The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Hike to Mt San Jacinto is a great way to bag Southern California’s second highest peak without putting in a huge effort. It’s still a tough 11 mile hike, but it’s nothing like climbing to Mt San Jacinto from Palm Springs or Idyllwild. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway cuts about 6,000 feet of climbing off the hike, and offers a nice base station where you can grab a snack after your successful summit. The summit of Mt San Jacinto is one of my favorites because it straddles the line between Coastal California and the Sonoran Desert, allowing you to see the transition between the two. On a clear day you’ll see from the Pacific Ocean to Mount Charleston in Las Vegas. A really fun and insanely beautiful hike.
Getting to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
The journey actually starts at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway base station, which is where you take the tram 5873ft up to Mountain Station, which is still 5.5 miles away from the summit. There is a fee to park your car at the tram station.
Half of the fun is taking the tram to Mountain Station. The tram is the world’s largest rotating ariels tramway, starting in the Sonoran desert and ending in an alpine zone. And yes, the floor rotates as you go up and down, giving everyone a view at some point.
Some people freak out on the tram ride, just a heads up. If it’s windy out, the tram will sway and move with the gusts. It’s designed to do this, but can still be a little scary. I’ve been on the tram with a woman screaming at full volume for the 10 minute ride. Luckily, there’s alcohol at the top.
The Valley Station at the tram has limited facilities, just bathrooms and a gift shop. At the top, Mountain Station offers bathrooms, and interpretive center, gift shops, a bar, a food court, and a sit down restaurant. You could just make a trip out of a visit there, and plenty of people do. There are a few nice short hikes and walks from the tram station that you can do if the hike to San Jacinto summit is too much for you.
When you plan your visit, try to take the first tram up in the morning to avoid the crowds. The tram and the hike can get really busy. Also, look at the schedule and see when the last tram down leaves. If you miss this, you’ll be sleeping on the floor at Mountain Station.
Budget in time after your hike to grab a bite and a beer at the tram station. There are also interpretive exhibits that are worth a look.
Gear for the Hike to Mt San Jacinto
Don’t let the fact that you take a tram for a few thousand feet fool you, this is a “hike” hike and you should be prepared. The first thing to note is that the weather will be different at Mountain Station than it will be in Palm Springs. Sounds like common sense but you’d be surprised at how many people are not ready for the hike.
In the summer, the summit will be about 30 degrees F cooler than Palm Springs, making for a nice temperate hike. In the winter, the summit can be covered in snow and ice. And for just about every season it will be windy at the summit. Before you do the hike, check the weather at the summit and prepare for those conditions. If it is wintery conditions, check the tram, they sometimes close. And if you don’t have winter hiking experience, be ready to turn around if the conditions are bad. Usually the hike gets a lot of traffic, and even in the snow it can be doable, but if there’s fresh snow and you don’t have established tracks to follow, you should probably give it a skip.
If you want hiking gear recommendations, check out my full gear list. I only recommend and review gear that I actually use. No company pays me to push their product. Everything on my gear list is battle tested on the trails, and should work well for you too.
You can also camp close to the summit at Round Valley (read below in directions). It’s a fun little campsite and a good place if you want to spend some time at altitude or split the hike into two segments. If you camp at Round Valley, you can leave for the summit early and have it to yourself. You can also leave your gear at the campground and just summit with a smaller pack, but make sure your food is protected from mice and rodents. You don’t have to worry about bears here.
To camp at San Jacinto, get a permit here and send it in. You can book it 56 days out and can also ask for no-shows on the day of.
That’s it, you did it. Even though you had the tram, it’s still a very tough hike. Enjoy a bite or drink at the tram station and head back down the mountain.
Other Options to San Jacinto Summit
If you’re fit and experienced, there are a few other ways to do the Mt San Jacinto summit. My favorite is a 19.5 mile hike from Idyllwild (which you can do as an overnight backpacking trip), and you also can do the epic Cactus to Clouds hike, which is one of the hardest hikes in the USA, starting at the Palm Springs Art Museum and ending at the summit. Please, please, please, please do not do Cactus to Clouds unless you are very experienced and know what you are doing. People die on that hike.
You can help other hikers. If you do this hike and something has changed, snap a few photos and email me the details. I’ll update the guide so that others can do the hike safely.