If you like hiking year-round in the desert, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway provides great hiking options to get you up the mountain so you can beat the summer heat. This summer my buddy, Jay, Full Plate and I explored the network of trails up there on a series of training hikes — with a goal of reaching the summit of Mount San Jacinto.
Once you take the ten-minute tram ride up to 8,516 feet (cost $26 per person) it’s generally 30 degrees cooler than the desert floor. The views from Mountain Station back to the Coacella Valley are spectacular; but it’s also the starting point for 54-miles of trails that criss-cross Mount San Jacinto State Park California Depart Parks and Rec– including the Pacific Crest Trail
Making your way from Mountain Station to the Ranger Station, the back-country trails are fairly well marked, and lead you over terrain that ranges from rocky out-croppings to alpine meadows to forests studded with Ponderosa pine. The trail surfaces vary from soft dirt and pine cone needles to some scrabbling on rocks.
One very popular trail leads to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, at an elevation of 10,834 feet. (That’s an elevation gain of 2,234 feet from Mountain Station, and a round trip of 12 miles.) Jay and I weren’t sure how long it was going to take us, so we came up with a training plan that let us experiment with what to bring (food, water, clothing), amount of time it would take us, and help us acclimate to the altitude. We settled on three training hikes before we tackled the summit — one hike a week as we added miles and elevation each time.
Week 1: Round Valley Loop (5-miles round trip)
Week 2: Round Valley Loop, plus one mile to Wellman’s Divide (7-miles round trip).
Spoiler alert: the extra mile to Wellman’s Divide is a pretty grueling slog. This one mile took us 45 minutes the first time. It’s steep, rocky, and feels like it goes on (and up) FOREVER. Needless to say, we cussed our way up and down Wellman.
Week 3: Round Valley Loop, to Wellman’s Divide (yes, that slog again), plus one added mile towards the peak. The stretch past Wellman is very pretty and is a gentle traverse (9-miles round trip).
Week 4: Mountain Station to the Summit (12-miles round trip)
The day of our summit, neither of us was really feeling it. We were tired, and it was a little humid; but because the tram was getting ready to close for their annual month of maintenance, we felt a little pressure to complete what we’d started (and been training to do).
Our training hikes definitely helped us. We knew the summit was going to take a long time, and we paced ourselves (physically and mentally) accordingly. We allocated a full day, and gave ourselves plenty of time for the summit. With no need to rush, time was a mental hurdle we could let go of. We already knew it was going to be at least an eight-hour day of hiking.
The night before our summit there had been a rare rain/thunder/lightening storm that released 1.6 inches of rain on the parched mountain. As a result, the trails had a bit of debris on them. That said, the ground wasn’t as dusty as it had been on our prior hikes; and they were nice, soft, and had a good cushion for a long hike. As we signed in for back-country hiking, the rangers told us there was a 60 percent chance of another storm in the late afternoon — but we decided to take our chances. (It never rains in Palm Springs, right?)
We hiked our way through familiar territory (including the cursed trail up to Wellman Divide) where we took our lunch break. But due to ominous clouds forming in the distance, we kept it quick and resumed our assent on the long traverses that lead up to the peak as the clouds settled over us. We finally reached the sign that told us were were .3 miles from the top at the exact moment that cracks of thunder started rumbling. We had to decide — do we keep going? Or do we turn back? At this point, we had been hiking up for 4.25 hours. Turning around now — just 15 minutes shy of the top didn’t make sense, so we forged on as the thunder growled ominously around us, and the air got heavier and moister.
The last bit to the summit is a real scrabble up through granite boulders, with no real path — just climb and grab on to anything you can. And then, suddenly, there it was: the summit sign! Yeah! We made it! Just as the rain was starting, we quickly took our photos and then started back down. (If you don’t take the photo, were you ever really there?)
Prior to the hike, Jay had told me that naturalist John Muir — upon reaching the summit — declared, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”
Well, I will have to John’s word for it because I saw zero view. We were literally inside the clouds of a storm and saw nothing but grey below. But I didn’t care one bit. Seeing that sign post, and knowing we’d attained our goal was all that mattered. Maybe I’ll head back another time for the view – it’s not going anywhere! And now for the downward trek…just 4 more hours and 6 miles to go through a banging thunderstorm.
Things we learned in no particular order…
- There is only one rustic bathroom serving the trails, so use it when you come to it. It’s a compost toilet and kind of gross, so pack some toilet paper in a little baggie.
- There is a stone house shelter at the top – just in case you need it. (We encountered a rare thunderstorm and thought about ducking in and waiting it out, but we decided to plow down the mountain instead.)
- Cell phones work sporadically up there, so don’t count on service if you are in an emergency. Bring a flashlight, don’t rely on your cellphone flashlight – just in case you run out of battery.
- Be sure to register at the rangers station when you start your hike! You fill in a form with your name, your phone contact, another contact, and your destination. When you complete your hike, you leave the second paper in the mailbox back at the ranger station so they know you made it back safely.
- Wear some bright clothing – just in case someone needs to come looking for you. (We wore white and tan, so we blended in with the rocks which was not so smart!)
- Brings some band aids and mole skin pads. When you hike for a long time, you may develop blisters in weird places. I got some blisters week 1, but not the following weeks because I knew the toe points which could be a problem and taped them up. This time when I got a blister on my hand from my walking stick, I was prepared.
- Your hiking stick is your friend. I prefer to just use one stick. For this terrain, it’s nice to be able to push off of rocks and to steady yourself on the way down. (I don’t think I could have done this without that stick!)
- Bring lots of water, Advil, appropriate clothing (pack a windbreaker jacket). Experiment with how much water to bring on training hikes. A good tip: freeze your water bottles the night before. This give you cold water all through the day.
- Bring extra food for pit stops along the way. We brought: tangerines, jerky, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, nuts, and dried mango. We planned on just stopping for lunch, but coming back we took 3 more short rest/food stops to energize. Trader Joe’s https://www.traderjoes.com/ has a lot of great individual snack food items.
- Pack a whistle. Just in case you get lost or someone gets hurt, this can help people find you.
I should mention that the best part of finishing every hike was the Scandinavian Spa and the complimentary sangria back at The Monkey Tree Hotel! (I know, shameless plug, but TRUE facts!) I alternated cycles of hot and cold (and sangria) at least five times between our hot tub (103 degrees), our cold plunge (55 degrees) and our sauna (194 degrees). I slept like a baby that night and and my legs and hips were not sore the next day!
See previous blog post on the Palm Springs Aerial Tram for general information about the tram.
Next blog…some cool geological facts about this mountain range by Jay. By the way, Jay, Full Plate is an amazing person who works here in Plam Springs. He does a bit of everything…cooks at private events (Full Plate), watches your pet in your home (Desert Dog Father), makes and sells his own delicious moisturizer (Palm Springs AfterGlo) and is a freelance Eagle-eyed editor and proofreader for corporate clients. Jay is my friend, a hiker and multi-talented renaissance man!