Cactus To Clouds Trail

The picture to the left is the rock near the start of the Cactus to Clouds trail. It is about a mile from the Desert Museum in Palm Springs, or two miles from the end of Ramon Road. Ten more miles with seven thousand feet of elevation gain. There is no water on the route.

The picture to the right is a group on the summit of East San Bernardino Pk. There is no water on this trail unless you side trip to Alger Creek which adds about two miles both ways. There is very little shade to be found here.

Half way up the trail at 4300 ft., we know how much more we still have to do, Heaven help us. We are tired already.

The next picture is of Cy, near the top of East San Bernardino Peak, which can be reached by the Momyer Trail. It starts about a mile below Forest Falls, and is seven miles one way and 5000 ft., of elevation gain. There is a good description of this trail in “San Bernardino Mountain Trail” by John W. Robinson.

The picture to the left is the metal plaque near the start of the trail at 1700 ft., elevation. This tells you that you have almost 10 miles to go with more 6800 ft., elevation gain and need more than one gallon of water.

Coffman’s Crag, half an hour from the top, 31 switchbacks should get you there. That’s about 600 ft., higher.

The picture to the left is the signpost marker near the top of Mt. San Gorgonio. This is the junction of the Vivian Creek Trail and the trail from Dollar Lake Saddle. It is extremely windy here, and rain often falls in the afternoon in summer. Get an early start as the cloud build up starts after 11am.

The picture to the right is of San Jacinto from Snow Creek, 8800 ft elevation gain in six miles. See the description in John Robinson’s book “San Bernardino Mountain Trails.”

The picture to the left is of Cy at the tramway above Palm Springs. He lost a pound in body weight for every 1000 ft he ascended on the Cactus to Clouds trail to get to the tramway – that means a total of eight pounds altogether. The temperature drops one degree farenhite for every 250 ft you go up.

Iron Mtn. is 2000 ft., below Mt. Baldy. It is 7 miles each way with 7200 ft., of elevation gain. Take the Heaton Flat trail to the Allison Saddle at 4582 ft. Leave the trail and head north up the ridge after dropping down 200 ft., Drive north on Azusa Ave for 12 miles and turn right at the East Fork bridge 6 miles.


     Some claim that the trail up to 14,497-foot Mt. Whitnet, the highest point in the lower 48 states with nearly 6,000 feet of vertical gain, is the toughtest hike around. Others will argue for Telescope Peak in Death Valley oreven the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike with over a mile of vertical descent and gain.

     But there is a small, steadily growing group of local hikers who know better. Call them adventure hikers or endurance hikers. Whatever the name, they thrive on the physical challenge of a tough hike. And the toughest, most unique hike around, they say is a route called Cactus-to-Clouds from the desert floor in Palm Springs to the top of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto. Other names for the route include the Outlaw Trail, Skyline and Chino Trail.

     Along a ridge-route east of Chino Canyon that rises up the northeast escarpment of San Jacinto, Cactus-to-Clouds measures 17.5 miles, with a vertical gain of 10,400 feet. According to those in the know, there’s no other long hike in the lower 48 states with as much vertical gain.

     “This hike is not for the weak of mind, body or heart,” says Brian Jennings, 46, a certified financial planner from Santa Ana who has completed the hike three times. The total mileage for the two miles of elevation gain is around 23 miles, for a total trail time of about 15 hours (17.5 miles to the summit plus 5.5 miles back to the tram at Long Valley). Mount San Jacinto is the highest point in the San Jacinto Range and the second highest peak in Southern California, next to San Gorgonio.

     Three years ago, Jennings planned to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California and was looking to climb the three local peaks of Mt. Baldy, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto to get in shape. For San Jacinto, he joined a group hiking the Cactus-to-Clouds route and got hooked. So much so that he has led hikes up the route in May of this year and last year, and says he’ll do the hike each May for the rest of his life.

Starting in the desert

     Cactus-to-Clouds starts at the end of Ramon Road near the Desert Museum in Palm Springs (elevation 400 feet) and proceeds 12 miles and 8,000 feet of altitude up to Long Valley, the site of the terminus of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram. Because of the heat of the desert, hikers will usually start the hike at 4 or 5 a.m. And since there’s no water on the trail from the desert floor to Long Valley, Jennings recommends carrying at least 3 to 4 liters, or a gallon or more, depending on the season.

     The route rises steeply up from the desert for 6,000 feet to a dry, granite creek bed and then “the going gets tough,” Jennings says. From 6,000 to 8,000 feet, the route is extremely steep and, depending on your fitness level, the Cactus-to-Clouds hiker may start feeling the effects of altitude.

     After negotiating the first 8,000 feet, the weary Cactus-to-Clouds hiker can obtain food and water at Long Valley, the site of the ranger station and tram station, which features a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar and visitor center. Long Valley, also, is a bail-out point, says Jennings. If you’re too tired to go on, you can take the tram down.

