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Best Hikes in the World

Cactus to Clouds Hike

  • 21 miles - Very Hard Effort
  • 12 - 16 Hours (Total)
  • Expect to See Some Other Hikers
  • 10,800 Total Feet of Climbing
  • Max Elevation of 10,833 feet
  • No Dogs Allowed

The Cactus to Clouds hike is epic. Backpacker Magazine rated it one of the hardest day hikes in the world. You start in downtown Palm Springs and climb over 10,000 feet to the summit of Mt San Jacinto, with a large stretch on the Skyline Trail. It's not only physically challenging, but you must also factor in the potentially deadly weather. However, with the proper training and preparation, you can do the hike safely, and in this guide, I'll show you how.

In this Guide:
  • When to Do Cactus to Clouds
  • How Not to Die
  • Insider Tips and Recommendations
  • Turn by Turn Directions

When to Hike Cactus to Clouds

C2c 2023 Update 1
If you are an experienced hiker, the "no water" part of this warning is not what sets off alarm bells; it's the "8 miles, 10 hours" part. That's a very slow pace and, for most folks, a bit of an exaggeration, but a good clue of the effort involved. When you factor in the extreme weather and lack of water, it's easy to understand how hikers potentially bite off more than they can chew on C2C.

Social media and many website trip reports have made Cactus to Clouds more popular. But it's not 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. So the first thing to plan for is the weather.

Best Seasons for C2C

Cactus to Clouds features extremes of weather at both ends. Palm Springs lies in the Sonoran Desert, with high temperatures often above 110F. The summit of San Jacinto is known for alpine conditions, with snow, ice, and windchill. The trick is to find a window when it's cooler in Palm Springs and the upper elevations are clear of snow and ice.

Time PeriodConditions
Late September - Early OctoberThis is your best bet for the hike. Temperatures in Palm Springs can start to cool down and the upper elevations are generally free of snow. The trail is well-trodden and easiest to follow.
November - April Winter conditions can make the upper portion of the hike more of a mountaineering experience. Even experienced winter hikers often have difficulty braving the steep "traverse" section where the gradient goes to 50%. Falling ice and debris in the traverse section add an element of risk that most people would rather avoid.
MayThis is the second-best opportunity with cooler temps at lower altitudes and most snow gone on the upper slopes. The shady and cooler sections of the traverse can often have lingering ice and snow.
June - September Most rescues and deaths happen in the summer when the highs can be around 110-120F. The park rangers strongly recommend NOT doing your hike during this time.

People have died on this hike. So please make sure you've fully prepared for this hike and are doing it under the right conditions.

Deadly Summer Conditions

To cut to the chase here, heat stroke kicks in when your body goes above 104° F. Your brain functions start to shut down, then your bodily functions, then death. Temperatures in Palm Springs have gone into the 120Fs. So if it gets too hot, you can die, and people have. Most rescues on the Skyline Trail are from heat-related issues. People have died only a mile away from the trailhead in these parts. It's real.

In very hot but not deadly temperatures, the heat will sap up energy. You'll want every ounce of energy you can get on this hike. If you want to do this hike when it's hot out, do it a few times in good conditions to understand the risks and effort involved.

Deadly Winter Conditions

The traverse and the section from Coffman's Crag to Grubbs Notch are steep and loose. These sections can become treacherous in the winter and more of a mountaineering exercise. The area here is shaded and cool, with ice and snow lingering longer than in other spots. The steep slopes are prone to falling debris and ice.

Picking the Right Time

cris hazzard at dawn on cactus to clouds hike
You're going to want to use the weather in your hike strategically. For example, here I am, hitting 5000ft at dawn, and it's dramatically cooler than in downtown Palm Springs.

Given the temperatures and distance on this hike, it's usually wise to leave before dawn. First, you want to give yourself enough time to complete the hike. Generally, my pace on Cactus to Clouds is about half my average hiking pace. For instance, I normally hike at 3 mph (20 min/mile) pace. For C2C it's a safe bet to half the pace to 1.5mph (40 min/mile). It's a bit conservative, but it gives you some wiggle room and time to take breaks.

The other thing to consider is that the temperature goes down about 3-5°F for every 1000 feet you climb. It's a general rule, and there are many factors, so I ballpark it at 4°F per 1000 feet. I take the hourly forecast for Palm Springs and then calculate the temperatures along the way as I climb. For example, if it's supposed to be 80°F at 10 am in Palm Springs and I've calculated that I'll be at 8400 feet by then, It should be about 32°F cooler (48°F). It's a rough guide but one to factor into your planning.

