For an entire year, all hikes and training I did were to get ready for this. Cactus to Clouds or “C2C” is the journey from Palm Springs up the summit of Mt San Jacinto at 10,834 ft. I had heard all of the comparisons; 5th hardest day hike in the US, similar to climbing 1,000 flights of stairs and very close to the same elevation gain from Everest Base Camp to Summit. The training hikes throughout the year consisted of Santiago Peak (Saddleback Mountain), San Gorgonio via the South Fork Trail, Mt Whitney and Mt San Antonio (Mt Baldy) via the Bear Canyon Trail.
Every day I studied trail reports, the Mt San Jacinto Forum and other blogs to learn about this massive adventure. Since Palm Springs is so hot throughout most of the year and the Summit has snow during the winter and spring months, we decided on October 25, 2013, to make the journey up. We got out to Palm Springs the night before and stayed at the Desert Lodge Motel since it was close to the trailhead. After a short 5 hours of sleep, we awoke at 2:00 am and prepared for the hike. I always like to stretch for at least 30 minutes and have a banana, bread and 5 hour energy to start. We made the short drive down Ramon Road until it dead-ended into the North Lykken Trail.
Now, there are two trails you can take; one starts at the Palm Springs Desert Museum and the other is the trail we decided on, the North Lykken Trail. I had heard that the Museum trail could be confusing with all the false trails blazed and I’m very glad we took the North Lykken trail. It is a well-established and very easy to follow, especially since we were hiking in the dark with head lamps.
We hit the trail at 3:15am, definitely the earliest I’ve started a hike but I’m glad we did.
It is a very gradual start to the hike with some switchbacks that take you from 450 ft elevation to around 1600 ft elevation where you encounter a “Rock Cairn” and then shortly after two painted rocks nicknamed “Reality Check Rocks.” Take the warning seriously and make sure you bring enough food and water (we had 5 liters each). We also encountered a furry friend just beyond the “Rock Cairn”.
Another mile or so later, we came to Rescue Box 1. There are two rescue boxes on the trail and good Samaritans have filled these with water and other goods to help in an emergency only. Take note though, that it should not be expected anything will be in these boxes so plan accordingly.
You do start to notice that you have gained some elevation since the start of the hike and the view offers a great vantage point of Palm Springs below.
From Rescue box 1 to the next major milestone which is the 4300 ft rocks, offers you a more challenging incline and starts to get your legs burning. Since we were hiking in the dark, the time seemed to go fast but I did work up a pretty good sweat for this 2 mile stretch. Before we knew it, the sun was starting to rise as we approached the 4300 ft rocks. We decided this was a good time to stop and have breakfast. The views of the sun rising over the mountains and the slight view of the Salton Sea were incredible
After refueling with breakfast we continued on what is nicknamed “the never ending ridge”. This part of the hike is fairly flat and is a good cool down period from what lies ahead. Also, we did notice there were a few other trails that lead down to the valley below and could see how people could get lost. When this happened we just stuck to the method of always continuing up and we never did get lost. The next point we came to was “Rescue Box 2” at around 5400 ft elevation.
Shortly after came Florians Bucket, Florian is a local who was kind enough to leave water here but again, please take warning to not expect any water and be prepared. Next came Flat Rock (off to your left) where we decided to take a break and prepare for the hardest test of the entire hike.
From just after Flat Rock and up through the Manzanita comes the biggest challenge of the entire C2C journey. It is steep, long and hard. The closest previous hike that mimics this part of C2C was the Bear Canyon Trail up to Mt Baldy. I highly suggest training on this trail in advance of this hike and if you can make it to the summit in around 4 hours or so, you should be good. You also start to get good views of both the tram and Coffmans Crag which is the giant rock formation you can see for much of the hike.
After climbing more than 1600 ft in a mile, you come to the Traverse. Since this was October, there was no snow on the ground and it was easy to travel on. Take warning though, if there are snowy or icy conditions micro spikes or maybe even crampons would be necessary. From the Traverse we kept hiking almost to the base of Coffman’s Crag where we could look down and see the gully below. You do not want to start to ascend too soon or you can get into some difficult terrain and have the potential to get stuck.
From Coffman’s Crag to Grubb’s Notch is a steep ascent. I actually cramped up here and had to stop for a minute to stretch. And just when you think, when is this going to flatten out, you come to the Grubbs Notch sign and there is no better feeling (except summiting of course). This is also the first time all day we saw other people who were in awe that we had hiked from the desert floor below.
It is a short hike over to the concrete ramp that leads to the tram, restaurants, etc. Now going up the concrete ramp was not bad this time around and we almost jogged up with the smell of food in the air. We took around an hour break at the restaurant ate, drank Gatorade/water and relaxed. However, don’t fall into the trap and get too comfortable, you still have another 12 miles round-trip to the summit and back. Before leaving we took some great pics from the tram:
We then left the tram and headed to the ranger station in Long Valley. You do have to fill out a self-issued permit here in order to summit and they also can refill your water as well.
The rest of the hike is a pretty gradual ascent to the summit, especially considering what you just hiked, through Round Valley, Wellmans Junction and then Mt San Jacintos Summit.
The last few hundred feet or so before the summit, you do have to scramble up boulders where you then come to the Summit Cabin. We peaked our heads inside just to take a few pictures.
And then after some 17 miles and 10,500 ft or so ft of hiking, we reached the Summit of Mt San Jacinto. All the hard work had paid off and the views were incredible in every direction. I took around 30 mins to reflect on the previous year’s journey and just breathed in the fresh mountain air.
Then it was time to head back to Long Valley to the Tram. By this time we were pretty tired and took our time going down the gradual descent. It did seem to take forever to get back and then we saw the concrete ramp for the tram. There is no better feeling and no worse feeling at the same time. What seemed so easy to go up the first time around, took forever the second time around. I swear they extended the ramp since we had previously been there. But, after 22 miles total for the day, we made it and took the 7:00pm tram down.
The tram conductor was nice enough to call us a cab which was around a 20min ride back to the North Lykken trail head. All in all it was a great day and something I will always remember as a top accomplishment. A big thanks to Hikin’ Jim for all his advice, check out his TR here. It is what I used and offers a ton of information, http://hikinjim.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-skyline-trail.html.
Last but not least to Dave, Kyle and Rich; I could not have completed the journey without you guys. I can’t thank you enough for embarking on this journey with me. One we will never forget.
- 5 Liters of Water
- Trekking Poles
- 10 Essentials
- Power Gels
- 5 Hour Energy
- Croissants, Banana for Breakfast
- Chicken for Lunch
- Under Armour Tights and Long Sleeve
- Micro Spikes