San Jacinto's Skyline Trail
My wife and I moved to Palm Springs the first of this year and one of the first hikes I wanted to do was the legendary, (or infamous) Skyline Trail also referred to as the Cactus to Clouds trail. Another appropriate name would be sand to snow chute trail.
As a North facing trail, the upper sections at an elevation of 8,000 feet will hold snow well into May and this year with the recent February snow (as I write this on the 24th), I expect into June.
From the trailhead at near sea level to the mountain tram station stretches about 11 miles and gains 8,000 feet.
On January 20th, my friend Michael and I started up the Skyline from the trailhead in downtown Palm Springs, specifically at the Art Museum at 7:30 am.
As this was our first attempt at the trail, our intention was not to reach the tram but rather progress up the start of the snow or about 1 pm whichever came first.
However, we did bring along the axes and spikes, "just in case". Besides our cool weather gear, the normal 10 essentials, I carry a lightweight bivy sack, and a SPOT locator. We also took heed to the water requirements, and I carried 4 liters.
Hike up the Skyline
As we began our climb, we quickly gained an outstanding view of downtown Palm Springs which, as we climbed higher turned into an absolutely spectacular view of the Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree, and San Gorgonio.
The landscape changes slowly but dramatically as we passed though 5 climate zones. As the spiel mentions on the tram ride up the mountain, it is like traveling from Mexico to Alaska in less than 15 minutes. Well in our case, quite a bit longer.
To my surprise, we found the trail in very good condition and easy to follow. It appeared to be maintained, however from all accounts, BLM does not want to admit this trail's existence do to the frequent rescues required for under prepared hikers.
We progressed up the trail more rapidly than we expected and with our first sight of the upper tram tower, it was only 11:00 am and feeling really cocky thought we be at the tram station by 1 pm. Shoot, "let's have leisurely lunch at the tram station then zip up to the summit", we each quipped.
As we reached the beginning of the snow level at about 7,000 feet, the decision point was reached. Should be proceed or turn back? Weather conditions were very favorable to continue with the temp in the low 50's. The most important question would be, how was the snow conditions?
We strapped on the crampons and continued up the snow field following a series of recent footsteps and at times the visible trail or trail marks. The snow's upper layer was lightly compressed and soft. The good news, not icy, bad news after about another 1/2 mile was post holing about every tenth step.
Our progress slowed dramatically, but no real concern about reaching the steeper sections late in the afternoon which might turn icy as the sunsets off the mountain face. Weather report called for night time lows at the tram’s mountain station in the low 40’s.
The Snow Chute
Our goal was to continue to follow what we thought were trail marks, cut branches or logs, etc. However as the snow depth increased this proved impossible. One set of foot prints appeared to follow the topographic map profile so we decided to follow them. The footsteps lead up a long snow chute, which I would not like to have ascended if icy even with ice axe, crampons unless I was treating this as a technical face, anchors, rope and my helmet.
Fortunately, the snow was soft so axe and crampons made the ascent easy, straight forward and safe. Actually our trekking poles (without baskets) proved great anchors as they sank deep and solid with each placement.
Progress was OK and as we looked up it was clear this chute would lead us into Long Valley to the East of the tram station. The biggest we had to contend with was post holing on the steep slope. Still at about every tenth step, sinking to my knee.
We reached the end of the snow chute and entered Long Valley at about 3:15 congratulating ourselves on making our first ascent up this challenging hike / climb.
Traversing Long Valley - End of Climb - Michael's First PS Tram Ride
What was surprising was it took us almost another 45 minutes to cover the mainly flat ground of Long Valley, rather snow field to reach the concrete walkway at tram. Why? Post holing mid shin deep almost every step.
Walking up the pathway, we struck up a conversation with a guy about to survey the upper section of Skyline for a client that wanted a guide up the trail. He congratulated us on our ascent and conducted a limited debriefing on the trail conditions.
In explaining our ascent up the snow chute, he thought we might have been off route. However, in checking the track points I found online to the waypoints received from my SPOT locator, it appeared we were fairly close. (This assumes the online source is correct). Only way to know for sure is to SPOT plot the trail myself when in the snow is gone.
After ending the conversation, we entered the tram station at about at about 4:30, the temp was 46 degrees.
While waiting for the tram, we purchased a snack and soft drink. The clerk asked where we had hiked in Long Valley. When we told her up the Skyline we got THE LOOK and "why on earth would you ever do that?".
How do you describe that incredible feeling of personal accomplishment, coupled with tired, a bit sore; remembering the views, wind, cool, warmth of the day. Questioning your decisions, revising your plans based on the conditions. No cheering crowds for us, and frankly don't want them.
When I look at the photos of the many climbs I have done in my life, very few even come close to capturing the magnificent experience of the event.
What did we say to her? We just smiled, said "thank you" and left.
To top of the experience, Michael had never been on the Palm Springs Tramway before so he is one of the few people who can claim their first ride on the tram was the ride down and not up.
Recommendations for the SkylineDo not trifle with this deceiving trail,
it can kill and has do so with experienced climbers. Check out Riverside Mountain Rescue’s website (http://www.rmru.org/missions/missions2000s.htm) and review the number of people they have pulled off this trail.
While not posted at this time on their website, I understand RMRU rescued someone attempting to do this trail in only shorts and a light shirt on February 6th. I was snow backpacking that same weekend just a few miles away in Round Valley and the weather was snowing with the high temperature in the low 30’s and the night time low 15 degrees.
Weather / Trail Conditions
Before you head out check the weather report on the tramway’s weather website http://www.pstramway.com/cams-weather/weather-detail.asp
Also eyeball the upper section of the mountain to the left of tram’s mountain station. The station is visible from the intersection of Hwy 111 and Tramway. If you see snow you will cross snow. So bring your ice axe, crampons (not those funky 4 point instep types) and a helmet. BTW, do you know how to use an ice axe? Have you practiced self arrest? Have you fitted your crampons to your boots recently?
There is no water on the trail! About 2 miles up the trail is a large reminder of this fact painted on a rock.
The 4 liters I carried on this hike in late January, conducted in mild conditions was barely enough to complete the climb. Next time I am going with 6 liters in two bladders one filled with water the other cytomax. In the summer I am to jumping to 8 liters.
This is a long day very strenuous outing and you need to keep the calories flowing into your system. I like the hiking adage “lunch begins when breakfast ends, lunch ends when dinner begins ”.
I estimate I burn between 450 and 750 calories per hour on a hike. While I can’t fully replace all the calories lost, I want to try and minimize it. I prefer a combination of cytomax, bars, trail mix, shot blocks, and a nice sandwich.
Cell Phone /Emergency Beacon / Contact Information
Your cell phone might work but remember to turn it off before starting up the trail. If it is like mine, once the signal becomes marginal it switches to roaming mode and drains the battery. Removing the battery and keeping it and the phone in a zip lock bag is even better.
I started carrying a SPOT GPS beacon about a year ago, but I don’t fully trust it. On my two outings on San Jacinto last week, Feb 18 and 20, I did not receive a single message of the 11 sent on the former (found out their system was down most of the day) on the later only one at the top of the tram of the 7 sent. In fairness, up last week I was receiving 95% of the messages sent, including this climb on the Skyline.
It is still best to let at least one other reliable person know exactly where you are going and when you expect to return.
Temperature differential Palm Springs to the Tram Station.
Remember the top of the tram could be 40 degrees cooler that Palm Springs. Are you prepared for it?
Best of success on your trek on the Skyline, be safe, perhaps I might meet you on the trail!