I’m always up for adventure and love to explore just get in the car and drive to see magnificent Mountain trail and go! In every city in every Country I’ve lived this has been something that makes me happy! So when I came across this hike called “Cactus to the Clouds” I become obsessed with planning reading researching and then doing!
“The Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak has the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States. Also known as the Skyline Trail, it climbs 8,000 feet from the desert to Long Valley, then joins with the main trail to gain another 2,600 feet to the summit. The Cactus to Clouds hike is long. You start on the desert floor and climb to 10,804 feet. You gain over 8,000 feet in the first 12 miles and much of this is hiking in dry arid desert conditions. This trail is nearly always completed by returning from the peak to the upper station of the Aerial Tramway and taking it back into Palm Springs. There is a fee for using the Tram $13 one way or your Tram Pass, The Tram Station has Wifi which its always that great making it hard to order your Uber, so ask the ticket attendant to call for you and the Uber will be waiting the you get off the lower Tram Station and then its a short ride back to the Museum and the parking structure . This is a very extreme hike and people have died or been injured while hiking here. Do your research plan accordingly.”
Here’s how my adventure went down my very first time hiking “Cactus To the Clouds” on October 21st 2017. I rented a car through “Costco Travel” picked it up at one of their locations as long as its not a Holiday and you book for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, you can get a car through them for $21 bucks plus your gas saving the wear and tear on your own car! So that is what I did and have done every time I travel to do this breathtaking hike.
The Trail starts at 101 N Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA, 92262, USA. You will need to park in the public parking garage across the street because it’s open all night and is free and best of all you wont get ticketed or towed out of the museum parking lot. Once you park you car look straight out the entrance you see the museum and if you look to the back of the museum parking lot you’ll see the Palm Springs Art Museum Trailhead (470 ft) and the steps leading you to one of the most amazing spirited mystical intensely physical hikes you’ll every do! Your starting point walking through the Museum parking lot level is 434 feet above sea level, from their you will climb the trail to the top of Mt San Jacinto which is 10, 834 feet above sea level meaning you will literally climb through the dessert to the Tram Station to the top of San Jacinto and you will be climbing 10,400 feet straight in one shot!, To further explain exactly what means physically for you athletic minded types. When you climb Mt Whitney you are actually climbing (starting point) from 8360 elevation to 14,505 which is a climb of 6,145 feet 4000 under “Cactus to the Clouds” the one main difference is that Mt Whitney starts in high altitude during your climb .
I planned the time it would take me to drive from Burbank to Palm Springs and I figured if I got their by 3.30am their would be action in the parking structure and I could tag along or go behind people doing the same hike, I actually had no idea how the trail was really marked I had read it wasn’t very clear . As I pulled up to the parking lot their wasn’t much going on, so I parked and waited then I saw a head lamp crossing the cement, I jumped out of my car and asked the guy f I could follow up behind him, jack pot he said yes! Game on and behind me this other guy popped up and asked if he could tag along yeah sure the more the merrier! I was so excited, the beginning steps are pretty straight forward but right away its straight up the trail introduction is well kept you initially cross a cement driveway as theirs 2 houses you’ll pass and then once the parking lot light fades you start to climb up your going on the rocks and their is a very narrow trail its not really marked all that well, other hikers have added white dots to show you the way, truthfully I barely noticed them, so its not really that clear, better to look for foot prints and follow those. During subsequent climbs I have gotten off the trail a multitude of times and I’ve learned keep my eyes forward and up and really pay attention to land marks and look for the twinkling Tram light which looks like a star in the distance and keep climbing up! Just go up, their is almost a left slant to the trail which seems counter intuitive. I did it once every 2 weeks up until April 2017.
