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cactus to clouds hike

Cactus to Clouds Hike

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.

Rating:
5 / 5
Distance:
21 miles (33.8 km)
Time:
13 - 16 Hours
Difficulty:
Extremely Hard
Climbing:
10800 ft (3292 m)
Trail Condition:
Unmarked and Marked Trails
Challenges:
No water, distance, extreme effort
People:
Minimal
Known For:
Extreme difficulty, climbing
Best Time:
Fall
Dogs:
No
Bathrooms:
Yes
Parking:
Free

Cactus To Clouds Hike Trail Maps

Use this address in Google Maps to get to the trailhead:
101 N Museum Dr, Palm Springs, CA, 92262, USA

cactus to clouds hike location

Palm Springs is about 2 hours east of downtown LA, and about 2.5 hours from San Diego. Check the traffic conditions before you go. There's typically a lot of traffic on these routes that can add an hour or so onto the ride. You can also fly directly into Palm Springs from many cities.

cactus to clouds 3d map

The hike starts in the Palm Springs Art Museum parking lot, at 470ft. It then climbs to the Long Valley Ranger Station, where the tram ascends to. From there it's well marked trails to the summit of Mount San Jacinto.

cactus to clouds hike elevation

The bulk of the climbing is from Palm Springs to Long Valley, which is where the tram takes you. The 2 miles or so to Long Valley are among the toughest, with gradients reaching 50%. After that, the remaining 5 miles or so only climb about 2,000 feet. Unfortunately they feel pretty tough because of all the climbing you did previously.

Interactive Map

Cactus To Clouds Hike Map Downloads

hiking map on garmin fenix 3

If you have GPS device (I use this one by Garmin and I love it) for your hike, load the GPX file below into your device to navigate the hike. For help on loading the GPX file, read this article on converting and transferring to a Garmin GPS.

Also, don’t rely on electronics as your sole means of navigation. There’s a basic printable PDF map below, and I strongly picking up a good topo map too.

View a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

Cactus To Clouds Hike Video

Cactus To Clouds Hike Directions

cactus to clouds hike

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.

cactus to clouds warning
The warning rock on the hike. People die here. Know exactly what you’re doing and be prepared.

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.

When to Hike 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).

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.

cris hazzard at dawn on cactus to clouds hike
Leave early and try to be above 5,000 feet by dawn.

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.

Extra Gear for Cactus to Clouds

To start, bring extra water. There are no water sources on the hike before Long Valley. I brought 6 liters of water (3 liters in my Camelbak, and then 2×1.5 liter bottles), and that seemed to do the trick. I also refilled at the Long Valley Ranger Station just in case. Another option for water is the tram station, but it will take you off the hike. Don’t count on any water sources along the hike being available. In the summer, or during a drought, many sources are dry.

Some folks also bring a bottle of Gatorade. Sugar, electrolytes, water, it can’t hurt.

I also bring two small water bottles to leave at the rescue boxes. See the directions below for more info.

Bring lots of snacks. I tried to eat a ProBar every 1.5-2 hours. The combination of heat, effort, and altitude will generally kill your appetite, but you need to eat if you want energy. I took some energy gels too, which are easier than solid foods to get down. I made sure I popped a few gels when I got to Flat Rock, and that helped on the last 2, very tough, miles up to Long Valley. You will probably burn about 4,000-6,000 calories on this hike.

medicine on cactus to clouds hike
Found this discarded box on the trail (and took it with me and threw it away). If this is a piece of extra gear that you need, you should probably do this hike another time. Doing a desert hike with a condition that causes dehydration is not a great idea.

If you are doing this hike in a transitional month, make sure you bring layers and clothing for an alpine climate at the summit. Palm Springs can be hot and sunny, and the San Jacinto Peak can be in blizzard conditions at the same time. You need to be prepared. Even during the summer, the peak can have strong winds and cold temperatures. There might also be ice and snow on the upper portions of the Skyline Trail, so micro-spikes and trekking poles are a good move.

