The Cactus to Clouds hike is epic. It has over 10,000 feet of climbing, with a large stretch on the treacherous Skyline Trail, the Cactus to Clouds hike should only be attempted by the very experienced and very fit hiker.
The Cactus to Clouds hike is popular, especially with Southern California hikers, but it isn’t a hike you just show up and do. It’s a hike that you need to prepare for, and then you do it only when the conditions are right. It didn’t get to be rated Backpacker Magazine’s 5th hardest day hike for nothing.
The hike starts in extreme desert conditions, and then climbs to nearly 11,000 feet at the top of Mount Jacinto, where there can be blizzard conditions. I would read this article about some tragedies that occurred on the Cactus to Clouds hike before you start. It will certainly sober you up and will put your plans into perspective. Even if you feel 100% confident that you can complete this hike, make sure you have contingency and backup plans in place.
If you just want to do a long hike to Mount San Jacinto without the risk, I strongly recommend doing the hike from Idyllwild. It’s beautiful, tough, yet doesn’t have the potentially deadly desert stretch. You can also take the tram to Long Valley and just hike to the peak from there.
Training for Cactus to Clouds
This hike is steep and long, there’s no getting around it. You need to get used to climbing for 10-13 hours straight. I would recommend these hikes as preparation for hiking Cactus to Clouds.
Because there are extremes at both ends of the weather spectrum (alpine and desert climates), timing your Cactus to Clouds hike is a bit of an art. Use the list below as a rough guide. Always check the local conditions before making any decisions. You’ll want to check the weather for Palm Springs (the start of the hike) and San Jacinto Peak (the end of the hike).
October – Generally this is your best bet. The desert is cool enough to survive in, and there’s probably no snow on the summit. Late September and early November can be favorable too.
November to April – Doing this hike in the winter should only be done if are very experienced in winter / ice hiking. After the first snow, the melt/freeze cycle will coat much of the trail in ice. This comes into play when ascending the Traverse, where the gradient can go up to 50%. You will need ice axes and crampons / micro-spikes. Winter temperatures on the summit can be -10F. Conditions start getting better in March and April.
May – Another good window, similar to October. Ususally the snows have melted and temperatures are still cool. Even if the summit looks clear of snow, there may still be snow and ice on the shady portions of the hike.
June to September – The majority of rescues and deaths happen in the summer, when the high’s can be around 110-120F. The park rangers strongly recommend NOT doing your hike during this time.
The best (and maybe the only) way to do this hike is to start before dawn. For example, on this trip report, I started at 1am. The idea is that you hike the desert in the cooler nighttime hours, and get to a high (and cool) enough altitude by the time the sun rises.
To determine the best time to leave, look at an hourly weather forecast for Palm Springs and the summit. Figure out your slowest pace, and estimate where you’ll be at each hour and temperature. Treat it as a rough guide, knowing things can change and you may need to change your plans.
One last note on timing. Keep an eye on the Palm Springs daily high and low temperatures. Even if you leave in October, the temperatures can be higher than normal, in which case you should consider another day. Look at the hourly forecast and estimate where you’ll be at every hour.
The first part of the Skyline Trail, normally hiked in the dark, can be challenging to follow. Hiking with a headlamp puts your focus right in front of you. The peripheral vision that you use to recognize a twist or turn on the trail is just not there. Here’s how to make sure you’re on the right trail.
Local hikers have done a great job of blazing the trail with white dots. I’ve read that there are many “false” white dots, but I didn’t encounter any. When in doubt, head up and look for the white blaze.
Looking for bootprints is a great way to figure out which trail is correct. In general, if you stick with the path that has the most bootprints, you should be in the right place.
If the trail stars to fizzle out and grow overgrown, it’s best to head back and look for a turn or switchback that you may have missed. There are a few sections where the trail goes through shrubs, but it only occurs a few times.
At some point the Skyline Trail splits and comes back together later. Look at the map and know where these sections are. My GPX file generally follows the less steep option.
Incorrect side trails are often cordoned off to help you stay on the main Skyline Trail.
Similarly, some sections of the Skyline Trail are marked by a line of stones.
Generally I don’t rely on digital maps, but at night they really came in handy. I had the GPX file loaded on my GPS and iPhone. Periodically I would check both to make sure I was on the trail. And if the trail fizzled out, I’d also check the GPS. Not a method I would rely on, but it was helpful.
If you have time in the evening before your hike, I’d recommend hiking the first mile to the picnic tables and back with sunlight so you can familiar with the trail. This will make the beginning of the hike in the early morning less intimidating.
Breakdown of Cactus to Clouds Sections
It helps to mentally break the hike into sections and tackle one at a time. Here’s the skinny. Distances are approximate and will change depend on how many wrong turns you make (if any). I’ve seen some mileage charts online that had different (and lower) milage values. Take them with a grain as salt and use it as a rough guide.