     On the hike, a typical pace is 1,000 feet of elevation gain per hour. So what takes a tram rider less than 15 minutes to climb, from the desert floor to Long Valley and through a series of ecological communities equivalent to a trip from Mexico’s Sonoran desert to an alpine wilderness, will take a hiker around eight hours.

Going higher

     The second leg of Cactus-to-Clouds takes hikers from Long Valley to the summit of San Jacinto. At the Long Valley ranger station, hikers need to pick up a permit for the hike to the summit. Hiking maps are available there, as well.

     “The next five to six miles to the summit will seem tame compared to the lower leg,” Jennings says. “However, your strength may be sapped, so you’ll have to draw on your strong heart and tough mind to advance.” This final leg, the Marion Mountain Trail to San Jacinto Peak, may seem tame by comparison, but it is a strenuous, 5.3-mile hike with 2,400 feet of elevation gain.

     “Expect a 30-degree temperature drop from the desert floor to the 10,800-foot summit,” warns Jennings, who enjoys doing the hike in May when there could be some snow remaining on the summit. He says fall, before the first snow, is probably the safest time to do the hike.

     There are no Cactus-to-Clouds trail maps, and forest personnel may even deny its existence. It’s not illegal to hike this route, but park staff know how difficult it is, so for safety’s sake, they may be reluctant to relay any information. In fact, one fatality was reported last fall on an icy section of trail where a hiker slipped and fell.

     San Jacinto State Park Superintendent Eddie Guaracha would only say that Cactus-to-Clouds (from the desert floor to Long Valley) is not a trail. “It’s not a sanctioned, park trail.” But he admits people hike it.

     And it’s in the hiking guidebooks. Jerry Schad’s 101 Hikes in Southern California contains a brief reference. “This hike,” says Schad, “known as the Cactus-to-Clouds Hike by Palm Springs hiking enthusiasts, is an absolute hoot ­ if you survive.”

     John Robinson calls it the Chino Trail in his San Bernardino Mountain Trails guidebook, describing it as an old Indian trail that was last worked by the California Conservation Corps in the ‘30s. “Most of the trail is still well-defined, although the middle portion has some bushy sections.”

     Although guidebooks may indicate that the trail is difficult, Jennings says that’s not the case. He speculates the route has become more visible in recent years as an increasing number of hikers do the climb.

Getting ready to go

     How to prepare for this epic hike? Lots of cardiovascular training, says Jennings. “Start running and get fit. When you’re at altitude, that’s what will help you out. It’s within reach of most people if you train.”

     Just ask 67-year-old Cyril Kaicener of Rialto. Kaicener says Cactus-to-Clouds is his favorite hike. “I feel young again every time I do this hike.” His part-time job as a docent in the museum of the Jurupa Mountain Cultural Center offers plenty of time for hiking. In fact, since 2002 he has done the hike at least once a week. That year, he hiked the route 55 times. “As of October 3,” he says, “I’ve hiked it 181 times.”

     Kaicener, who does the hike primarily for health, insists other hikes don’t give him enough of a workout. “It was a challenge in the beginning,” he says. “But if you do it regularly, your body adapts to the strain where it actually becomes enjoyable.”

     Both Kaicener and Jennings offer some additional advice: Travel lightly, but take at least three quarts of water or a gallon in warm weather. You could lose a pound in weight of body fluids for every 1,000 feet you climb. Food should be light, and should contain some salt and potassium. Gatorade or similar drinks containing electrolytes are important for proper hydration and muscle-functioning. Most important, they say, don’t do this hike alone; go with someone who has done it before. And, of course, let someone know of your plans and carry a good cell phone.

     What’s nice about the route, says both experienced hikers, is you don’t have to do the downhill return-hike. After summiting and returning to Long Valley, you can go back to Palm Springs on the tram. “It’s become my favorite hike,” says Kaicener. “I can take the tram down and not put strain on my knees or bruise my toes.”

OCM Renne Gardner is OC METRO Magazine’s regular OC Outside columnist.


     Hiking in the backcountry entails unavoidable risk that every hiker assumes and must be aware of, and respect. Trails vary greatly in difficulty, and in the degree of conditioning and agility one needs to enjoy them safely. You can minimize your risks on the trail by being knowledgeable, prepared and alert. Just as important, you should always be aware of your own limitations, and of conditions existing when and where you are hiking. If conditions are dangerous, or if you are not prepared to deal with them safely, choose a different hike. One element of the beauty, freedom and excitement of the wilderness is the presence of risks that do not confront us at home. When you hike, you assume those risks. They can be met safely, but only if you are prepared and exercise sound judgment and common sense.

Source: John W. Robinson’s
“San Bernardino Mountain Trails Guidebook”

More Information

     Although the park service won’t give you any information on Cactus-to-Clouds, it’s always a good idea to contact them prior to any trip to the area for weather, access and trail condition information:

Mt. San Jacinto State Park
25905 Highway 243
P.O. Box 308
Idyllwild, CA

(951) 659-2607