I enjoy hard, long-distance, endurance day-hikes so ever since I first read about this hike I knew I wanted to do it. I had been to San Jacinto peak a couple of years ago using the Tram and the Round Valley trail, but I really wanted to hike it from Palm Springs to conquer the whole mountain. Going from Palm Springs to the peak of San Jacinto (roughly 10,400' of elevation gain) makes it one of the most upward ascents in all of North America. There aren't too many places (not even in Colorado) where you can ascend nearly two vertical miles in elevation in such a short distance (roughly 17.5 miles).
I planned ahead as much as possible for this hike. There's two main windows of opportunity to do this hike in any given year: late Spring and late Fall. On the right days during those two times you will have neither the high temperatures in lower elevations nor snow on the peak. I planned my hike for Memorial Day, May 31, 2004, a little later in the season than I had wished but still doable. Jerry Schad's book, 101 Hikes in Southern California
, has good information about this hike. Basically, the hike is two unequal legs. The first leg is the 12-mile (some say it's only 8 or 10, difficult to know for sure) ascent from Palm Springs (475' elev.) to Long Valley (8500' elev.). The 8000' elevation gain to the Tram Station makes it one of the steepest hikes (without climbing) around. I've seen and heard this trail called by various names such as the Skyline Trail, the Sunrise Trail, the Chino Canyon Trail, or the Outlaw Trail. The second leg of the hike is the 5.5-mile trail from the Tram Station in Long Valley to the peak of San Jacinto. This trail goes through Round Valley and only has an elevation gain of about 2300'. It is a much more gradual ascent than the first leg and only half as long.
Before doing the hike, I drove up to the lower Tram Station and parked my bike for the ride home. Then I drove to the end of Ramon Road six miles away to the trailhead. By 6:50am, I had everything packed up and ready to hit the trail. The first mile is rather frustrating because there seems to be several trails wandering around on the lower hills. The trail goes up and down and sometimes it's difficult to determine if you are on the right trail. Schad's book mentioned about coming to the top of a "rocky saddle" (is there any other kind of saddle in this area?) where the trails converge and the famous warning signs are posted. But at first it was difficult to determine which was the saddle. I passed a couple of guys hiking these lower trails and they pointed me to the saddle. I would recommend before attempting this hike to spend a day finding this saddle before you attempt the whole hike. I've read of people wasting as much as an hour trying to find the right trail. You don't want to waste that much time at the start of such a long hike. Fortunately for me, the advice of those two hikers minimized my unnecessary wanderings. I did notice afterward that the white dots spray-painted on rocks along this lower section were actually markers for this trail, but I had not read about those ahead of time and didn't know what trail those white dots were marking at the time.
I found the warning signs which anyone who describes this trail has to mention. One is an unofficial sign painted on the rock and nearby is an official sign with very detailed warnings about heat, water, and other matters. Those warnings should be taken very, very seriously. Once I found these warning signs, the trail was very easy to follow all the way to Long Valley. In Schad's book, he talks about a place about 5 miles in the hike where the trail is difficult to find and you must make sure you stay on the trail. After the warning signs, I never came across a place where I couldn't find the trail. There were a few places where hikers had cut switchbacks (which should not be done) making a short alternate trail of a few yards or so, but it was always easy to spot the main trail. Since there are no other trails after the warning signs, you never had to wonder which trail to take since there are no trail crossings.
It was hard to gauge how far along I was on the trail since there are absolutely no signs along the way. I consulted my altimeter along the way to see how I was progressing, but since it's a barometric altimeter and not a GPS, it doesn't have precision accuracy. Nevertheless, I could see the progress I was making. I was surprised to find that this trail actually has quite a few downhill sections. I had anticipated it all being uphill. But since the trail basically follows ridge lines, it often descends on the back side of saddles.
The temperatures were getting hot fast so I kept a good steady pace to get to higher ground and cooler temps as soon as possible. By 9am while I was still pretty low on the mountain, the temperature was 93. But about an hour or so later, my thermometer was reading only 84 since I was up a couple thousand feet further. About an hour or so later, my thermometer was reading 77. Basically, from that point for the rest of the day, my thermometer was reading in the 70s (and even the 60s in the trees near the peak). I found out afterward that the temperature in Palm Springs had reached a high of 105, which is about 6 degrees above normal. So much for attempting this hike when the weather was cooler.
I had made preparations for the heat. I had lathered my face, arms, and legs in 45-SPF sunscreen. I brought 5 quarts of liquids. I had 3 quarts of water in my camelbak which I sipped about every 5 minutes so my body would absorb the water properly. Every 15 minutes, I would drink some of the 2 quarts of gatorade I brought to make sure that my sodium levels didn't drop dangerously low from too much sweat output and too much water intake. I was sweating profusely. There wasn't a dry stitch of fabric on my body even though I was wearing cool max shorts and shirt and a straw hat to block direct sunlight. By the time I cooled off on the top of the peak, I had white salt stains all over my clothes and backpack. Five quarts of liquid was just barely enough for this first 12-mile leg of the hike. I ran out of liquids while in the shade of the trees about a mile from Long Valley, but I knew that I could refill there so it didn't worry me. I was glad to know that I had used up all my liquids in a good gradual manner. That's the reason I brought it all. When using a camelbak, sometimes it's hard to know how much water has been drunk and how much remains.