Another quick tip, have extra batteries for your headlamp handy in your pack. Most headlamps are LED and last a long time, but just in case they die, you don’t want to be fumbling for batteries in the pitch dark.

Lastly, have some way to signal for help. I had my ACR ResQLink GPS beacon, and then I had a backup DeLorme inReach SE 2-Way Satellite Communicator as well. I had plenty of survival gear, including a tarp for shade and shelter, a mirror, whistle, fire starters, and some other miscellaneous gear. Prepare for the worst.

delorme on san jacinto
I used the DeLorme to periodically send a “I’m okay” message with my position to my family. Worth it’s weight in gold.

Navigation Tips

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.

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.

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

Turn by Turn Directions

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.

cactus to clouds hike parking
The hike starts on the far end of the parking lot at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Don’t park in this lot, you’ll get a ticket.
cactus to clouds hike parking
Park in the garage directly across the street, which is free. Make sure you park in a covered portion so your car doesn’t boil in the sun.
cactus to clouds hike trailhead
The trailhead is well marked with signage. Read the signs for any notices.
cactus to clouds hike trailhead
This is also the start of the Museum Trail, a shorter day hike on the same route.
cactus to clouds hike trailhead
There’s signage to warn hikers who aren’t prepared.
cactus to clouds trail
Here’s an overview of the first few miles out of Palm Springs. You go straight up on the ridge line.
cactus to clouds trail
Start hiking up the well marked trail.
cactus to clouds trail
The trail is steep from the beginning.
cactus to clouds trail
As the trail winds it’s way behind houses, there are a lot of private property signs. Respect that and stay on the trail, avoiding shortcuts.
cactus to clouds trail
Almost immediately after starting there are some stairs that lead to a paved driveway.
cactus to clouds trail
Cross the driveeway and continue up the trail. The first part of the trail, to the picnic benches, is also known as the Museum Trail.
cactus to clouds trail
Do your best to stay on the trail. Cutting switchbacks is not only bad for the land, but also makes it harder for other hikers to know where they’re going.
skyline trail white blaze
The white dots are your best friend on the Skyline Trail. On this beginning stretch, there are some small side trails and shortcuts, but the main trail is well marked with the white dot blazes. They’re easy to spot at night with your headlamp.
skyline trail white blaze
Here you can see two white blazes marking the trail. They’re not always this close, but they’re pretty consistent for the first half of the Skyline Trail.
skyline trail white blaze
The trail is steep on this first section. Keep going up, following the white blazes.
cactus to clouds trail
The trail splits, follow the trail to the left and avoid the steep shortcut that includes a rock scramble.
cactus to clouds trail
White blazes can also mark a switchback. If the trail doesn’t look obvious in front of you, check back and up for a switchback.
cactus to clouds trail
Follow the trail signs. There are a few of these in the beginning Museum Trail portion of the hike.
cactus to clouds trail
Continue up the steep trail.
cactus to clouds trail
At one point the trail goes downhill for a short stretch and you’ll think you are going the wrong way, but it’s not.
cactus to clouds trail
At the end of that short downhill section you’ll see another brown trail sign. Stay to the left. The trail to the right is the steep shortcut from earlier.
skyline trail white blaze
The trail goes over hard rock for some stretches. These are generally marked with white blazes.
cactus to clouds trail
The parts of the hike closer to Palm Springs have some nice overlooks. Generally there is a trail sign to keep you on the main trail and not on one of these spurs.
skyline trail white blaze
Keep climbing, following the white blazes.

