I first heard about Cactus to Clouds a few months ago from one of my coworkers, Dominic. The route to the tram gains 8,000 ft in ~11 miles (10,000 ft in ~16.5 miles if you include the summit of San Jacinto Peak). October rolled around and with the more reasonable daytime temps, I decided to give it go. I talked Jascha into accompanying me. I had read varying reports about what to expect for time. The most authoritative C2C site said that that middle of the pack marathoners can expect to reach the tram in 4-5 hours. I’m not exactly in ultra shape and although I’ve been doing my usually shorter hill runs during the week, I haven’t done any long alpine days since August. One of the Summitposters I know took 16 hours to do the full out-and-back so I figured I’d be in that ballpark if I did the whole thing. There was also a lot of online chatter about the steepness of the trail and the difficultly of navigation the lower trail system, so I had Jascha download a GPS track. I also printed a topo map, but I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the hand drawn route annotations. Unfortunately, the Tom Harrison topo series only covered the areas in close vicinity to San Jacinto State Park, not the portion of the trail that passed through the Agua Caliente Reservation.
We headed down to Palm Springs the night before to avoid adding 2+ hours to the start time. I set my alarm for 5:30 am. My alarm didn’t go off and I woke up at 6:30. We left the well-marked Museum trailhead at ~7:20. Below the picnic tables there was a fair amount of trail branching, some of which was obvious switchback cutting but some also fed into alternate systems that headed off to the east and west. For the most part at the alternate trail junctions the correct trail was to the right. Parts of the trail are marked with painted white dots and arrows, although at one point the markings led in the wrong direction. The trail heads up the ridge initially in a northerly direction then diverts to the northwest, with the primary visible landmark being a major drainage the east. The Mojave desert flora included Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and various species of cacti (the most striking being the red-spined barrel cactus, Ferocactus acanthodes). Along with the backdrop of granite boulders the plant life provided some major eye candy to take my mind off the long path ahead.
After the picnic tables we passed the warning signs about the strenuous nature of the trail and lack of water and the one for big horn sheep lambing season closures (1 January to 30 June). With the exception of one primary junction (which I suspect led to the Ramon road trailhead), the trail was well marked and there were less side trails. Before long we hit the ~ 3.5 mile section where the trail flattens out somewhat. We took a short snack break and I found out Jascha had accidentally deleted the GPS track while recalibrating the elevation from our recent Peru trip. The intermittent winds kept the temperatures down, although it also kicked up eye-stinging dust. As we approached the crest of the ridge we caught our first glimpse the large pinnacle that marks the top of the tramway. With the introduction of manzanita and pine trees, the Mojave desert flora slowly transformed into that of the Peninsular Ranges.
The trail contoured below the ridge proper and crossed the stream bed with the huge water worn granite slab marked on many maps as “Flat Rock”. After the slab the trail again steepened. To add to the psychological crux, the trail was in worse condition than below (due to the its above snowline elevation) with deep sand and loose rocks in spots. I checked my watch and knew that I could likely break 5 hours to the tram if I kept a steady pace. Near the top Jascha started to lag behind, but told me to keep going. I passed 3 guys and made it to the top of the plateau (the other side of the rock from the tram station) in 4:55. In ~10 minutes Jascha crested the trail and announced that he was done due to hamstring issues. He encouraged me to do the whole route, but I felt bad making him wait and have to shell out $25 for a taxi to go the 6 miles back to the car. Plus, I knew I’d likely finish in the dark and wasn’t sure how easy it would be to navigate by headlamp and topo map. I decided to backtrack to retrieve the car, which I estimated would take somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.
I managed to avoid most of the side trail detours on the return trip. Fortunately, I remembered some of the distinctive rock formations from the ascent and was able to confirm that I was on route. I could see the golf course below the museum so I knew in what cardinal direction to head. About 0.8 miles from picnic benches I thought I may have taken a wrong turn and was headed for the Ramon trail system. It was hard to tell with the trail weaving in and out of the large granite boulders. I could see where I wanted to go, but not which trail system to take. I decided to cross the boulder field to a trail that I was fairly certain was headed in the right direction. Finally, I made it to the warning signs. When I got to the bottom Jascha was there to meet me. He reported that he had caught the tram almost immediately after we had parted and scored a ride back to his car from two of the guys we had passed on the trail. He passed the time at the coffee shop and napping on the grass. Total time: 8:40. I'd like to head back and go for the full out-and-back before the days get too short and the snow starts to linger. Stay tuned.
Assessment: The trail is similar to Mt Wilson in terms of steepness, but longer. The bottom section is navigable without a GPS, but it may add some extra time with detours; a descent of the lower section in the dark would be trickier. If you get off-route the terrain is accommodating to x-country travel.
San Jacinto State Park topo map
Trail topo (from the Cactus to Clouds Hiking Guide site)