After a busy week, I ended up with a free Saturday and decided to tackle Cactus to Clouds somewhat spontaneously. I’d been thinking about it for a while, but the weather and timing was never right and a friend that I’d hoped to do it with ended up hurting himself. So, no time like the present…
After looking online for a map of Skyline Trail, all I came up with was the hard-earned tracks and topos of earlier hikers; apparently the park service is non-too excited about people using the trail and requiring expensive rescue from the summer heat. In an era when everything’s online, it’s interesting that good information can be so hard to come by (for reference, I’ve left a copy of my Track in the gallery). According to Google Maps, the trail ends part way up a ridge in the middle of nowhere. Not very helpful.
With that in mind, I packed and headed toward the Skyline Trailhead, which is in the parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum. I needed to be back in San Diego by around 5pm on Saturday night, so I planned to start the hike at 3am Saturday morning. I was alone when I first parked, but within 10 minutes, 5 or 6 other cars had pulled in and a whole Meetup group was getting its hike on. So much for peace and isolation. A group of 3 got started ahead of me (apparently I’m slow changing socks), but I was on the trail by 3:01 and ahead of most of the other hikers.
Skyline Trail from Palm Springs to Long Valley
Cactus to Clouds comprises three major sections; the climb from Palm Springs to the top of the tramway in Long Valley, the much easier hike from the Valley to the to the top of San Jacinto, and finally back to the tram. This is the first and hardest section.
Summit posts about Skyline say things like “the climb starts immediately” or “it’s unrelenting test from start to finish” or “noooooo!!!!” and it turns out they’re right; the climb starts on the first step onto the trail. You’re stair-stepping rocky trails off and on for much of the first part of the trail. But it turns out the hardest part of the trail is the beginning and the end (as we’ll see). There is actually some fairly nice, if steep, hiking on trail-like paths for much of the middle 5-6,000feet.
The one thing I could tell even though it was a pleasant 70 degrees was that the heat would be intolerable at any temperature from the mid 80s and up; even at 3am, the rocks were still radiating heat from the day before.
The trail itself was pretty easy to follow even at night. Well, especially at night; there were nice little chalk marks glowing in my headlamp all the way up the initial rock sections. I was just thinking about how awesome and easy the trail was when I found myself standing between two chalk marks with no trail to follow. I went up a bit, came back, wrapped around, backtracked, and walked in a nice little circle like a rat in Escher’s personal backcountry maze. Then I remembered what all the posts online said; just keep going up. So I went up and sure enough I found the trail again in minutes.
The trail quickly turned into, well, a trail instead of a clamber up rock, and I was at a nice little set of picnic tables. The three hikers who’d left before me were just ahead of me know, headlights spotlighting up into the black. It was a familiar, comforting sight from previous night hikes. A few minutes later, I caught up to them. Turns out, they were three professors from Cal State Long Beach–a chemist, a physicist and biologist. The next mile or so among the most informative and pleasant I’ve ever had on a hike.
After stopping to change my headlamp batteries (hey, why’s it so dark!), I caught back up to them as they were checking out a cute little scorpion on the trail. Cute, but according to the biologist, not the nice cuddly kind. So one quick sidestep later we carefully plodded on into the dark, perhaps a bit more careful about our footing.
A few minutes and a quick discussion about scientific ethics later, I decided to head on up the trail a bit faster. Within moments their headlamps disappeared below me and I was alone on the trail. The lights of Palm Spring lit up the increasingly distant valley and bright stars filled a clear night sky; beautiful.
Emergency Box 1 (2,500′)
In 2010, local police and rescue teams installed two rescue boxes along the Trail to help lost, overheated and generally messed up hikers. According to the local Press Enterprise:
“The Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue Team installed hiking rescue boxes last week at two elevations — 2,500 and 5,000 feet — along the trail. The stainless-steel boxes contain water, Gatorade, a flashlight, whistle, emergency blanket, umbrella and cell phone. Instructions direct hikers how to respond to heat exhaustion or hypothermia.”
Nice, and appreciated. I wonder how often lazy hikers use them just to call mom and ask for a ride home.
At just after 5am, I took a seat to look out over the lights of Palm Springs and chow down on some food. Meaning a very tasty donut. I had had trouble with stomach upsets on previous hikes, to which I’d responded by not eating enough and bonking. I was determined to force all the sugar I could, hoping that doing so on regular intervals using mostly Gus and Gu Chomps chews I could avoid the nausea. The donut, well, that was just because it was awesome. At this point, I felt great all ’round and thought the hike was going to be a bit of a breeze.
The Sun! Run away! Oh, wait. It’s Pretty.
Around 6:30 the sun was coloring the eastern horizon, and the peaks ahead of me became visible for the first time. It was beautiful, but also a slight concern. The forecast for the day in Palm Springs was for high 90s, and that meant the trail could easily get into the 80s or higher. I don’t like heat that much, and I was torn between pictures and racing up away from the heat. I compromised, getting neither great pictures nor too warm at any point. Regardless, it’s a beautiful way to experience the trail.