The following images pick up from the night,

skyline trail white blaze
Here’s what the white blazes look like in the dark. They stand out well with a headlamp.
cactus to clouds hike picnic tables
At just under a mile or so, you’ll reach the picnic tables. You’ll see the first ones down to your right as you enter the area.
cactus to clouds hike picnic tables
This satellite photo helps understand where you need to go at the picnic tables. It’s an open area so you have to hit the edges to find the trail again. Do a hard left to continue.
cactus to clouds hike picnic tables
There will be one table to your left as you exit toward the Skyline trail.
skyline trail white blaze
The trail continues with the white blazes.
cactus to clouds trail
Shortly you’ll come to this big cairn. Bear right behind them.
cactus to clouds trail
Here’s a satellite photo of the trail by the cairn.
cactus to clouds sign
You’ll also see this sign by the cairn, which some filthy animals have tagged.
cactus to clouds trail
When you come to this rock, hike to the left.
cactus to clouds warning
Shortly after that rock you’ll reach the warning rock. Consider this the point of no return and keep hiking.
cactus to clouds trail
Here’s a satellite photo of the last two rocks and the trail intersections. From this photo you can see lots of intersections. In the dark with my headlamp, the main trail was the only one I saw. Maybe it’s the painted rocks, but in real life this was easier than navigating the intersection that the map showed.
cactus to clouds trail
Here’s my GPS track through on that satellite photo for reference. The little diversion I did off the trail was to read the warning rock.
cactus to clouds trail
After that, you’re on the Skyline Trail until Round Valley. Any side trail will be pretty small and unofficial. Always stay on the bigger and more well-worn path. Follow the white blazes as usual.
cactus to clouds trail
When the trail goes through open areas, look for a line of rocks marking the trail. The local hikers have done a really great job of marking the trail.
palm springs
As always, the trail climbs, giving you skyline views into Palm Springs below. The lights of the city should be visible for most of your hike in the dark.
skyline trail white blaze
When there are no white blazes, the trail is usually well worn. Look for boot prints as you climb.
Rescue Box 1
Just after 2 miles you’ll reach Rescue Box 1.
Rescue Box 1
Rescue Box 1 is right on the trail and easy to spot.
Rescue Box 1
If you brought water to leave, do it here.
skyline trail white blaze
Continue hiking up the climb, keeping your eyes open for the white blazes.
skyline trail
When the hike goes over flat sections, look for branches and rocks that mark the way.
tram station lights
At around 4 miles, you’ll see a bright light in the distance, up the mountain. These are the lights at the tram station. This will be your north star for a the next few tough hours. When it gets light out, you can still see the grey metal beams of the tram station occasionally.
skyline trail
Remember to periodically check your track against the GPX file. There were only a handful of times when I lost the trail, but checking in with the GPX every 20 minutes or so and seeing myself on the trail ensured that I wasn’t wandering off into the desert on some coyote run.
4300 foot marker
A little before 5 miles, you’ll see the 4300 foot marker.
4300 foot marker
The trail continues back behind the 4300 foot marker.
skyline trail white blaze
Again, the white blazes stay with you, marking the Skyline Trail.
sunrise on skyline trail
When dawn arrives, you’ll be happy and hopefully high enough that the desert heat isn’t an issue anymore. The trail is much easier to follow once you have some sunlight to supplement your headlamp.
lights from the tram station
The lights from the tram station will still light the way. So close yet so far…
cactus to clouds trail
When you get to around 5,000 feet the desert changes and there is much more cactus and scrubs.
cris hazzard on cactus to clouds trail