Since this trail is located in Palm Springs and goes through the Palm Springs Dessert where the heat gets up over 110 degrees you don’t want to get caught in the dessert parts of the trail midday or mid summer, which means October through June is the time to explore this amazing trail. To be smart you need to start in the dark when it’s coolest and travel through the first trail sections while the middle of the night night heat is lower, still it can be 90 degrees at 3am in the morning so you need to prepare to carry water for the first 13 miles of trail until you hit the Tram station where you can fill up! My first time doing the trail I pulled ahead at a faster pace and left the initial group I met. In the parking structure we had climbed to the Picnic Tables (0.8 miles, 1,340 ft) this is your first marker. For me hiking is about time and speed trying to beat the clock and break my pace, accomplish! Since I hadn’t established a pace it was great I continued to climb and believe me when I tell you its a crazy straight up climb its physically strenuous and mentally tough if not brutal. I was enthusiastic as I climbed at a really good pace I saw some other hikers one younger kid who I later found out was a marine and was using his GPS which was leading him off of the trail. It was easy enough to get back onto the trail all you have to do it be still and look around and if you have to back track your steps do it!, back to a part of the trail that looks familiar. I continued up to Rescue Box 1 (2.6 miles, 2,340 ft). I’d read about it so I knew I was on the trail, at the rescue boxes other hikers would leave energy bars drinks pedilyte and other assorted life saving and some weird items. I love to look in the box and snap a picture to see what people leave for others it’s really rather funny. I also leave a bottle of water for people who might need it every time I go by. The Skyline Trail (which is the part from the Museum to the Tram) has 3 distinctly different parts or textures each has a very different feel to the area the energy differently manifests before your eyes and is absolutely breath taking. When you are in the middle part of the trail it sightly flatter and by that I mean its not at an 80 degree incline while your climbing it feels like some relief because it winds around your still really tired and its physically taxing but mentally it feels like a rest compared to the aggressive up hill.I Love this part of the trail because it allows me to catch my breath and I’m excited about what’s coming up, you’ll pass a maker nicely laid out and you’ll know your on the trail 4,300 ft Rocks (5.1 miles, 4,400 ft). After this if you look off in the distance the climb is deceiving you’ll hit a peak and then you’ll come to this incredible side view that will just take your breath away as you begin to notice the plant life change around you in the beginning you’ll go past every amazing rock formation and cactus that lives in the lower half of the dessert and the beautiful flowers that bloom from them but its very much a dessert landscape as you get past this last marker you’ll see trees that resemble cedar type tree’s red berries and all kinds of different assorted plant life this is also the part of the trail where the weather can sneak up on you and change almost instantaneously!! This is when I love to get out my music and focus, really push myself before we head up through the alpine part of the trail this section is slightly less flat and your definitely aware your going steeply up. Just when my mind is starting to think about French fries and coffee suddenly Rescue Box 2 (7.4 miles, 5,400 ft) comes into your eye line. This box is much like the first Rescue Box, with people leaving things for the hikers who need water food anything really. I try to leave something here as well, you never know how you can help someone so leave anything you don’t need, you might help someone help accomplish what they set out to do or save a life! Mentally for me this next part is usually where I have to have a little pep talk with myself its more like I scream “ Listen Bitch theirs no turning back pull up your big girl pants and MOVEEEEE from rescue box 2 too Flat Rock (8.4 miles, 5,900 ft) seems like it wont end. It’s actually shortish section but your climbing and your getting to the last 2 miles of the Skyline Trail, it just seems like a crazy long part.
I absolutely love Flat Rock mainly because I know I can get to the Tram for sure!! Flat Rock is where you can rest snap some pictures, sometimes I get reception sometimes not and theirs definitely a change in the climate when you get there and the landscape, becames very alpine like and its so beautiful the land speaks, their is a spiritual feel to the view and you can start to feel your accomplishment, basically Flat Rock is a big Rock Face massive prehistoric, I mean huge and you can see where the water in the past cascaded down the sides. This is where I’ve seen the snow and climbed that last past with beautiful pine trees covered in white snow power petals peaking through its absolutely so gorgeous you just can’t believe the beauty as you move through 3 entirely different eco systems in one hike. It’s breathtaking and well worth doing it once to see. You’ll move through the dessert as the sun hits the East facing peaks and lights up the dessert in a glow of golden and scarlet light. For me this is where I begin to feel the altitude which has nothing to do with being physically fit it has to do with your bodies ability to utilize white blood cells and pump oxygen to your lungs brain and body. I m not a big fan of electro lights, I find I actually don’t function as well as I do when I eat a regular peanut butter and jelly sandwich a banana and I carry ginger candy to relieve the nausea I get. Basically Altitude sickness comes in different degrees, from slight to heightened to get to the hospital! Altitude sickness for me makes me move slower, I get a slight headache and feel like you do when your stomach is upset or your drunk. Ha doesn’t sound fun even tough you wont feel like it you need to keep drinking and eat for energy. I usually recover by the time I hit the Tram. Once you head up from Flat Rock its a straight up kick ass incline relentless no stopping just one foot in front of the other its amazing and intense extreme and amazing, obnoxious and life changing your never quite the same when your moving through this part of the trail, its like you can hear the voices of the past the people who occupied the land, a spiritual time warp where everything stops and it’s you and your own voice, will power what are made of ? I go through every emotion during this part of the trail. I’m so tired strangely excited extremely happy, hungry, contemplative, sleepy focused and in a heightened meditative state. One foot in front of the other is the only thing you can do. So you just do!
I’ve climbs this trail from October 2017 through to April 2018, I’ve done it in the snow and heat rain mud its vastly different every single time and just as eye opening and amazing! I’ve also gone completely off trail purposefully and Rock Climbed straight up the front facing 2 story boulders. I have also driven out to Palm Springs and no one but me has been on the trail, will admit that was a face your fears moment that went on for hours, my remedy to scare off wild animals which was what was more of a concern was to play my music loud to make it sound like a group of men hiking – music choice Ozzy ! That always does the trick !! Made it safely don’t know if it was the smartest thing to do but I did it! Accomplished !!
