Hiking Mt. San Jacinto: From the Palm Springs Tram to the Summit

Hike-At-A-Glance


Mount San Jacinto via the Palm Springs Tram to the Summit

Date Hiked: July 2, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: Mount San Jacinto State Park (951) 659-2607
  • Distance: 9.85 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 2,409 feet
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Dirt and rock
  • Difficulty: Strenuous

Mount San Jacinto has been on our “to do” list since we started hiking regularly.  At 10,834 ft, it is the highest peak in the California State Park System, and the 2nd highest in Southern California.  You also get to take a cool scenic gondola/tram up to the trailhead.  One of the reasons we stepped up our mileage and elevation this year (as briefly discussed in our Ice House Canyon post) was specifically so that we could hit this peak this year.  We finally hiked it over 4th of July weekend this year, and it was one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done.

We knew the access point was in Palm Springs, so we wanted to do it early in the year, before it got too hot in the desert.  But after we surprisingly got snowed out of Mount Baden Powell at the end of May, we checked with the rangers at Mount San Jacinto State Park, and they confirmed that the summit was quite snowed in, and likely would be through much of June.  But after they started regularly hitting the century mark in temps in the desert, we checked again mid-June and were told that the trail was open to the summit of Mount San Jacinto!

We booked a condo in Palm Springs (summer is the cheap season out there, for reasons soon to become obvious), and made plans to make the hike over 4th of July weekend.  As the weekend approached, what had originally been a pretty mild summer started to seriously heat up–just in time for our trip to the desert.  In fact, as the weather forecasts began to predict temperatures of 115 in the desert, we began to panic, as we don’t deal with heat well.  I knew it would be cooler at the top of the mountain, but I really didn’t know how much cooler, and wasn’t sure how hot it would be at the trailhead on top of the tram.  Fortunately, the Palm Springs Tram has a live weather update, so we were able to compare the temperature in the valley with the temperature  at the top of the tram, and the difference was huge!  For instance, right now at 7:20pm, the temperature is 103 degrees in Palm Springs, but only 66 at the  top of the tram.  That kind of difference, we could handle, and with our confidence renewed, we headed out to the desert for our hiking adventure.

Purely for fun, we took the scenic “Pines to Palms” Hwy 74 route through Idyllwild to get to the desert, stopping at the excellent Cafe Aroma Bistro along the way for lunch.  We stayed at a very reasonably priced condo literally across the street from the road to the tram, and right down the street from one of our favorite BBQ joints, so we couldn’t have been happier.

Parking lot for the tram shuttle. There are many lots that fill up in the morning, but in the offseason when we visited, it wasn't bad at all.

The shuttle was right there waiting for us.

Shuttle drops you off right at the entrance to the lower tram station.

We hit the tram parking lot about 9am.  It was already getting hot down in the valley, but the shuttle picked us up pretty quickly and drove us the rest of the way up to the tram stop.  The building housing the tram base (elevation 2,643) had a sizeable gift shop and neatly organized ticket counters that looked almost like an airport check-in, where we paid our $23.95 apiece for round trip tickets, and were off on our way to the top!

Looking back at the lower tram station as we head uphill.

The tram itself was a great ride, even aside from the unbelievable time and difficulty it saved us from trying to hike to the top (which probably never would have happened).  The cars themselves rotate on the way up, giving you regular views of the Coachella Valley, the rock face, and the canyon below.  We were saddened that dogs weren’t allowed, but since dogs weren’t allowed in the State Park, either, it didn’t make much difference, so we’d left a sad Holly the Hiking Dog with family for the weekend.

Looking up the canyon from the tram, as we head uphill.

View back downhill and to the Coachella Valley.

View of Palm Springs from the tram.

The ride up was really very cool and worth the price of the ticket.

Coming into the upper tram station.

Sign that greets you as you leave the tram station and head down the sidewalk. Love the labeled mountain peaks on the sign!

At the top of the tram (elevation 8,516), there was another gift shop, a State Park Office and gift shop, and a restaurant and bar, which we planned to hit on the way back.  But we didn’t want to waste a lot of time before the hike, so we headed right out the building and down the winding, descending concrete path to the actual trailhead, about a quarter mile and 200 feet of elevation downhill (is it still “elevation” if it is downhill?  Discuss…).

Busy sidewalk headed downhill towards the trailhead.

Target: Mt San Jacinto (the peak in the middle).

Heading towards the Long Valley Ranger Station from the tram path.