Food Break around 7am
I was starting to feel both winded and hungry around 7, and decided to rest on the flatter part of the ridgeline before the next vertical assault. I tried some crackers, water and Gu, but nothing seemed to sit that well. Damn stomach. And then I heard voices from somewhere, and was horrified to think someone might be catching up to me. Was I going that slow? Argh. To the trail!
The Hard Part
The trail steepened quickly after the shoulder, rapidly rising up the rocky ridges close to the tramway. It also quickly took on a more alpine feel, with shading fir trees and the fresh, ozonal smell of health forests. I was a bit tired and at such times my mind wanders, doubting my speed, doubting my endurance, generally fully of negative voices. The increasing nausea didn’t help, but the views were awesome and the trail was pretty fun. Well, until I lost it.
And then it was a blast. There were fallen trees all over the place, obscuring the trail at several points, so it was probably inevitable that I ended up scrambling over random boulder at some point. I didn’t care — it was a nice change of pace — but it was bit slower. Soon, huffing and scratched up, I was back on the trail. You really just need to keep going up.
Final Section of Skyline
The last and hardest part of Skyline is not the steepest, but it is still quite steep and a bit relentless. After reaching the granite pinnacle shown here — behind which the tram glides by now and then — you have a few hundred feet of rocky switchbacks to go. It’s not that objectively hard, but I definitely felt it. And then I heard the voices again, and pushed harder, only to realize I was hearing an older couple walking down from the tram. They smiled gamely as they passed, looking like they intended to hike all the way down to the valley.
Victory in Long Valley
I reached the top of Skyline and the trail flattened out completely (the picture is looking back toward the top of Skyline). I wasn’t quite to the ranger station and was still nearly 6 miles from the peak of San Jacinto, but it felt like I’d made it; I’d done everything from this point on before, and none of it was hard. Just a long, gradual climb though mostly sheltered valleys.
From the Tram to San Jacinto
After taking a break, getting some water, and picking up a permit at the ranger station, I was off again by around 9:30am. I didn’t feel great, but I was darn glad to be on regular trail. I figured I’d take it easy for about 30 min to see if my stomach settled, and then get back on pace. That sort of worked out, and I was at Wellman’s divide in about an hour, and on the peak in two. By that time, I was making good time and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better on the climb.
Nice view. Lots of people. Time for lunch Part II! I got a quick picture and settled down next to some nice older English guys who quickly guessed that I’d just come up from the museum — I was looking a bit dusty — and then commented on the many times they’d done C2C. As usual; no matter what you do, there are always others who’ve done it faster and more often. Still, they were pretty nice about it.
The Way Down
I took off from the peak feeling better than I usually feel on a descent — no aches or pains, no knee tightness — but even going at what I thought was a good clip it still took around 40min to get back to Wellman’s. Interesting.
I passed numerous hikers on the way up, of course, and was beginning to worry about my scientist friends. Where were they? I hoped they hadn’t bagged it at the tram.
Just after Wellman’s, I passed a few girls who looked at me and one said, “Didn’t I see you before?” I was a bit confused, and took at guess that they were with the Meetup group. No, she said, but they had been in the parking lot at the same time. I said something supportive and wished them good luck; they actually looked pretty fresh. How did they avoid all the dust?
A few minutes later I came across my new friends from earlier that morning, and I was really happy to see them. They were making progress, if slow, and would make the peak easily that day. I think I was more jazzed for them than for myself. Really nice people.
At the ranger’s station, I turned my permit back in and headed up the concrete walk to the tramway. Clean, well dressed people were mulling about with kids and cute little Disney backpacks. Suddenly I was the smelly one. Well, not so suddenly, but noticeably. Fortunately, I caught the tram down within about 15 min, got a cab at the bottom and was off to San Diego before 3pm. Couldn’t have asked for a better day, even with the stomach issues. Next time, Cactus to Clouds to Cactus!
This was taken directly from the recorded GPS track of my hike. I’m not convinced the total elevation gain of 11,659′ is right — seems like it ought to be just under 11,000 feet (as indicated by most write-ups).
- 21.2 miles
- 10h 27m (9h 28m moving)
- 2.0 mph (2.2 moving)
- Max Elevation: 10,685′
- Min Elevation: 379′
- Gain: 11,659′
It should be possible to knock a lot of time off of this, and then add on the descent from the tram to the museum, if I can kick the stomach issues. And can avoid destroying my knees…
The Usual Food Note
I’ve been trying to figure out how to eat on long hikes so that (a) I get enough energy and (b) I don’t feel nauseated the whole time. Not been too successful on longer hikes, and it’s odd because my stomach is never sensitive otherwise. Anyhoo, this time I went for the all sugar and carbs in soft gooey form on the theory that it was high in energy and easy to digest. My quick notes for later reference:
- 5 Gus (100 Calories each, 500 total)
- 6 Gu Chomps (180 each, 1,080 total)
- 2.5 Donuts (200 each, 500 total)
- 2/3 of a sleeve of Ritz (350 total)
- 2/3 of a pack of turkey jerky (200 total)
- 6 scoops of electrolyte mix (300 total)
Which gives a total calorie count of just under 3,000, for an hourly average of 285 Calories or so — which is a bit low, but better than I usually do. Net result was a good energy level, but a stomach that was jacked up for a good 48 hours. I carried nearly 2x that much food on the trip. Silly.