Once you climb this last part of the Trail- Start of Traverse (9.5 miles, 7,400 ft) your next major accomplishment is hitting Grubb’s Notch – entrance to Long Valley (10.5 miles, 8,400 feet) You’ve just completed the Skyline part of the trail!!
you can summit or head down va the tram which is right there so are the bathrooms at the food the bar people restaurant, whatever you use did an extreme hike! Bravo. The next part is where you hit the Long Valley Ranger Station (10.8 miles, 8,400 feet) sign in fill up on water and head for the top of San Jacinto this last par of the trail just under 6 miles to the top is a cake wake compared to what you have pst done although in truth you might feel like its hell because your so exhausted from the Skyline Trail, technically its a pretty easy traverse the trail is clear the signs and the people you’ll pass who rode the tram up to then hike the last 6 miles to the top of San Jacinto. Your hit the Round Valley Campground (12.3 miles, 9,400 feet) Im usually slitty woozy here because matter how and what I do to prepare I still get slight altitude sickness Just deal Im one of those people who deals with it one terry on why sone people get it is if you were or are prone to asthma, which was throughout my childhood. This explains that I don’t let it stop me.!! Nor should you! We you hit the very seanic look out post of Wellman Divide (13.1 miles, 9,700 feet) you are basically with in a thousand feet of the top the part of the trail after this point is a lot of switch backs which find boring, so I have been known to cut straight up to the top the get there and the switch backs are also where the people slow fast water eve coming up and going down cause a slight slow down or traffic jam, yo’ll learn to manuver to avoid this if yo do it a second and third time !! And the after about 400 feet f a rock scramble up these gorgeous majestic soulful rock you will hit the top San Jacinto Peak (16 miles, 10,834 feet)!! Amazing you dd it I did it. This is my favorite peak by far its relatively small as you climb over the massive boulders and the space is limited the views are straight down 10,000 feet you can relax on rock ledges, dangle your feet if your so inclined of which I’m not. Y0ou have to grab your photo with the sig as its the proof you’ll need to post for the 6 pack of peaks of use to show your co workers, its amazing incredible accomplishment to do Cactus to the Clouds!!! Then the last part of the journey is down the almost 6 miles back to the Tram Station (21 miles, 8,400 feet). Since I have done this hike 8 times so far its consistently according to my fit bit about 13 miles Skyline train which is the museum to the tram and another 12 miles approximately up to the peak and back to the tram I get a total closer to 26 miles give or take. So train for that!!! Mentally fro me I break the hike into sections and focus on one at a time. Here’s the reality. Distances are approximate and do change if you end up off trail either by choice or by opp’s mileage charts online change I just logged an approximate.
October – Is the month I choose for my first summit and is a great choice for a first or subsequent climbs. The desert is cool enough to survive in, and there’s probably no snow on the summit. Late September and early November are amazing too.!!! Thanksgiving was one of the most beautiful times I went perfect weather not one other person on the entire trail from the museum to the tram and it was surreal I Ade it back to the SFV in time to celebrate with family! Perfection!!
November to April – Doing Cactus to Clouds in the winter should only be done if are very experienced in winter / ice hiking. After the first snow, the melt/freeze cycle will coat much of the trail in ice. This comes into play when ascending the Traverse, where the gradient can go up to 50%. You will need to know if you need ice axes and crampons / micro-spikes. Or you can do it with your hiking shies or boots. I did it 4 times when snow was on the trail and the light ice from flat rock up and I was okay it was color but ver doable. Winter temperatures on the summit can be -10F. Conditions start getting better in March and April. This is when I I dd my last climb this year 2018 until October that is!
May – Another good window, similar to October. Usually the snows have melted and temperatures are still cool. Even if the summit looks clear of snow, there may still be snow and ice on the shady portions of the hike. Which is. fabulous bonus for the excited hiker wanted to video some snow on the dessert trail.
June to September – The majority of rescues and deaths happen in the summer, when the high’s can be around 110-120F. The park rangers strongly recommend NOT doing your hike during this time. I’m one to push the envelope but not in the dessert heat it crazy extreme and will burn though to the core of your being both physically and mentally just avoid.!
No matter which day you hike alway check the weather report for both Palm Springs and Mt San Jacinto!! It’s update daily!!
The Skyline Trail (the portion of the hike until you get to Long Valley) is not an officially sanctioned trail by any park service. It is recognized as a cross-country route by authorities and public access is allowed. According to the official topographic map, the lower parts of the hike are on the Aqua Caliente Indian Reservation. The Skyline Trail is entirely maintained by local hikers, who love the trail and its incredible energy!
The history of the Skyline Trail is still not fully clear. Ive heard say it was a Cahuilla Indian trail, other people say it was started by the CCC in the 1930s and then abandoned. The modern day Cactus to Clouds hike started in 1991 when members of the Coachella Valley Hiking Club revived the trail and started leading hikes there.