The Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) hike is somewhat infamous as one of the hardest day-hikes in the United States. Rising from a few hundred feet above sea level in Palm Springs to over 10,800 feet at the top of San Jacinto in just under 11 miles, the climb up is utterly unrelenting.
What the heck is C2C?
It’s pretty simple. Palm Springs is hot. Really hot. They grow some mean cacti and some even meaner scorpions. The peak of San Jacinto is cloudy and, thankfully, much cooler than Palm Springs. The Cactus to Clouds hike takes you from Palm Springs at around 300′ to the top of San Jacinto at over 10,800′. Hence, you hike from the cacti to the clouds. QED.
In truth, “C2C” is a bit of misnomer; if you just do cactus to clouds you’ll get lots of exercise but you’ll be quite lonely at night because you’ll be stuck at the top of a mountain. To finish the hike, you descend either part way to the aerial tram or all the way back to Palm Springs. The default C2C hike takes the tram down, and is therefore sometimes called C2C2T (Cactus to Clouds to Tram). This is the hike described here.
The longer, full round-trip back down the mountain is far less enjoyable, hard on the knees, pretty lethal in the summer, and thus well-deserving of the extra “C” in Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (C2C2C). There is a separate overview on C2C2C, as well on other variations, but I can’t emphasize strongly enough — descending from 8,500′ to Palm Springs in the summer during the day can be a really, really bad idea. Don’t do C2C2C unless you really know what you’re doing. Really.
There are two primary trailheads for Skyline Trail, one starting at the Palm Springs Art Museum and the other further south at West Ramon Rd. The the trail from the art museum is by far ther heavier used, and starts in the back of the museum parking lot. The alternate route from Ramon Rd. is less steep and easier to follow, but is also longer and plagued by rumors of car break-ins.
Assuming you start at the museum on a weekend, the best parking is probably on the street in front of the museum. You can park in the museum lot itself and be slightly closer to the trailhead, but there are always threats of cars being towed (I’m not aware that any have been).
This is a detailed guide to the trail in the form of major milestones.
Palm Springs Modern Art Museum (Trailhead)
Come for the trail, stay for the culture. Just go before your hike; after, you’ll be smelly. Also, hungry, and the paintings are not edible. Elitists. More seriously, park on the street in front or nearby and head into the parking lot on the north side of the museum. The trailhead is at the back of the parking lot where they’ve cut a wee hole in the retaining wall. It’s quite charming, if you like concrete.
Skyline Trail (Palm Springs to Long Valley)
You’re on Skyline Trail from Palm Springs to Long Valley and the Aerial Tramway. It’s a trail with a bity of an attitude and maybe a sense of humor, but take it seriously; this is not a trail for the feint of heart.
Rescue Boxes & Water Caches
There are two volunteer-maintained rescue boxes along the trail, but they have become so well-known and abused that you might as well assume that they are not there and, if they are, there’s nothing in them. The primary volunteer water cache higher up has also become iffy for the same reason. For all practical purposes, you’re on your own.
First Rescue Box
Coffman’s Crag (aka BFR)
Coffman’s Crag is the last major milestone on your hike up Skyline Trail. This big f’n rock (BFR) as it’s affectionately known has actual built up over the years from the discarded lungs of unprepared hikers. You’ll see it, jump for joy, make your contribution, then slog your way to the top in no time.
Long Valley / 10.5 Miles, 8,500′
Welcome to Little Long Valley, the crest of Skyline Trail, and a short walk to the Ranger Station or the Tram depending on your state of body.
Desert View Trail
This is a loop trail that takes you from viewpoint to viewpoint around the southern end of Long Valley. More importantly here, it takes you from the top of Skyline Trail to the Long Valley Ranger Station. Enjoy the brief and pretty much flat walk in the shade of beautiful evergreens.
One safety note. When it’s warm, the top of Skyline Trail marks a distinctly cooler section of the trail, offering both shade and easier walking. During the Spring and Fall, and especially in the early morning, it can be substantially colder in the valley than just minutes earlier on the Skyline Trail. Don’t be surprised, and don’t let yourself catch a chill. You won’t be in the sun again consistently until after Wellman Divide.