If I do this hike again, I would try to start earlier. I began hiking at 6:50am which was about an hour after sunrise. But I didn't have much of a chance for an earlier start. I had been camping with my family in Idyllwild. I got up at 4:15 when two packs of coyotes starting howling. I began driving at 4:45am to get to the trailhead. But the winding mountain highways (74 and 243) are a slow drive. I also took some extra time to drop off my bike at the lower Tram Station. Next time, I would spend the night in Palm Springs and either not use the bike for the return to the car or park it the day before.
About half way up the mountain, I met a couple from Palm Desert who started on the trail at 5am. They were doing well on the hike, but they were only going to the Tram Station. They had hiked it before so they provided some helpful advice. About a mile from Long Valley where the trail is extremely steep but shaded by trees, I met three more hikers. They had started at 3am. Even though they seemed to be making slow progress (granted it was the steepest part of the trail), they were progressing nonetheless and planned to make the peak, not just the Tram Station. They had hiked the trail before. They were in good spirits and seemed determined to do it. I was thrilled to meet them again when I was coming down from the peak. I would imagine they reached the peak about 4pm. I was so glad to see them. Their thirteen hours of uphill hiking was about to reach fulfillment.
I did not see much wildlife along the way, other than the vultures circling overhead (just kidding). I saw innumerable lizards. I never saw any snakes even though I was looking for them, especially in the ravines where there actually was some green vegetation. I did come across a covey of quail scurrying up the trail ahead of me.
I did do this hike solo, which is something that I don't recommend. It would be dangerous to get caught on this trail alone. I knew my long-distance abilities since I regularly run marathons (even the Pikes Peak Marathon) and have done many other long-distance day hikes (such as the 26-mile "Nine Peaks" across San Gorgonio and San Bernardino and the 22-mile Mt Whitney trail in a day). I also knew I could at least make it to the Tram Station. If my body was not doing well, I was more than content to stop at that point and call it a day. I'm not into risking my life just for the sake of bagging a peak. I also knew that since it was a holiday (Memorial Day), I would likely see a few others on the trail as I did.
Even though the trail gains a huge amount of elevation, I did not find the trail as steep as I had expected. Maybe I had just psyched myself out about the steepness of this trail ahead of time. I had hiked the Bear Canyon trail to the top of Mt. Baldy (San Antonio) the week before. I thought that trail had a steeper grade than most of this trail ascending from Palm Springs. But maybe the Bear Canyon trail seemed steeper because the altitude was higher. Please don't misunderstand though. This trail is steep. The steepest part is the last couple of miles right below Long Valley. The boulders are so big that there are few places for the trail to go other than straight uphill. The trail is tricky to navigate at this point because the ground is worn away and the footholds are few and far between. Schad's book correctly warns that if this part of the trail is snow-covered or ice-packed don't attempt it without crampons and an ice ax. I can't imagine ascending at this point with any amount of snow or ice on the trail. Fortunately, this steep part of the trail is mostly shaded by large pine trees and the temperatures are cooler at this higher altitude (although this also makes the air thinner). This at least makes this extremely steep part of the trail more attainable than if it was on the hot, rocky, barren sections below.
The great reward of this steep section was coming up and over the lip into Long Valley. It was such a relief to come down to the level ground of this beautiful valley. Since I've hiked the Round Valley trail from the Tram Station to the peak before, I knew that the hike from here to the peak would be relatively easy compared to what I had just hiked. Twelve miles down, five and a half more to the peak. I was amazed that I was able to get there at twelve o'clock noon on the dot. I had anticipated taking about six or seven hours to get to this point, but I had made it in just a touch over five hours. Until I got to this point, it was very difficult to assess how far along the trail I was. There are no markers, signs, or any other indication of how far I had traveled. You can't even see the upper Tram Station most of the time (and you never see the lower one) since the trail goes up from a different direction on a different ridge. Occasionally, you can see the wires of the Tram in the distance but it doesn't help much on assessing how much distance still remains.
I didn't need to hike up to the Tram Station itself, which was nice since that "walkway" is a steep hike itself since the Tram Station is perched on the lip of the valley. I did hike over to the Ranger Station below to fill out the necessary hiking permit and to fill up on water. Registering with the ranger is important. They keep track of who is still on the trail in case someone needs rescuing. I filled out the permit and kept the carbon (which you are supposed to do) until you turn it in after returning. Sure enough, about an hour later, about half way up the trail, a ranger checked my permit to make sure I had registered. Another guy on the peak told me that rangers at two different points checked his permit. They were probably being extra careful since more people would be attempting the peak on a holiday.