I haven’t been mentioning it, but this entire way is basically straight up. It’s steep. Make sure you’re eating at regular intervals and stop for a breather when you need to.
cactus to clouds trail
On this day, there were a ton of clouds from a forest fire in the Cajon Pass.
ridge at Round Valley
At around 6 miles you will start to see the ridge at Round Valley. The trail has some level and downhill sections here and is quite pleasant.
skyline trail white blaze
When it’s light out, the white blazes are easier to spot and still mark the Skyline Trail.
skyline trail
There are a couple of trail splits on the route, which are also marked on many maps. At this one, make the left. It heads downhill a bit and feels counterintuitive after so much climbing, but it’s the correct way.
skyline trail
You can also use your map to navigate these trail splits. Both ways get you there. The longer way is usually the (less steep) official version
skyline trail
After that last split, your legs get a break when the trail goes downhill.
skyline trail
When the split ends, continue on the main trail. You can see the cutoff to the right, which is cordoned off with stones.
Sunrise on the hike
Sunrise on the hike.
skyline trail
You’ll see a painted rock pointing backward to Palm Springs. Keep heading up to Long Valley.
skyline trail
The crest at Long Valley gets closer. The steepest parts are yet to come.
Rescue 2
Eventually you reach Rescue 2.
Rescue 2
If you brought an extra water, leave it in the box.
skyline trail
Shortly after Rescue 2 there are some decent places to stop for a snack and drink. You might have seen some little areas where people camped and had a small fire. Doing this as a backpacking trip, temperatures permitting, is also an option.
chino canyon
This section has some great views into Chino Canyon to the right, where the tram comes up. You can really start to see how far up you’ve gone and how tough the route is.
Flat Rock
At around 8.5 miles you’ll reach Flat Rock, also known as Dry Falls.
Flat Rock
At Flat Rock the trail continues across the wash and to the back. It might be overgrown, so keep your eyes open.
cactus to clouds trail
Here’s an overview of the last two miles to Grubbs Notch. You can see how the steepness dramatically increases, with the worst stretch at the very end after Coffman’s Crag.
skyline trail
Now you start going up. Just mentally prepare yourself, take breaks when you need to, and keep hiking.
grubbs notch
You’ll see the high point to the left of Grubb’s Notch as you climb. That’s where you’re going.
views of San Gorgonio
When you cross the Traverse you’ll get some nice views of San Gorgonio and the valley below, including Chino Canyon where the tram is.
skyline trail
I ran through my 3 liters of water somewhere around here and refilled. I also topped up my water at the ranger station later.
skyline trail
The trail heads across the Traverse. Sometimes it splits into smaller trails that come back together. My focus was staying on the trail with the most footprints, and it worked.
coffmans crag
When you get to Coffman’s Crag, the trail turns left and gets the steepest.
skyline trail
The trail skirts the edge of the mountain, giving you great views down below and of the tram.
cris hazzard on skyline trail
This part is steep. I had to take breaks every few minutes.
cris hazzard on skyline trail
Eventually you’ll see the sky as you approach Grubb’s Notch. The hardest is behind you.
long valley
YOU MADE IT! At Grubb’s Notch you emerge at peaceful and flat Long Valley. From here on out, you are in Mount San Jacinto State Park, and the trails are well marked and easy to follow. And not as steep.
long valley
Head onto the Desert View Trail, and then make the quick right onto the service trail.
long valley
Here’s a closeup of the right turn onto the service trail. Don’t go through the log, even though it looks cool.
cactus to clouds hike
The service trail is not an official trail but is marked as a shortcut to the tram.
cactus to clouds hike
Keep going straight, avoiding any trails to the left. There are picnic benches here if you want to refuel for the final push.