There is a large network of paths at the bottom of the concrete trail, some picnic tables, and the Long Valley Ranger Station, where I highly recommend you stop and talk to the rangers and get your wilderness permit, if you haven’t already.  The rangers are a good source of trail information and weather conditions, and we were especially glad we stopped, because when I told him that we intended to take the Tamarack Valley Trail back down from the summit, as described in the Trails.com write-up we had, he told us that the trail no longer existed!  It was a good reminder that even if you did some research, and are well equipped, and know what you’re doing, it is still a good idea to talk to the local rangers to get the latest updates, warnings, and tips.  I know that when you are sharing the trail with as many people as you encounter here, you don’t always take that sort of thing too seriously, but you should.

Long Valley Ranger Station entrance.

Did you get your permit at the ranger station?

Well marked trail headed away from the ranger station.

Saw several guys carrying their giant flat, rectangular backpacks. Thought it might be canvasses for painting, but turned out to be rock climbing equipment!

Round Valley Loop cut-off. Stay right.

Long Valley Creek flows along the lower stretch of the trail.

The first 3/4 mile or so of the trail past the ranger station is easy enough to follow and relatively flat, going through some enormous boulders and rock fields, mostly in the shade of huge pine trees and within regular sight of a nice creek.  You’ll see a trail sign that gives you the option to take a leftward trail on Round Valley Loop, but having talked to other hikers (and the ranger), I don’t recommend it unless you just really hate out-and-back hikes and demand new scenery on your return trip.  It doesn’t track the creek at all, and requires a bit more elevation and distance before it joins back into the main trail.  So having stayed right, at about the 1 mile mark (from the tram station), you’ll come to another sign that marks the entrance of the wilderness (with a reminder that you should have gotten a permit back at the ranger station) and crosses that creek  on a log bridge, before heading to the next section of trail.

Sign at entrance to wilderness area, just before you cross the creek. You did get that wilderness permit, didn't you?

Crossin' the creek!

This was our favorite stretch of trail, on a hike that was enjoyable from beginning to end.

This is where the trail gets particularly great.  It does start to climb at this point (a climb that stays consistent from here all the way to the top), but not nearly as steeply as our recent hikes up Mount Baldy and Ice House Canyon.  And the climbing is not really very painful at all, as the shady pine tree canopy is nearly intact all the way to Wellman Divide, two miles away, and much of that route is along the burbling creek, with miniature waterfalls and the constant sound of rushing water accompanying you at least through Round Valley Campground, at about the 2 mile mark.

Part of the creek paralleling the trail.

Upper junction of Round Valley Loop Trail. Stay straight.

Cool meadow, with Cornell Peak looming high and pointy above us in the background.

Just before you get to the Round Valley Campground, you will pass the upper end of the Round Valley Loop Trail coming back in (which you wisely avoided earlier).  The campground itself is immediately adjacent to a large meadow, all signed with KEEP OUT sort of postings, due to protected-nature-type rules.  There were still lots of nice, shaded, flat areas to pitch your tent, but the only other facilities in the campground were a couple of pit toilets (with a line!) and an occasionally staffed State Parks Office.  The only water in the camp was a faucet hooked up to a spring, with a “purify first” warning, so I wouldn’t use it for much more than washing camp dishes.  We ran into a couple of folks who had stayed there the night before (with their kids!) who thought the campground was great, and had seen a bunch of deer in the meadow at daybreak.  Despite Colleen’s normal squeamishness about improper and unsanitary facilities, she actually suggested she might consider staying in a backcountry campground like that.

Sign at the entrance to the Round Valley Campground.

Spring fed faucet in campground. "Purify before drinking".

Occasionally staffed ranger station at the campground.

Heading uphill from the campground. Shade gets spottier, and creek soon disappears from the trailside.

But for now, we soldiered on for higher and farther ground.  The next mile continued amongst the pines, but the canopy was definitely spottier, and the creek diminished significantly, and soon wandered away from the trailside.  The scenery continued to be great, though it seemed like the number of hikers we encountered seemed to increase.  And as we came to Hellman Divide, that sense of more people on the trail was confirmed!

Almost even with Cornell Peak. Eventually, you'll look down on it from above.

First view south from Wellman Divide.

Another southern view from Wellman Divide.

Hellman Divide was actually way better than I had anticipated, despite the number of people there sharing the flat rocks and awesome scenery.  Apparently this is a regular turnaround spot for those not quite motivated enough to go all the way to the summit, and I can understand why.  At about 3 miles and 1,300 ft in elevation gain, it is a pretty serious hike and the views were great.  There were several large rocks and trees to lay on or sit under and enjoy the views of Anza-Borrego, Idyllwild, and Southwest Riverside County from this vantage point.  Without too much effort, we found a private rock to sit on and tree to enjoy the shade of, and had our lunch.  Even if you don’t turn around from here, it makes a great resting spot for snacks and/or lunch before heading on towards the summit.

