If you were to ask me to make a list of the craziest things I've ever done in a day, the "Cactus to Clouds Trail" would probably top the list. Backpacker magazine rates this trail as the 3rd most difficult day hike in the country. This trail takes you from the city of Palm Springs, California to the top of Mt San Jacinto in about 16 miles. That's over a 10,000ft gain! I've never heard of, nor encountered anything quite like it in all my adventuring. Hike this trail and you will most certainly be able to impress any dayhiker.

One hell of a climb!
How insane is the trail?      
      This trail is very rugged, very steep, and not a lot of people are on it. Between Palm Springs and the top of the Aerial Tramway, 10 miles into the trail, there is no water or any other service; you're on your own. Water sources exist, but they are very unreliable. Its best to bring at least a gallon of water on the way up because once that desert sun rises, you will be sweating a lot. This brings me to another point- you HAVE to get an "alpine start" on this trail. This means if you haven't STARTED by 3:30AM you are going to run into two problems. First of all, it starts in the desert, so if you don't put some elevation under boots, you will run into extreme heat. Second of all, if you leave late, you will probably reach the summit at night and you will run into extreme cold. BE SMART, LEAVE EARLY! DO NOT TAKE CHANCES WITH THIS TRAIL!

Leave Early, Leave Early, Leave Early!

      The Trail The Cactus to Clouds trail starts in Palm Springs, literally. The trailhead begins at the Palm Springs Art Museum in downtown Palm Springs and beginning ascending from there. Be careful with this section- it is over rocky terrain which is confusing and ambiguous. Follow the white paint marks for a mile until you get to a clearing. This marks the true beginning of the trail and there are profuse warnings about not pushing your luck. Heed them!
Here's the basic run-down of the trail
  • Miles 0-1- rough, rocky trail marked by white paint
  • Miles 1-5, desert terrain to the halfway point
  • Miles 5-11, trail is mostly direct with some rough patches
  • Mile 11- The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (gets you down if need be)
  • Miles 11-16- smooth and gentle ascents to the top of Mt San Jacinto
  • Mile 16- The Summit
  • Miles 16-21 smooth descent back the way you came to the Aerial Tramway
  • Head down via the Tramway
       From the Art Museum, the trail ascends through scrubby, desertous terrain while endlessly switching back. You should reach the halfway point, which is usually marked with rock cairns. If you are seeing the sunrise at this point, you're on schedule. If its midday by this point, its risky to head down or up- once you get to the top, you could take the Palm Springs Tram to the bottom, but its a long hike. If you chose to descend, you will run into that terrible desert heat.
       The trail from the halfway point to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway gets somewhat rough and ambiguous as well; I've lost my way here. However, a good landmark you can use is a VERY conspicuous and prominent rock point that is close to the tramway. Obviously it isn't very noticeable from a distance of more than a couple miles, but as you approach the Tram, you will see it clearly.

This Prominent Point marks the location of the Aerial Tram

The Prominent Point from a further distance, not as reliable, but it does help

      The trail will finally top off at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which can take you down the mountain if need be. Mind you, the bottom of the tram drops you off far from town but cab companies will drive you back to the Art Museum (or you could always hitch-hike!). Do a little self-evaluation and make sure you are in good shape for another 10 miles or so. Its not as strenuous, but it will feel like it after the initial ascent.
      The ranger station is near the tramway and you will have to pick up a permit for the hike. I would recommend purchasing a map in the Tram store too- there are multiple trails and you wouldn't want to go down the wrong trail at this point! All you need to do now is follow the signs for the summit. The first 2 miles to "Round Valley" are gentle and easy whereas the last 3 miles to the top are a little more difficult. Again, a map really helps for this point.

Bask in the glory of your accomplishment!
      Most people will reach the summit in the late afternoon; don't spend too much time here. San Jacinto's prominence and proximity to the ocean make the weather unpredictable. Take some photos to prove you did it and follow the exact same route down to the Tram Station. Even the craziest of day hikers will be content taking the tramway down, but some will insist on descending the whole way by foot; your call.

Heading back to the Tram

Another reminder, the Tram will take you down the mountain to a parking lot which is just outside of Palm Springs. Either hitch a ride or pay for a cab to get you back to the Palm Springs Art Museum. And, for goodness sake, have a beer or something, YOU accomplished the most difficult dayhike in California!