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Cactus to Clouds: Palm Springs - Mt. San Jacinto

Very Difficult

Trail

14.4 mile 23.3 kilometer point to point
Very Difficult

Elevation

Ascent: 10,444' 3,183 m
Descent: -172' -52 m
High: 10,751' 3,277 m
Low: 479' 146 m

Grade

Avg Grade: 14% (8°)
Max Grade: 109% (47°)

Dogs

Off-leash
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Map Key

From desert floor to mountain peak in the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the USA.

Jeremy Francis

Features Views

Overview

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.

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.

This trail is maintained by local trail enthusiasts.

Description

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!"

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Check-Ins

May 15, 2020
AJ Sing
I did cactus to clouds to cactus (C2C2C). the summit had 3 ft snow banks and I did it all in sandals. not a bad hike. destroyed me psychologically… 46.6mi — 20h 00m
Jan 29, 2020
Tino Henriquez
Dec 2, 2019
Murphy Meisenheimer
Aug 22, 2019
Guy Dar
took the tram and hiked to the summit and back as a one day hike
Jul 3, 2019
Hector Morales
Jun 23, 2019
Harry Schmachtenberger
ow 20.5mi — 11h 58m
May 25, 2019
teresamatrix Brecht
Slushy tram to peak. plus another 6 miles back to tram for total of ~12 hrs (5am-5pm) good weather, with mike. Grand day! 14.5mi — 9h 23m
Apr 7, 2019
Marion Wohlrab
Great hike. Just went to the viewpoint and back. Awesome views over the valley. Bring your own shade and water! 3mi — 2h 00m

Trail Ratings

  4.7 from 36 votes

#1

in Palm Springs

#168

Overall
  4.7 from 36 votes
5 Star
75%
4 Star
22%
3 Star
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Hike Rankings

#1

in Palm Springs

#21

in California

#168

Overall
223 Views Last Month
17,208 Since Dec 4, 2015
Very Difficult

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Photos

Palm Springs under a firey sunrise.
Dec 4, 2015 near Palm Sp…, CA
Sunrise and the Salton Sea down the valley
Dec 4, 2015 near Palm Sp…, CA
amazing view from trail
Feb 12, 2018 near Palm Sp…, CA
The sun sets over the mountain!
Jan 18, 2017 near Idyllwild, CA
Ranger station - Round Valley - January 2016
Mar 9, 2018 near Idyllwild, CA
Between the peak and Round Valley - San Jacinto, August 2011
Mar 9, 2018 near Idyllwild, CA

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