The Cactus to Clouds (C2C) trail is a hiking trail from Palm Springs, California to the San Jacinto Peak. This trail has the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States, and it is listed as number 5 by Backpacker Magazine in the list of America’s Hardest Day Hikes. The trail starts in Palm Springs behind the Art Museum at an elevation of 460 feet. San Jacinto Peak is at 10,834 feet, so the trail rises a total of about 10,300 feet.
Compare this to hiking from Whitney Portal, which is at 8,360 feet to the peak of Whitney, at 14,505 feet, so the climb is “only” 6,200 feet. Even the climb to the top of Mt. Everest from base camp is only 800 feet more elevation difference than the Cactus to Clouds.
You get the idea: You cannot climb more altitude in a day in a single hike than on this trail pretty much anywhere in the world. It’s formidable.
So at 6:00am in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday I got in my car and drove to Palm Springs with the intent of doing an “exploratory hike” of C2C. This is not the kind of hike you attempt unless you are extremely well prepared and very fit for climbing. I strongly believe in making exploratory forays into difficult hikes before I commit. My plan was to ascend as far as I could, given water, daylight and sheer stamina, and then turn around.
The green arrow shows where the trailhead is. It is located right behind the parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the trail at that point is called the Museum Trail. It is extremely steep as soon as you set foot on the trail, and it never lets up for a full hour and 1,000 feet elevation gain.
There is an alternative trail that starts at the red arrow a few blocks south, which probably is a bit milder. It is part of the Skyline Trail which meets the C2C after about a mile or so. I may try that one next time.
The picture above shows the trailhead behind the museum parking lot. The trail is extremely rough, rocky, and actually hard to find in the first mile. I was certainly off trail a number of times, scrambling through boulders, trying to find my way. They have small white blazes on rocks, but they are not steady and consistent enough to maintain a good trail. When in doubt, head straight up, and eventually you come across the trail again.
This is why it’s called “Cactus” to Clouds.
Looking down from about 800 feet up it seems almost precarious right over the city.
Here are more views. I would not want to live in one of those houses below when an earthquake rattles this mountain and shakes some of these boulders loose.
Looking north from about 1,500 feet up into the desert with Palm Springs below.
After about an hour and a half, I got to the first “rescue box.” The sign says to not break the seal unless it’s an emergency, so I stayed away.
The rescue boxes are a grim reminder of those who have died or come near death on this harsh trail. Inside supposedly are a telephone, water, and other essentials. I have heard that some people have raided these boxes even though there was not an emergency. Can you imagine getting here in a life-threatening situation and finding the box empty?
One I got a bit over 3,000 feet high, I was able to see the snow-covered peaks of San Gorgonio in the distance, the highest peak in Southern California.
A bit further, and I was finally able to glimpse the mountain station in the distance. This is where the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ends – which means it’s the first place where there is water (and beer – it’s a full mountain lodge with bar and restaurant) and a way down and out.
From where I am standing, that is still more than 5,000 feet up and about 7 miles away.
This is where I decided I had to turn around. I was at 3,500 feet elevation, I was 3.5 miles in from the trailhead, and I had hiked for 3.5 hours. You get the idea, one mile and 1,000 feet elevation per hour. It was close to noon, I had used up half my water, and close to half my daylight, and all my strength.
The C2C is a nasty trail where you quickly get to a point of no return. The only way out is continuing up the steep trail – and nature does not care if you have any more water. People have turned around too late, tried to hike back down, only to be overcome by the furnace of the desert heat. Heatstroke is the most common form of death on the C2C, followed, of course, by falls. In the winter the trail gets icy.
The day I was there it was iced up above 6,500 feet. I had no crampons, so if I had continued on, I would have run out of water at about 6,000 feet, with 2,600 more to climb before the mountain station, on an icy trail along steep cliffs. A very lethal combination.
I once got caught in ice in the Grand Canyon without crampons – never again.
But that’s why it’s called an exploratory hike. Time to turn around. I rested a bit, ate, drank some water, took in the panorama, and headed back down. It took me three more hours to get back down to the city. Very steep trails take as long to go down as they take to climb up – at least for me.
I looked back up from the trail to the highpoint that I had reached.
Later, from the car, I glanced back to the ridge and found the very spot that I had reached before I turned around.
Now I know how to conquer the C2C. It will take two more trips, at least:
Next time I need to leave at 3:00am with a headlamp, so I can ascend to about 3,500 feet before daylight. I have to carry at least 6 liters of water, perhaps 7. That should get me to the mountain station by about 1:00pm. That’s enough for that try. 8,000 feet up, in about 10 hours.
The following time, depending on how I did, I should be able to go the extra 5.5 miles from the mountain station to the San Jacinto Peak for the full 10,000 feet. I should be able to get there by 2:00pm, provided I leave at 2:00am from the valley. The problem is, there is no water on the peak, so I’ll have to carry enough to get up and back down to the mountain station, making for a 20 mile hike before I can take the tram down.
The C2C is a badass day hike. Only experienced hikers should attempt this. I recommend an exploratory hike first, to get the lay of the land. This mountain commands respect.