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.

cactus to clouds hike
At the big junction with the concrete path to the tram station, make the left to head to the Long Valley Ranger Station.
cactus to clouds hike
There’s a nice map on the board that will help you orient yourself for the rest of the hike, along with the obligatory mountain lion warnings.
cactus to clouds hike
The ranger station is very close to the sign. There are bathrooms here, so go if you need to.
cactus to clouds hike
You need to stop at the ranger station to get a free permit.
long valley ranger station
The permit station is on the porch in front of the ranger station. There are instructions, weather reports, and trail conditions here. Fill out the permit, keep one copy, and leave the other.
long valley ranger station
There’s water in back of the ranger station. On this day, there was a warning about possible toxins in the water, but I noticed that the rangers were filling their bottles here, so I went ahead and topped up.
long valley ranger station
There’s a cool sign on the ranger station that’s great for posing in a picture with.
cactus to clouds hike
After your break at the ranger station, head back on the trail, which is clearly marked.
cactus to clouds trail
After doing the Skyline Trail, these trails will seem like Disneyland. Don’t be fooled though, you still climb 2,000+ feet and it will feel harder after your 8,000 ft initial effort.
cactus to clouds trail
Just follow the signs from here on out. These trails are well marked because many day hikers take the tram up and summit Mount San Jacinto from Long Valley. If you leave Palm Spring early enough, you can beat the crowds from the tram. If not, you will understand some of my grumpy old hiker friends call this hike the Cactus to Crowds.
cactus to clouds trail
After the first level stretch, you start going uphill again. No getting around that.
cactus to clouds trail
Avoid the Round Valley Loop and head to Round Valley directly.
bathrooms on cactus to clouds trail
There are some primitive bathrooms before the Round Valley campground. I saw a female hiker open the door, take a look, and turn around. Just a heads up.
cactus to clouds trail
Keep heading toward San Jacinto Peak as the Round Valley Loop rejoins.
cactus to clouds trail
Avoid any side trails and stay on the main trail.
cactus to clouds trail
Eventually you reach Round Valley Campground. If you wanted to make this a backpacking trip, you could camp here before the summit. Hike left toward the peak.
water on cactus to clouds trail
There may not be water available here. Check with the rangers.
cactus to clouds trail
The trail starts to climb again.
cactus to clouds trail
Almost there, you reached Wellman Divde. Make the right at the vista point.
cactus to clouds trail
Wellman Divide is the first time you can see west on the hike, into Orange and San Diego counties. It’s a good place for a snack break before the last push to San Jacinto Peak.
cactus to clouds trail
At the official junction of Wellman Divide, make the right.
cactus to clouds trail
The junction is well marked.
cactus to clouds trail
Also, note the tram sticker on the back of the sign. These appear on many signs heading back from the summit to aid unprepared day hikers.
cactus to clouds trail
The hike starts going up through some manzanita.
cactus to clouds trail
The trail gradually winds it’s way up the side of the mountain. That pointy mountain you see on the right is Cornell Peak at 9,750 ft.
cactus to clouds trail
At one point the trail goes through a boulder field, and is still easy to follow.
cactus to clouds trail
After emerging from the boulder field, you continue up with incredible views to the right.
cactus to clouds trail
After a long stretch, the trail cuts back to the left.
cactus to clouds trail
After the switchback, the trail opens up again with incredible views.
cactus to clouds trail
At the end of this stretch, you head over some rocks to the ridge.
cactus to clouds trail
The last junction! Head to the right and up to San Jacinto Peak.
cactus to clouds trail
The trail to the peak is well marked. It wasn’t always like this, but it’s much better and protects the landscape from the tram crowds.
cactus to clouds trail
Soon the hut will come into view. Keep hiking up past the hut.
cactus to clouds trail
This last part is a bit of a scramble, but some cairns at the beginning point you in the right direction.
cactus to clouds trail
The very end is a free-for-all scramble to the peak.
san jacinto summit
BOOM! You made it, the summit.
san jacinto summit
Grab your photos, hydrate, and fuel up. You still have 5.5 miles of glorious downhill to go. After you’re done at the summit, head back to the Long Valley Ranger Station.
long valley ranger station
At the station, look for this small mail box next to the trail.
long valley ranger station
Put your copy of the permit back into the box. At the end of the day, the rangers match the incoming permits with the outgoing permits to get an idea of how many hiked and who’s still out there.
long valley tram station
Keep hiking back to the concrete ramp to the tram station. After the hike you just did, this concrete ramp will feel like pure hell. Know that it’s your last uphill of the day, and there’s cold beer and soda at the end of the path.
long valley tram station
Head into the tram building and go up one level. You can buy a ticket back down the mountain at the gift shop. If you go up another level from the gift shop, there is a restaurant, cafeteria, and full-service bar.
long valley tram station
Take the tram back down and call it a day. What you just accomplished will really hit home as the tram takes you back to Palm Springs. If you made it this far, congrats. Consider yourself hardcore.

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.

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