Dave Bullock / eecue

photographer, programmer, husband,
photojournalist, caver, blogger, search and rescuer,
angeleno, foodie, hacker, nerd, geek, human

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Cactus to Clouds: San Jacinto Peak the Hard Way

On Saturday my lovely wife Penelope and I completed what Backpacker Magazine calls America's 5th Hardest Day Hike. The Cactus to Clouds hike begins in Palm springs at roughly 600 feet above sea-level and tops out at the peak of Mt. San Jacinto at 10,800 feet. The grueling day hike covers over 23 miles, one of which takes you up almost 2,000 vertical feet.

Friday night Penelope and I stayed in Palm Springs at an amazing hotel, which also happens to be #1 in the country on Trip Advisor, called the Desert Riviera. The hotel and its owners are really amazing, and a subject of a future post on this blog. On Saturday morning we woke up at 2:45 a.m. and headed out to the trailhead.

We hit the trail at around 4:00 a.m. with our headlamps blazing. After hiking for 15 minutes the trail petered out and we were left wondering where to go. Penelope became worried that we were never going to find the trail and wanted to go back to the car and try from a different trailhead.

The other trailhead has an even harder-to-find trail so I decided that would be a bad idea. I told Penelope to relax and we backtracked a few hundred yards at which point I saw a white arrow spray-painted on a rock facing uphill. I followed the arrow and we were back on the path to the peak.

After two miles we came to a rock with white writing painted on it which told us to make sure we had plenty of water and that we had 8 miles and 10 hours to go. From what I've read, the actual distance from this point is closer to 10 miles. We hiked on for another hour or so when we saw another headlamp behind us and one ahead of us.

As the sun rose we saw the hiker behind us was a gray-haired woman. She was quickly gaining on us, but she ended up taking a shortcut and was suddenly way ahead of us. We never did catch up to her!

Around 6:30 a.m. the sun began to rise. We had gained a few thousand feet of elevation by that point and the sunrise was beautiful, one of the most enjoyable experiences of the hike.

For the first 9 miles the trail gradually gained altitude, then all of the sudden it basically goes nearly straight up for 3 miles. These miles were difficult and challenging with a steep, loose, rocky trail winding to Grubb's Notch. It was slow-going but we made it to the traverse, which was a welcome change in pace.

After traversing for half a mile we started back up on our final push to the top of the Skyline trail. The last quarter mile was almost straight up, but we were so close we powered up without stopping except to talk to a ranger.

The skyline trail ended up taking us about 8 hours including breaks. We sat down at the ranger station, filled out our permit and ate lunch.

Most people just do the Skyline trail and take the tram down. We decided to do the full Cactus to Clouds and hit the peak. After lunch we powered on up the final 5 and a half miles to the top. As we ascended the temperature dropped and the during the last few miles we were shrouded in clouds.

On our Deer Springs hike to San Jacinto the week before we spent a half hour on the peak and ate lunch. This time we took a few photos, sent out a SPOT message and quickly headed down.

We were very happy to reach the tram station 14 hours after starting our hike in Palm Springs. We felt good that we stuck through it and completed the hike, but boy were we tired. I can't wait for the next (hopefully shorter) hike, maybe it will snow and we'll do some snowshoeing!

If you're up for a serious, grueling, extreme-dayhiking challenge, definitely give the Cactus to Clouds hike a try. Just make sure to bring plenty of water (we brought 1.5 gallons each) and to train for it with at least a 5,000 foot elevation gain hike a few weeks before. Have fun and happy hiking!

Dave and Penelope Atop San Jacinto Peak

Penelope and I stand on the peak of San Jacinto at the apex of our Cactus to Clouds hike.

The Sun Rising Above Palm Springs

The sun rises a few hours into our Cactus to Clouds hike.

Kaufman Rock

Coffman's Crag juts out from the mountainside after the hardest part of the Cactus to Clouds hike.

Click here to see the rest of the photos from our Cactus to Clouds hike.