“From desert floor to mountain peak in the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the USA.
— Jeremy Francis
This section of the Cactus to Clouds trail covers the distance between the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Aerial Tramway station along the ridge. This trail is often broken into sections that range from 10 miles at the shortest to 20 miles at the longest. It gains more than 10,000 feet of elevation in under 14 miles making it one of the steepest trails in the world.
This trail is maintained by local trail enthusiasts.
Need to Know
There can be extreme weather changes between the desert floor and the subalpine mountain ridge line. The lower trail has recorded temperatures as high as 110 F while the summit can drop to -10 F in winter. It is recommended you start early in the morning, well before sunrise. 3-5am is a typical start time.
There is no reliable water along the trail.
This route requires commitment. Once past the halfway point, it is more difficult to turn around than to push forward.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tram
will return you to the desert for a nominal fee.
The most popular starting point is the Palm Springs Art Museum, park in the parking garage or on the street. You are likely starting in the dark so have your headlamp, extra batteries, and warm clothing ready to go. Even in the summer, you may need that warm clothing again when you reach the top.
The trail starts around 500 feet of elevation and climbs the eastern side of San Jacinto along a spiderweb of trails going in all directions. You'll likely see others on foot off to your left and right scrambling up the loose rock. Don't worry about picking the right trail here, as long as you are going uphill then you'll meet the main trail again shortly.
Once you are on a trail that actually looks like a trail, your speed will increase. The conditions are dusty with occasional loose rocks. Barrel cactus and Yucca loom out of the darkness towards you, take extra care when stepping over large rocks or pushing through brush. Yucca can pierce through even the stretchiest of yoga pants.
You'll pass lots of overlooks and vista points, one area even has several picnic tables. You may still see the occasional trail heading off to the side but keep to the ridge trail. You'll follow this ridge nearly to the top so if you find yourself in a creek or canyon, you know you are off trail.
Friendly visitors have left stone markers indicating your elevation as you climb. As of November 2015 these markers were pretty inaccurate. You'll pass two metal boxes as you climb, Rescue 1 and Rescue 2. This contain emergency supplies for those caught in a weather or medical emergency. Please don't use these reserves unless you're experiencing an emergency situation.
When your trail turns from west to north, you are nearing the most difficult part. At around 7,000 feet the trail becomes extremely steep and loose in an area called The Traverse. In dry conditions it is challenging but in snow conditions parts of the trail are extremely difficult to follow. By this point you should hear the hum of the Palm Springs aerial tramway in the canyon to the north. If you become disoriented, head towards this sound but beware the drop.
Atop the ridge at 8,200 feet is a broad expanse of fields or blinding snowstorms, depending on what month you choose to undertake the excursion. Head north and follow the signs for the tram building. Inside the large structure is the tram depot, a restaurant, bar, and California State Park visitor center.
Many travelers, me included, end their trip here but others may choose to continue along the trail to the top of Mount San Jacinto in another 2,400 feet of climbing along a well maintained trail. Just follow the signs for the summit and stop by the Ranger station along the way for the most up to date info on the summit conditions. Compared to the rest of the trail, this part is a cakewalk. If you rode the tram up to the station and are only just starting, you may find the elevation affects you.
Flora & Fauna
Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera), Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), Spanish Bayonet (Yucca Whipplei).
Coyote (Canis latrans), Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)
History & Background
Naturalist John Muir wrote of San Jacinto Peak, "The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!"