More well-marked trail signs at Wellman Divide.

View west: Diamond Valley Reservoir and Riverside County from Wellman Divide.

A guy chilling at the divide. Lots of good sitting rocks here...

Colleen kickin' it at the Divide. And trying to get a signal on her IPhone, of course. After all, if you didn't check in, it didn't happen, right?

Zoomed in view of the tram station from the trail just past Wellman Divide.

The first mile from here (mile 3-4 from the tram) continues to be decently-shaded and has more great boulders and scenery.  After that, the trail seems to get a bit steeper (though the gps elevation profile doesn’t confirm it), and leaves some of the shady canopy behind (confirmed by me).

Un-zoomed in view of the tram station there near the middle of the picture.

Cornell Peak again. Looking less imposing from here.

 

Horizontally stacked boulder slabs on the trail.

Vertically stacked boulder slabs along the trail.

That's the edge of the peak we're heading for.

On the northern stretch of the long switchback.

At this point it begins what is really a single long switchback that lasts almost a mile, first north, and then south.  It is almost entirely exposed, and though it has some awesome views of the Round Valley Campground Meadow and the tram station, it starts to feel pretty steep and difficult here, though that is probably mostly just a factor of the fatigue at this point.  The trail has definitely narrowed to true single track status by now, though, and the hordes of hikers coming back down hill all required one party or the other to step aside in a wide spot to let the other pass.

The long southern stretch of switchback, right before the top.

More signage--sitting in a snow pile!

Just shy of the 5 mile mark (from the tram), you’ll hit the end of the southward switchback and come to another signed intersection (in the snow, on this particular day) that points you towards Idyllwild, Banning, the tram or the peak!

Final stretch of path towards the peak.

Approaching the stone shelter, which we visited on the way back down.

Within a quarter mile of here, you’ll come to the stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s, to provide a refuge for hikers caught in storms near the summit.  The shelter has a number of bunk beds (and a number of napping hikers, on this day), a bookshelf, and a peak journal, which we didn’t actually visit until we were heading back down hill.

The path to the true summit is non-existent. Just choose the most conveniently located boulders to climb to the top.

The last tenth of a mile or so is a total choose-your-own-adventure scramble, as the trail disappears entirely and everyone finds the most convenient or simplest looking boulder path to the summit.  After having visited the football field-sized summit at Mt. Baldy and the group camp-sized summit at Timber Mtn, this was quite a bit different.  It really consisted of a series of large boulders, with people lounging on almost all of them.  There were a lot of people on very little real estate, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as we heard it could be, with lines waiting for a picture next to the summit sign.  The very highest boulder on the peak was pointy and unoccupied, largely because you couldn’t actually sit on it, but I managed to wedge myself against it long enough to take a 360 degree video of the peak views, which really were pretty awesome on this particular day.  We also got buzzed by a glider, which blazed by us faster and louder than we ever thought a glider could go, but even though it made several passes around the summit, we never quite caught a picture of it.

More bouldering on the way to the top.

Posing near the top, on one of the only places wide enough for two people to stand together, with a view to the north in the background.

Posing at the summit sign!

View to the west into Riverside County from the peak. You can see some of the other hikers lounging about here.

View to the north towards Mount San Gorgonio (the only Southern California peak higher than Mt San Jacinto).

Eastern view from the summit.

We didn’t linger too long at the top, as it was more crowded than we’d prefer, but it didn’t detract from our satisfaction of having made it to the peak.  We then boulder hopped and slid our way back down to the stone hut, where we signed the peak log and headed on down the trail.

Scrambling back downhill from the summit.

Close-up of the stone shelter.

Inside the stone shelter.

Signed the peak log--proof we were there!

By now (3:20pm), there were a lot fewer people headed uphill, so our hike down involved a lot fewer pullouts to let folks pass.  We did enjoy the views of the valley below us again on the exposed switchback, most interestingly a military helicopter that went around the valley a couple of times before settling in the allegedly highly sensitive meadow habitat at Round Valley Campground.  We found out later from the rangers (yeah rangers!) that it was actually a British Royal Marine helicopter involved in joint US/British exercises, who was apparently violating a host of state and federal laws by landing there, and by all rights, probably should have been shot down by our missile defense system or something, but managed to somehow escape the environmentalist wrath of Obama and flew off to destroy other meadows on another day.  They did destroy a few tents in the campground with their rotor wash, and the helicopter commander/pilot/chief apparently got off the helicopter long enough to give his business card to the campers to allow them to submit reimbursement claims.