Palm Springs Art Museum Trailhead (470 ft)
Picnic Tables (0.8 miles, 1,340 ft)
Rescue Box 1 (2.6 miles, 2,340 ft)
4,300 ft Rocks (5.1 miles, 4,400 ft)
Rescue Box 2 (7.4 miles, 5,400 ft)
Flat Rock (8.4 miles, 5,900 ft)
Start of Traverse (9.5 miles, 7,400 ft)
Grubb’s Notch – entrance to Long Valley (10.5 miles, 8,400 feet)
Long Valley Ranger Station (10.8 miles, 8,400 feet)
Round Valley Campground (12.3 miles, 9,400 feet)
Wellman Divide (13.1 miles, 9,700 feet)
San Jacinto Peak (16 miles, 10,834 feet)
Tram Station (21 miles, 8,400 feet)
Some folks hike all the way back down to Palm Springs, but as you can imagine, it’s extremely tough, long, and has most of the white blazes facing the other way. This is called he C2C2C. Save it for the day that the normal C2C is too easy for you.
The Point of No Return
Hopefully you read the article about deaths on this hike and fully understand that you can easily die if you make poor choices and/or have bad luck. Even if you’re planned and timed your hike perfectly, sometimes we all have bad days.
You need to do some assessments on your condition in the first few miles. Check in with yourself at the picnic tables, and then at Rescue 1. If you’re feeling tired or have doubts, you need to turn around. I would say that in ideal conditions, after Rescue 1, you need to be 100% committed to hiking up to Long Valley. In hot conditions, I would make that call at the picnic tables. After that point you should NOT turn around and hike down through the heat. Continue up to Long Valley no matter what. A common thread in deaths and rescues is turning around (and maybe getting lost on the way down).
If you need to take water from a rescue box, do it and contact the Coachella Valley Hiking Club afterwards to let them know. There is zero room for mistakes here. Be confident in your fitness and your route before you start. Getting lost or too tired continue can mean death. This is real.
Other Notes on the Cactus to Clouds
Don’t park in the Art Museum parking lot. Instead, park across the street in the free garage structure. Make sure your car is in the shade when you park. Otherwise things will melt, for real.
The trailhead is within walking distance to many downtown Palm Springs hotels. If you want to stay for the weekend, you walk from your hotel to the trail, do the hike, and then head back to your hotel for a warm (or cold) shower.
Snakes are active at night. Watch your footing and you should be fine.
This guide covers the most popular routing on Cactus to Clouds, using the Museum and Skyline trails. There are other routes, like the North Lykken Trail. Leave the tougher, more obscure trails for the next time.
As you pass 8,000 feet, you might start feeling the effects of altitude.
The hike climbs to San Jacinto Peak, and then heads back down to the Palm Springs Arial Tramway station (see the section below for details). The station has food and drinks, including booze. If you’re in the mood, it’s a nice place for a post-hike celebration.
You can buy a one-way tram ticket back down the mountain in the gift shop at the tram station. They take credit cards and cash. It’s smart to check the website to see when the last tram down is. Also, the tram occasionally closes for maintenance. It’s very, very, very, very important to check the tram site. Avoid a forced C2C2C.
It’s an inexpensive Uber ride back to the parking garage from the bottom of the tram. There is no cell reception at the tram station, but they do have free wifi to connect and call a car (inside only). You can also ask the guest services desk at the tram station to call you a taxi.
The Skyline Trail (the portion of the hike until you get to Long Valley) is not an officially sanctioned trail by any park service. It is recognized as a cross-country route by authorities and public access is allowed. According to the official topographic map, the lower parts of the hike are on the Aqua Caliente Indian Reservation. The Skyline Trail is entirely maintained by local hikers.
The history of the Skyline Trail is murky. Some say it was a Cahuilla Indian trail, others say it was started by the CCC in the 1930s and abandoned. The modern day Cactus to Clouds hike started in 1991 when members of the Coachella Valley Hiking Club revived the trail and started leading hikes there.
Note: Apologies for the blurriness of some of these photos. The camera was on the wrong setting for the darkness. The first photos were done in twilight to make the starting directions a little easier. It’ll switch to darkness eventually.
Update! The garage now has “4 hour max parking only” signs (thank you Robert Z.!). So you have to park on the street next to the garage and lot, which is free.
The following images pick up from the night,
If you are cooked at this point, there is no shame in taking the tram back down and calling it a day. You can bail out here by making the right at the next junction and heading to the tram, skipping the portion to San Jacinto Peak. If you do continue on, just remember that you still have 11 miles of hiking left to complete.
A quick note. These directions are meant as a guide for the hike, and not a definitive source. Conditions change, and the information here can be different based on time of day, weather, season, etc. There can be small side trails that you might see but I missed. I have made every effort to include all the information you need to complete the hike successfully. I recommend using this guide in conjunction with a map, GPX file, common sense, and call to the ranger station or park office. If you do the hike and notice something has changed, please contact me and I will update the guide.