It was nice to refill my camelbak and gatorade bottles with good, cold, potable water. Originally, I had planned to eat lunch at this point, but I wasn't terribly hungry. I prefer to snack and munch while I'm hiking rather than stopping to eat a meal. I find that I don't get cramps this way and also my energy levels maintain a more steady level. All the way up, I had been munching on fig newtons, jelly beans, teddy grahams, and bananas. Good carbs.
Since I didn't need to stop at Long Valley other than to get water, I was back on the trail at 12:10pm. The five and a half mile trail through Round Valley to the peak is a very nice trail. It is clearly marked. It has a nice steady uphill grade that is not too steep. After hiking the steep trail to Long Valley, this trail through Round Valley to the peak seemed easy. It only gains about 2300' over those 5.5 miles. Sure enough, I was cruising along at a good pace and went past Round Valley, Wellman's Divide, and finally the stone house near the summit in no time at all. I was on top at 2:05pm. I really didn't expect to make this leg of the trip in under two hours, but I did. I thought my body would be too tired to keep such a pace. But I was feeling strong, the weather was good, and there was no reason to slow down. I was amazed to be on top in a total time of only seven hours and fifteen minutes.
Standing on the summit I could see Palm Springs about 15 miles away and nearly 11,000 feet below. It was surreal to know that I had hiked all that distance. But it was so fulfilling. I knew that I had completely conquered this mountain. It was fun to look across and see Mt. Baldy and know that I had been there just nine days earlier. I could also look across and see the San Bernardino mountains and remember how I hiked those nine peaks last summer. I could also look in the distance and see Lake Perris and know that Riverside, my house, my wife and my children were right over there (through the smog). To the south, I could see the area around Idyllwild where I had just been camping and I could easily spot Hwy 243 winding through the lower mountains that I had driven that morning.
The summit was not as crowded as I expected for a holiday. I stayed there for an hour and a half to take a nap and eat some lunch. The weather was ideal. I met two guys who had hiked up from the Tram Station. We ended up hiking back down the trail together.
As I was leaving the summit, I had to stop and make a snowball to take home to my kids. This is something I always try to do while hiking. It's a simple way to let them know that I was thinking about them while on top of the mountain. I made a big one to account for melting and put it in a plastic bag and stashed it in my pack. It's amazing how a snowball will stay pretty much intact for the trip home. Now there's two snowballs in our freezer, one from Baldy last week and one from San Jacinto.
The trail descending back to the Tram Station is a nice steady downhill grade that doesn't pound the feet or quads. Last week, after hiking back down Bear Canyon on Baldy my quads were sore for a couple of days because of the steep descent. I haven't experienced that coming down from San Jacinto because it is more gentle. We made quick time back to the Tram Station. Of course, I knew one of the steeper climbs of the Round Valley trail is the sidewalk ascending up to the Tram Station itself (no kidding). But my legs and body responded quite well and I was able to finish the hike off strong, which I always like to do. This was a good culmination to this 23-mile hike.
Inside I bought a $9 one-way trip down the Tram. This isn't "cheating" on this hike. It's not recommended to hike down from the Tram Station to Palm Springs. The trail, especially the two miles below Long Valley, is so steep that it is extremely dangerous to hike down. On the Tram ride home, I was basking in the glow of my accomplishment. I'm afraid that the others in the Tram car were noticing a different kind of aura, one that only the nose can detect. My apologies to all who paid their good money to ride this wonderful Tram and then they get herded into a car with a sweaty backpacker who has hiked all day. Oh well.
It was amazing to feel the temperatures rise as we descended to the lower Tram Station. At 6:00pm, the thermometer at this lower station read 92 degrees and this is at 2600', which is over 2000' above Palm Springs. I quickly found my bike where I had parked and began the descent back to my car. The temperature was hot but the wind from descending without having to pedal made it bearable. I had to stop twice to make sure my bike brakes were not overheating on this steep 3-mile descent down Tramway Drive. The 3-mile bike ride down Palm Canyon Drive to my van was slightly downhill which was an unexpected blessing. I found my van just where I had left it eleven hours earlier. It was nice that the last couple of hours, it had sat in the shade of the mountain because otherwise it would have been unbearably hot. It was so hot in Palm Springs that I burned my hands trying to use a pay phone to call my wife that all had gone well and that I was on my way home.
I hope you find this trip report informative and helpful. It was a great, great hike that I'm glad I have done. I had looked forward to doing this hike for quite some time. I must admit, I don't think it's a hike that I will soon repeat. The lower miles are extremely hot, dry, and barren. I personally think the peak of San Jacinto is one of the nicest peaks in all of Southern California, but I think I will go up there using other routes in the future. It is fulfilling to know, however, that I've truly conquered this entire mountain.