Long Valley Ranger Station / 11 Miles, 8,500′
The LVRS offers several important things, not the least of which are bathrooms, water (in bathroom or seasonally at outside spigots), and permits. You’ll need day hiking permits for the hike up to San Jacinto, and they do check, so be sure to get one here. Boxes are available outside for self-service after hours.
San Jacinto Mountain Trail
Round Valley Trail
The Round Valley Trail is a 2.2 mile hiking path starting near the Palm Springs Tram. At the bottom of the tram ramp, the left trail is the start of the Round Valley Trail. This leads within 0.1 miles or so to the ranger station, here you can acquire a free but required day use permit.
Shortly after the ranger station, there is a branch with the lower Hidden Divide Trail. Continue to Round Valley by staying to the right. About 1.8 miles later you’ll reach the second junction with the HD Trail and, again, you’ll stay to the right. Round Valley itself is just a short distance beyond this junction. You can return the same way, or add some minor additional elevation and 0.3 more miles by following the signs for the Hidden Divide Trail.
The Round Valley Trail is mostly under the cover of trees, and the aroma of white fir and lodgepole pine can be intoxicating. Other plants you are likely to encounter include corn lily, San Jacinto lupine, multiple species of monkeyflower, wild tarragon, western columbine, sedge, canyon live oak, western azalea, scarlet bugler, Indian paintbrush and many, many more. The bloom is most impressive in June and July.
This is a very serene and peaceful hike, but there are not a lot of vistas, since the trail follows a creek valley. There is a primitive campground at Round Valley. From there, you can continue your hike to Wellman Divide or even further to San Jacinto Peak. Just make sure to pace yourself due to the higher elevation and drink extra water.
Wellman Divide / 14.3 Miles – 9,720′
Wellman marks the first time after reaching Long Valley that you have an expansive view, this time to the south toward Tahquitz. From this point on, the trail is more open (well, mostly) and traverses somewhat less steeply up the back flanks of San Jacinto. Many hikers take a well-deserved rest here, and a picture or two.
Marion Mountain Trail Junction / 16.7 miles, 10,600′
At this junction, you’re a mere 0.3 miles from the summit of San Jacinto. The Marion Mountain Trail, a beautiful if shorter way to reach the top from the Idyllwild side, is to your left at the sign. Keep moving straight and you’ll be at the top in no time.
San Jacinto Hut
This CCC hut marks the end of the trail per se, after which point the climb up to the peak is a short bouldery scramble.
Summit of San Jacinto / 17 Miles +/-, 10,834′
Welcome! You’ve made the climb and done most of one of the hardest day hikes in America.
The Way Back
Tramway Mountain Station (Long Valley) / 22 +/- Miles, 8,516′
Hey. Who put this tramway here? Well, turns out some clever guy you’ll learn all about in dulcet tones as you ride down in air conditioned comfort. Have a beer at top, put on some deodorant, and enjoy the ride back down to the Valley Station at 2,643′. Just remember that when you get out you’re back in the desert and you may melt.
One note about the Tram Station; there is an inexplicably irksome ramp that leads several hundred feet from the station itself down to the valley floor. On the way back from a long hike such as C2C, it is strangely exausting and utterly annoying. Someone should write a letter.
Back to Your Car
There are several ways you might arrange for transportation to and from the trailhead to the tram station and vice versa. I’ve found the least challenging to be dropping my car at the Art Museum (trailhead) and taking a cab back from the tram station. The customer service desk at the lower station calls cabs regularly for just this purpose — just go up and ask. It’s surprisingly convenient, and not too expensive all told.
One alternate model is to leave your car at the tram station and take a cab from there to the trailhead. I’ve always found this less convenient, especially when your hike starts pre-dawn and cabs are harder to find. But it is probably a nice relief at the end of the hike to be able to just jump in the car, crank the AC and bail.