and took a few pictures. I tried the cell phone, but didn’t get any bars, even on the highest rock, looking straight down at Palm Springs – maybe I don’t have a fancy enough phone. Oh well, maybe the people who complain about that sort of thing are right, and I was better off not talking to anybody.
After lunch and some playing around the top by the boys, we once again packed up and headed out. We still hadn’t seen anybody and it was about 12:00. At the bottom of the boulder field, we did have some trouble finding the trail back down, picking around the snow, but we picked it up again and were on our way. As we went down, I was sure we would see more people and we didn’t have long to wait. Once on the slope again and almost at the traverse across San Jacinto, we saw what I took to be two dads and their teenage sons. From their to Wellman Divide we ran into a small number of groups on their ways up, all were very nice. Jack had a good time giving them advice about the trail, what to look out for, and the best way up the boulders at the top. We stopped at W.D. had a quick snack, and took off again (I broke another buckle on my pack here, maybe I need to buy a new one, storage in the attic seems to be getting the best of it). We made it back to Round Valley by 2:00 or 2:30. We weren’t keeping to close a track of time, just enjoying the trail and the weather. We picked up the gear and packs we had stashed and made a determined dash for the tram station. Before we left, we ran into a nice young couple at the Ranger Station just showing up to get a camp site. I volunteered that ours was pretty good and told them where it was. They were nice about it, though and took our picture before we left. We made the last mile in about an hour, going along at a pretty good clip. We saw more and more people as we went, and got fewer questions about the trail and more questions about whether the boys had actually camped up there, which seemed strange. We ran into on group of scouts adjusting their gear and stopped to chat a bit. They told us they would look our names up on the summit register and it occurred to me that I had forgotten all about it. I told them so, and they volunteered to sign it for us, which I thought was super. I hope they did, and maybe one day I’ll see it myself.
At the tram station, I told the boys about the ramp at the end, and that after the hike they had done, they shouldn’t let it get them down. Ellis took up the challenge nicely, set his stopwatch at the bottom and ran up! Jack and I set a pretty good pace up and were there in a flash. We got our tickets, and were on the 4:00 tram ride down.
All in all a very enjoyable trip. Another stop in Beaumont for Starbucks, and we were in Torrance in time for dinner.