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Guidebook Getaway: Like Tough Trails? Few Are Tougher Than SoCal's Cactus to Clouds

Enjoy going to extremes? Then add this trail to your hiking to-do list: Southern California’s Cactus to Clouds route.

How extreme is it?

No other trail in the Lower 48 is believed to offer more elevation gain. Hikers on the Cactus to Clouds route, known as C2C by its broad fan base, climb roughly 10,200 feet over 14 miles, from a low-desert trailhead in Palm Springs (around 520 feet) to the airy summit of Mount San Jacinto (10,843 feet).

route-map-by-curt

Map courtesy of Shyamal Ramachandran of Shyamal.com.

Backpacker magazine ranked it among the country’s 10 toughest day hikes. Author/ace hiker Andrew Skurka also once listed it among his favorite hikes. Reaching the summit is not the end of it. You’ll need to retrace your final 6 miles and descend to the high point of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, known as Mountain Station (8,516 feet), for a cable car ride down to the desert floor. Hike total: 20 miles.

You’ll need to start hiking before dawn. Fall is the best season to hike C2C due to milder temperatures in the desert and fewer chances of hitting snow up high. Speedy hikers likely need around 6 or 7 hours to go from trailhead to summit and maybe another 2 to return to the tramway station. Most folks will need 10-13 hours to cover the 20 miles, so an autumn hiking game plan requires a pre-sunrise start.

sunrise-on-skyline-eric1234

Sunrise view from the Skyline Trail courtesy of eric1234, a member of the Mt. San Jacinto Outdoor Recreation message board.

Clearly, today’s Guidebook Getaway is not for the timid or anyone lacking good physical conditioning. Cactus to Clouds actually combines 2 hikes, both described in 101 Hikes in Southern California by Jerry Schad:

1. Skyline Trail: 8 almost entirely uphill miles (others claim it's 11 miles) from the city of Palm Springs to Long Valley (8,415 feet). The valley offers the first extended stretch of flat terrain since the desert. This one-way hike is a serious day trip by itself and many folks call it a day at this point, simply catching a ride down via the tram.

Get the free Skyline Trail description.

2. San Jacinto Peak Trail: 12 miles out and back from Long Valley, a more moderate gain of about 2,600 feet to the summit. The bigger challenge here: higher elevation.

Get the free San Jacinto Peak Trail description.

Or, get the complete book: 101 Hikes in Southern California.

It’s more common for people to hike one trail or the other. Combining the 2 is, for most hikers, a once-in-a-blue-moon test of stamina and will. I decided to double-dip both trails in late October and learned the following:

C2C is tough: I was part of a trio of hikers, and despite being in good shape and known as a nonstop hiking machine, on this day I was the caboose in our 3-man conga line (involving fellow blogger Steve T., Curt Cragg from REI Santa Barbara and me.)

dawn-over-wind-farms

Sunrise view from Skyline Trail above a wind farm down below. (T.D. Wood photo)

Temperature was not a problem. It was mild when we started at 4:55 a.m., pleasant as we ascended the lower slopes on a cloudless morning, faintly cool but comfortable at the summit.

Yet I struggled above 9,000 feet above Long Valley, a reaction to thinner air I’ve experienced on past trips, particularly when lots of elevation is gained abruptly.

Your performance on this route may vary, but here’s my takeaway: Aim for a quick pace, but don’t be surprised if the going is slower than you’d prefer.

Start a C2C attempt really early—not only to beat the desert heat (important) but also to ensure you’ll have ample time to 1) compensate for involuntary slowdowns and 2) soak in summit views.

Logistics: 2 vehicles are vital: Only the truly heroic would ever attempt to hike down the Skyline Trail after summiting San Jacinto Peak, though apparently some regulars do. For the rest of us, logic dictates a knee-preserving ride down the tram. Besides, the tram offers some splendid views along its staggeringly steep, deep route.

Realize that the 2 starting points for a C2C hike are 7-plus miles from the base of the tramway, aka Valley Station (2,643 feet). You’ll need to leave one car here (or near here) and transport yourself to one of the trailheads that lead to the Skyline Trail.

Early risers, take note: The road to the tram’s Valley Station remains blocked by a locked gate until at least 5 a.m. each day, a tram spokeswoman told me. Steve and I spotted chat room messages that reported on some days the gate may not swing open until 6:30 a.m.

We left one vehicle at the visitor center at the bottom of Tramway Road, then shuttled ourselves to Schad’s preferred trailhead, at the west end of W. Ramon Rd. Many locals, I’m told, prefer a trail that leads from the parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum. The 2 trails intersect about a mile up and merge into what is known as the Skyline Trail. 