I've created a spreadsheet to help you time out your hike and give you a rough guide on how the temperature will be along the way. Make a copy and customize it for yourself.

Weather windows can occur at any time. I've done this hike in August when high temps in Palm Springs were in the 80Fs. If you are local, keep an eye on the weather.

Training for Cactus to Clouds

The Cactus to Clouds hike is steep and long; there's no getting around it. It would help if you got used to climbing for 10-13 hours straight. I recommend these hikes as preparation for hiking Cactus to Clouds.

Gear For the Hike

C2c 2023 Update 2
Even though there is decent cell reception on the lower slopes of the Skyline Trail, having a satellite communicator is still a smart idea on this rugged trail. Accidents happen, whether to you or someone you may encounter.

Gear That I Love Right Now

Nothing is sponsored or promoted, just the actual gear that I use.

Gear Inreach Mini 2
Garmin InReach Mini 2Hit SOS or just tell loved ones that you're running late where your cell phone has no service.  Review here.
Gear Topo Pursuit
Topo Pursuit 2The best hiking footwear I've ever owned. No blisters. Get them wet, they dry quickly. Lots of cushion and comfort.
Gear Epix Pro Up Ahead
Garmin Epix ProHiking maps, route info, and fitness stats on my wrist. Review here.
Hikelite 26 Gear
Osprey Hikelite 26Lightweight, carries all your gear, and your back doesn't get sweaty. Oh yea, it's also one of the most inexpensive packs you can get.

Check out the complete list here. ( Updated July 2024)

Getting to the Trailhead

Cactus To Clouds Logistics
Cactus to Clouds is a point-to-point hike, starting in downtown Palm Springs and ending at the tram station. Logistically you hike up, then back down to the upper tram station, tram down, and then get a ride back to the start.

The trailhead is within walking distance of many downtown Palm Springs hotels. So if you want to stay for two days, you can walk from your hotel to the trail, do the hike, and then head back to your hotel for a warm (or cold) shower.

Cactus to Clouds Trails

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.

The Skyline Trail (the portion of the hike until you get to Long Valley) is not an officially sanctioned trail by any park service. However, authorities recognize it as a cross-country route, 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.

Click Here To View

Use This Map:
View in CalTopo | PDF Map | GPX File

3d Map

Cactus To Clouds Sections
Here's the route on a 3D map. I generally "chunk" the hike into the sections you see here (in different colors) to divide and conquer this long and challenging day.

Elevation Profile

Cactus To Clouds Elevation
You can look at C2C as two hikes combined. First, you have the monster 8000 feet of climbing in just under 10 miles. Then you have the 2000 feet and change hike from Long Valley to the summit and back to the tram.

Breakdown of Cactus to Clouds Sections

It helps to mentally break the hike into sections and tackle it one at a time. Distances are approximate and will change depending on how many wrong turns you make (if any). I've seen some mileage charts online with different (and lower) values. Take them with a grain of salt and use it as a rough guide. These waypoints are also in the GPX file.

LandmarkApprox. DistanceApprox. ElevationNotesHours at 1.5mph Pace
Palm Springs Art Museum04760:00
Picnic Benches113500:40
Rescue 12.52500Turn Around Gut Check1:40
Rescue 26.554004:20
Flat Rock7.559005:00
Grubbs Notch9.58400Steepest Climbing is Done6:20
Long Valley Ranger Station108400Water & Permit6:40
Wellman Divide13.597009:00
San Jacinto Peak15.51083410:20

The history of the Skyline Trail is murky. Some say it was a native Cahuilla trail; others say it was started by the CCC in the 1930s and abandoned. The modern-day Cactus to Clouds hike began in 1991 when Coachella Valley Hiking Club members revived the trail and started leading hikes there.

The Point of No Return

Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 12
You'll see two rescue boxes along the route on the Skyline Trail. They're filled with water, snacks, and emergency gear. Only take something if you're in terrible shape. If you have a water bottle to drop off, leave it in the box.

Hopefully, you read the article about deaths on Cactus to Clouds and fully understand that you can quickly die if you make poor choices or have bad luck. Even if you've planned and timed your Cactus to Clouds hike perfectly, sometimes we all have bad days.