Pictured: British Royal Marine helicopter, preparing to land on protected meadow. Not pictured: USFS Rangers with stinger missiles.

This is the meadow the helicopter landed on, next to Round Valley Campground.

We stopped again for a few minutes at Wellman Divide to rest and have some jerky, trail mix and G2 before finishing our trek.  Colleen’s knees were a little sore, but never hurt nearly as much on the descent as they did on Mt. Baldy or Ice House Canyon, probably because it wasn’t nearly as steep, even though the peak elevation was significantly higher.

From there, we once again entered the shaded canopy and soon found ourselves along the great sounds of the burbling creek on the final stretch to the bottom.  We were pretty beat by the time we made it back to the ranger station to return our wilderness permit, but felt even more beat when we realized we had to climb back up that stupid winding sidewalk to get back to the tram stop!

Somewhere along the final stretch Colleen realized she’d lost her ticket for the return tram trip, which added a bit of stress to the last leg of the trail, but they decided to take our word for it back at the tram ticket counter, and said we could get back on anyways.  We were way too tired, sweaty, and dirty feeling to enjoy that drink at the tram bar with the beautiful view we’d promised ourselves we’d hit after the hike, but we figured we’d already seen views way better than that we could get from the bar, and the drinks would be colder, larger, stronger, and cheaper back at the condo, so we just got back on the tram and headed home.

This was definitely one of our favorite hikes of all time.  From the tram ride to the pine forest to the burbling creek to the 360 degree summit there wasn’t any of it that we didn’t enjoy.  It was rigorous enough to give us a great sense of accomplishment when we got to the top, but it didn’t entirely kick our butts like Ice House Canyon or even Mt. Baldy did.  We will definitely do this one again, and hopefully be in good enough shape to hit the bar at the end next time!

View Mt San Jacinto Hike: Tram to Summit in a larger map

Mount San Jacinto Elevation Profile. Click through for more detail.

Comments

  1. Skyhiker says

    Nice write-up, and nice pictures.  Definitely greener when you visited than during my trip last week.  Glad you got those mule-eared-looking plants.  I think they make the place look very Sierra-like, though they were barely breaking the surface last week!

    • says

      It was one of our favorite hikes of last year!  Sounds like you pushed the envelope a bit on timing and preparation, but I’m afraid we’ve had a few too many days where we’ve gotten back to the truck just as (or after) darkness falls, but I guess that’s what happens when you are unable to get your rear end out of bed in the morning like we are…

  2. Katmandu3232 says

    Thanks Jeff and Colleen!
    You have inspired me. Your article has moved San Jancinto peak to the top of the heap for me. Some of my party doesn’t have poles, but I noticed you had them. Is it worth it for them to get some? Note: they are young… early 20’s.

    • says

      Thanks!  It is a great hike.  Poles are really not necessary if young and healthy.  We use them primarily to make it easier on our knees, which we have issues on with hikes that feature a lot of climbing and descending.  The trail itself is very well maintained, so they aren’t really needed for stability and balance on the trail, which is the other primary use for poles.  But they are nice, and you can pick a pair up at BassPro or Big 5 for around $25 for a pair.

  3. Nick says

    Thanks for the great detail. We plan to go May3rd with kids (11 and 6). Do you think it’s a good idea to go with kids this age?

    • says

      Really depends on the kids. We did see some kids that age on the trail. Some looked like they were having a good time, some did not. I’d think that if they are used to hiking, they could at least make it to Wellman Divide. The trail from the tram to there was definitely the best portion of the hike, goes along the creek, is nicely shaded, and Wellman Divide has a great overlook with big rocks to climb on or rest. The stretch from there to the top was the toughest part of the trail, increasing in steepness (or at least it felt that way on the switchbacks) and more exposed to the sun. From Wellman Divide, you could decide who, if anyone, still wanted to go to the top. Some could stay and play and rest there, some could go ahead to the peak, and everyone would still have had a good time.

  4. Leslie Adams says

    This is great! I was having a very hard time telling what this hike’s distance was from the State Park’s map, so Google brought me here – very informative, and I love the pix! We’ll be doing this hike next week as our first higher-altitude training hike before attempting Mt Whitney in July. Good times!

    • Jeff Greene says

      I seem to recall we did it in about 8 hours, but we like to stop and take pictures (obviously!) and enjoy the view a lot, and spent a good amount of time relaxing and eating lunch at Wellman Divide along the way, and then hanging out again at the top. When we generally calculate our estimated time, we figure about 2 miles an hour as our baseline.

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