Skyline Trail: Departing from the Ramon trailhead in the dark, we somehow quickly lost track of the official tread. So we scrambled up rocks while dodging cacti until we reencountered the trail. (Whew.) We had no trouble following the trail thereafter.

tram-sideview

Tramway towers come into view along the upper Skyline Trail. (T.D. Wood photo)

In about a mile hikers reach a junction with what locals call the Museum Trail. We had been hiking a route known as the North Lykken Trail. We passed some picnic tables and were now on the Skyline Trail.

Best moment: Watching the sun rise and gradually illuminate the landscape. Close second: Observing changes in plant life while ascending. Among my favorite spots along the route was a place where a mature yucca plant stood near a young ponderosa pine.

Water: I carried nearly 2 gallons (a gallon weighs about 8.3 pounds). That was more than I needed on a day where I estimate my max temperature was in the upper 70s. Every hiker has different needs, and each day is different, so base your water load on your own experience. A gallon per person is a minimum.

The route is dry all the way to Long Valley. There water can be obtained from restrooms at the Long Valley Ranger Station, and the restrooms are accessible 24/7 year-round. Water can also be found at the tram’s Mountain Station when it's open, but getting there requires a steep, quarter-mile trudge up a concrete sidewalk—an easy walk if you’re fresh; not so inviting if you’ve just finished clomping up Skyline.

Hazards: Along the way I spotted water bottles that Skyline regulars leave in random spots (see Fans section below), a water bucket and 2 emergency phone boxes. (Photo to the left: I talked weary Steve out of using one to call in a chopper.)

Bart Grant is the supervising ranger of Mount San Jacinto State Park, which has jurisdiction over the land just below Long Valley and San Jacinto Peak. Familiar problems, he says, are people running out of energy or water around the 5,000-foot level—too high to turn back, but still with a long stretch to reach the ranger station.

It gets even more complicated if early-autumn snow has fallen and made the route tough to locate. “Most rescues have to do with people being unprepared for the challenges the Skyline Trail presents,” Grant said. “Usually they’re due to conditioning or environmental factors.” Fatalities, he says, have occurred on the route, many due to heat stroke. People have also been injured when attempting the route in winter when snow and ice clog the route.

upper-slope-view

Plant life above 8,000 feet presents an entirely new world. (T.D. Wood photo)

Lesson: Do not approach the Skyline Trail as a casual jaunt. It’s a serious challenge that requires a well-conditioned hiker’s best efforts.

Fans: The Skyline Trail has garnered a dedicated, often zealous, even protective fan base, folks who know every kink in the trail by name, from Flat Rock to Coffman's Crag to Grubbs Notch (which is where Skyliners finally reach flat ground in Long Valley around 8,400 feet).

I interacted with Skyline devotees on well-organized forum, the Mt. San Jacinto Outdoor Recreation message board. It’s a friendly group, and many act as self-appointed volunteer stewards of the route.

They reluctantly concede the word is pretty much out about their trail and lament that nonregulars and one-time visitors too often leave trash, disassemble trail markers and veer off on rouge shortcuts that hasten erosion.

summit

The summit, and turnaround point. (T.D. Wood photo)

To anyone considering hiking C2C: Any route that offers a challenge grande, from Half Dome to Whitney, will attract a crowd, and inevitably a few indifferent or oblivious wingnuts find their way into the mix. Don’t be one of those people. Be prepared, be informed, be tidy, be nice and practice Leave No Trace principles. Please.

A few eye-poppers I learned:

  • A group of regulars hikes the Skyline route to the upper tram station once per week, occasionally twice.
  • One day each fall for the past 3 years, usually just before the switch from daylight savings time back to standard time, 100 or more hikers have attempted to hike either the Skyline Trail or the entire C2C en masse. The photo below shows a string of headlamp-generated light stretched out along the lower Skyline during this year’s predawn ascent. Thanks to eric1234, a regular on the Mt. San Jacinto Outdoor Recreation message board, for permission to display a couple of his photos.
headlamp-trail-c2c-eric1234

Light from headlamps from a crowd of hikers illuminates the trail. (eric1234 photo)

  • An energetic fellow named Cy Kaicener, 75, has hiked the Skyline Trail a few hundred times and dedicates much of a personal website to the tales of the trail.
  • One of Cy’s hiking companions, Doreen (aka DancesWithTheMountains), is believed to have made the most Skyline treks, 272 and counting.
  • In 2009, a fellow named Jeff states he completed a desert-to-summit-to-desert round trip—that would be C2C2C—in 10 hours 33 minutes. Mama.

Just one trip up Skyline or C2C, of course, is a big challenge for any hiker. If considering an attempt at this time of year it’s wise to call the state park (951-659-2607) and inquire about conditions in the upper elevations. You can also view current conditions via the tramway's Mountain Station cam.

Be careful, be thoughtful and be safe.

Posted on at 10:45 AM

Tagged: Cactus to Clouds trail, Guidebook Getaways, Hiking and Mount San Jacinto Peak

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maxhood

amazing trip and shots.

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