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
- Parking: Tramway Lot (Free)
- Locality: San Jacinto Mountains
- Nearest City: Palm Springs, CA
- Kid-Friendly: No
- Dog-Friendly: No
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.
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!
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.
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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