You need to assess your condition in the first few miles. Check in with yourself at the picnic tables and then at Rescue 1. You need to turn around if you're tired or have doubts. 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 Rescue 1 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 afterward 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 to continue can mean death. This is real.

Skyline Trail Navigation Tips

The first part of Cactus to Clouds is on the Skyline Trail, usually hiked in the dark, which can be challenging to follow. Hiking with a headlamp puts your focus right in front of you. The peripheral vision you use to recognize a twist or turn on the trail is not there. Here's how to make sure you're on the right course.

Cactus to Clouds Hike Directions

Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 2
Start off at the Art Museum trailhead.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 3
Cross the road and avoid any private property.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 4
Follow the white blazes uphill.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 6
At just under a mile you'll reach the picnic benches.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 5
Make the hard left at the picnic bench area.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 7
Follow the North Lykken Trail.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 8
In a minute or two you'll reach the large rock cairn. Make the right.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 1
Shortly after the split bear to the left.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 9
You'll see the two painted rocks pointing toward Long Valley.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 10
As you climb you'll pass a warning sign.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 11
At about 2.5 miles in you'll reach Rescue 1.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 13
Just past Rescue 1 is a flat area. The trail continues uphill to the left.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 14
There's a lot of uphill and not much else. There's some spray paint at the 4 mile mark, almost halfway there.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 15
As you climb the high peaks come into view. The big white granite dome is Coffman's Crag, and the trail climbs to the notch above and to the left of it.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 17
Pass by tombstone rock.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 16
Continue hiking uphill. You'll see a ridge which we'll hike along to Flat Rock.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 18
At about 6.5 miles in you'll pass Rescue 2.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 19
Here's Flat Rock, a great place to regroup before the hardest climbing starts. It's about 2 more miles to Long Valley. The trail continues back to the right.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 20
Now you climb up steep manzanita slopes.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 21
At about 8.5 miles in you'll reach the Traverse. it's about 7400 feet here; you have about 1000 feet of climbing left in the next mile to Grubbs Notch.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 22
When you reach Coffman's Crag, make the hard left and head uphill.

Owen Earl Coffman, who the crag is named after, was an early Palm Springs resident instrumental in the town's development. He was co-founder of the tram. He also managed the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. The guy got around.

Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 23
This part is very short and very steep.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 25
Grubbs Notch! The toughest part of the hike is behind you.

VW Grubbs was a local resident instrumental in ensuring this area was developed for recreation, including getting the tram built (1963).

Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 26
Once over Grubbs Notch bear right.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 27
Take the utility trail past the sheds to the right.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 28
When you get to the paved path from the tram station, make the left.

When you return from the summit, you'll climb the paved path to the right to finish the hike at the tram station.

Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 29
From here on out the trail is well marked.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 30
Here's the ranger station with water and bathrooms.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 31
Fill out the free permit. Leave the top copy, take the bottom copy, and then return it to the mailbox at the end of the hike.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 32
Once outside the ranger station, bear right on the trail to the summit.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 33
There are lots of signs from here on out. Keep following the signs for San Jacinto Peak.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 34
When you get to this wilderness sign, the trail continues uphill to the left.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 35
Continue straight toward Round Valley and the summit.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 36
The toilets at the Round Valley Campground are the last before the summit.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 37
When you reach Round Valley Campground, make the left and continue uphill.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 38
At Wellman Divide, the trail continues to the right.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 39
There's a sign for Wellman Divide, the last landmark before the summit. Continue uphill.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 40
The trail goes in and out of the manzanita.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 41
Keep your eyes open for a blocked trail in front. At this point make the hard left on the one switchback.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 42
Continue uphill on the last switchback.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 43
The trail winds around and passes a junction. Continue straight uphill.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 44
Pass by the left of the refuge hut.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 45
Scramble the last few hundred feet up to the summit.
Cactus To Clouds Directions Update 46
And that's it!

From here, just hike back down the way you came, taking the paved path just past the ranger station.

Wait, how high is San Jacinto? Well, there's lots of popular media that says 10834 feet. The last USGS map I could find (from 1996) says 10804 feet. The USGS map from 1955 lists 18301 feet. The website shows 10834 feet based on NAVD88. So we're going with that.

Need More Info?

This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard 4 Mile Trail Yosemite
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!). You can stay up to date with my new guides by following me on YouTube, Instagram, or by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.