Cactus to Clouds

Peak Summited2021 Mount San Jacinto
Type of HikeDay hike
TrailheadMuseum/Skyline Trail - Cactus to Clouds
EncounteredWildflowers blooming
Hiking CompanionsHiked with a group
Road ConditionsRoad suitable for all vehicles
Bug StatusNo bugs
Snow ConditionsSnowfields to cross - could be difficult
Trail ConditionsObstacles on trail
Additional Informationhttp://www.instagram.com/christopher.pettyjohn

Departure: 6:15 am

Weather: Sunny, Mid 60s-low 70's Below 3,000 feet & Dropping to 27 Degrees at Summit with Wind Chill Factored In

Total Distance: 19.2 Miles

Time to Summit: 6 hours 53 minutes

Time to Descend:  3 hours 2 minutes (Back to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway)

Total Time: 9 hours 55 minutes 06 seconds

Backpacker Magazine named the Cactus to Clouds route up Mount San Jacinto “One of the Toughest Day Hikes in America.”

In only 14 miles you will climb just over 11,000 feet from a starting point in Palm Springs at 469 feet above sea level to an elevation of 10,834 feet above sea level at the summit. This route has the greatest elevation gain of any single trail in the United States with the first 8,000 feet of gain comes in a mere 9.2 miles. It is an unbelievable test of your physical and mental endurance.

Do not attempt this route if you are not in excellent physical condition, have adequate rations and water for a FULL day of mostly uphill hiking, AND the weather conditions are just right; people die on this hike.

That being said here's how I did it…

First, I started weight training (think squats, leg press, lunges, more squats, more leg press, and more lunges for days and days every week), and I began training hikes at this time as well. Training hikes included multiple ascents of Mount Wilson (13.5 miles round trip with nearly 5,000 feet of gain), my ascent of Baden-Powell for altitude and snow preparations (over 9,000 feet elevation with around 2 miles of snow on the switchbacks), a mileage trainer up Santiago Peak (23.5 miles with nearly 5,000 feet of gain), and multiple runs up smaller local ‘hills' between the serious training hikes. By the way, all this in no way made me 100% ready for Cactus to Clouds.

Second, you have to think about timing. In the summer is when the majority of people who attempt this hike get in trouble and need rescue or worse. Late spring after much of the snow has melted but the desert isn't too hot or early fall before any major snow is the ONLY time this hike can be considered ‘safe' to attempt. When we started the temps were in the mid to high 60's. As we climbed (as fast as we could initially to escape the heat) the temps rose to mid 70's. It wasn't until around 7,000 feet above sea level that we felt any noticeable cooling of the ambient air. Once we made it to Grub's Notch at the entrance to the valley the temp dropped pretty significantly and we started adding layers. Factor in the wind chill and by the time we reached the summit the temperature was a chilly 27 degrees at about 1:15 pm; about the high for the day on the summit.

Third, the consideration of water and food is crucial to your success (or failure). There is ZERO water on the trail until you reach a ranger station 9.5 miles into the hike. I started the hike with a full 3 liter bladder and 2 liters of Smart Water to which electrolyte tabs were added along the way when it became evident I was sweating salt and other minerals at an astounding pace. Before I reached the ranger station to refill water, I was down to a single liter in my bladder – you don't want to run out and for me having only 1 liter left was cutting it close. As for the food, I burned 6,185 calories on this hike according to my Apple Watch. Add that to my basal metabolic needs of 1,825 calories and you get over 8,000 calories needed for me to maintain. I accomplished this by starting on the 1.5 hour drive to the trailhead: protein shake, banana, and a peanut butter sandwich. As I climbed, I was sure to intake a 100 calorie energy gel about every 30-45 minutes. A quick stop for lunch around mile 7.5 included another peanut butter sandwich, banana, apple, and a Clif Bar. I also consumed an additional 3 Clif Bars ‘on the go' as the day went on and chewed up some energy gummies between the gels. It will be difficult to feel hungry while exerting yourself so, but the bottom line is you have to!

Lastly, you have to consider the “What If's”… by that I mean you need to have first aid and emergency equipment with you – Carry the ‘Basic 10' and know how to use them. If my crew and I got in trouble there is no doubt we could have survived 1-2 nights out there. Cacti can be a great source of water if you know what you're up to. An emergency blanket can keep you warm in the cold or act as a shelter from the heat. Bring a headlamp and extra batteries even if you don't plan on being in the dark. Take extra socks, extra sunscreen, and extra of anything else you specifically need. Think about medications & possibly creature comforts if you can/want to carry them. My pack weighed in at 25.5 pounds when I started and that's heavy to carry on this hike. But again, I could've kept myself and my partners alive if we got in trouble and that's what counts!

If you take this hike very seriously and you train and prepare with the idea that failing to do so could kill you, you'll have an absolute blast like I did. Plus, you'll have accomplished something most hikers never will. The feeling is rewarding to say the least.

If anyone wants to attempt this hike in mid-May or October and needs a partner or guide to come along, reach out to me! I'll fly with you from the Cactus all the way to the Clouds!

Happy Trails


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