The Skyline Hike – one of the Hardest Day Hikes Ever

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.

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.

I brought gear and provisions for the full C2C (like a down jacket and extra food), since on the top of San Jacinto there is snow at this time of the year, but I didn’t know what my stamina and strength would support. The “reduced” trip is what’s known as the “Skyline” hike, which is the same hike for the lower 8,000 feet and ends at the tram.

I started at the Ramon Road trailhead at 3:00am. From 3:00 to 6:00am, when the sun comes up, I hiked alone in complete darkness, with my headlamp. I had reached about 3,000 feet of elevation when the sun finally came up.

Sunrise over Palm Springs

Just before the sun came up, I took my first photograph. This is taken facing east, over Palm Springs, about 2,500 feet below. I had been on the trail for about three hours.

Cactus in Bloom

In the lower elevations, cactus of all types were in bloom at this time of year.

San Gorgonio in the Distance

From a typical trail scene at this elevation, the terrain is pretty scrubby, with thousands of cactus everywhere. In the distance looms San Gorgonio, with 11,503 feet the highest peak in Southern California, still covered in snow at the end of April.

Here is a view up the mountain. Very typical terrain at the 4,000 feet altitude level. The mountain is covered by lots of rugged boulders, impenetrable shrubs and cactus.

A Sign

About halfway up, there was the only sign on the entire trail. Of course, nobody hikes down this trail, but there is was anyway, a marker stating it’s five miles to Palm Springs. I had just come from there, so I knew. I took a break here, rested my feet and had a snack.

Looking Down on the Desert

From a significantly higher vantage point, another look down on Palm Springs and the desert surrounding it.

Looking Up

Here is where we’re going. This is NOT yet the peak of San Jacinto, that’s far behind, but this is the ridge where the world-famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has its mountain station. It’s my way down, so I needed to make it there to get off this mountain. The C2C trail is one of those trails where, to “get out” you have to keep going up, because turning around into the heat of the desert, possibly with not enough water, can be fatal. So on I go.

Sharing the Route [click to enlarge]
The red arrow points to the tram station at about 8,600 feet. That’s where I need to go. The red line shows the approximate route I’ll be taking up that way. The last 2,000 feet are absolutely brutal. Very steep, the trail is often eroded to the point of dissipating. It’s easy to get off trail and, believe me, you don’t want to lose the trail in that environment.

Alpine Terrain

Up on that final stretch, there are now massive trees and huge boulders. In the distance we can see San Gorgonio’s snow-covered peaks glistening.

The trek up that slope seemed endless, hopeless. I took a few steps, and huffed and puffed and waited. A few more steps, more puffs. There were some very exposed areas that if I were to slip or stumble, I could easily fall a few hundred feet without being able to arrest my fall. That could end very badly. I kept telling myself to plan every step carefully, to be solid and stable, no matter how much my feet hurt or how exhausted I was.

At the Top

Suddenly, at 8,350 feet, it all ended. I crossed the ridge and arrived at the wide open flat valley above. Day tourists abounded by the hundreds, with clean clothes, smelling of perfume, flip flops and small children in tow, none of them had hiked up. They had come up on the tram for a day on the mountain. Suddenly I felt like a relic, dirty, exhausted, shuffling up the ramp to the tram station.

After hiking for 11.25 miles, gaining 8,000 feet of elevation, I did not have enough time or strength to go on and add the 5.5 miles and 2,300 feet elevation gain from there to the peak, and, of course, the 5.5 miles back down from the peak to get back to the tram, which would have made it a 22 mile, 10,300 foot day.

When I was struggling my way up, a lot of hikers fitter than myself passed me, and I was questioning my abilities. Then I reminded myself that this hike is listed number 5 by Backpacker Magazine in the list of America’s Hardest Day Hikes, and only badass hikers can even do it. That helped. I just was one of the weaker badass hikers.

My advise: Do not commit to this trail unless you have done something similar before. You can’t practice gaining 8,000 feet of altitude in one run anywhere else. You will need to carry four liters of water. There is no chance of refilling anywhere along the way. You need to start at night so the heat of the desert morning does not exhaust you. You need good sun protection, since the majority of the trail is completely exposed. And you need to a be careful scout because it’s easy to lose the trail at times, particularly at higher elevations when you are most exhausted. You cannot afford to get lost in that environment.

I could not check Cactus to Clouds off my list. That is there for another day. But I could check off the Skyline Hike, one of the hardest day hikes I have ever done.



Movie Review: A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods

Many years ago I read the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. It’s one of those books that you can randomly open up at any page, point to any paragraph and start reading, and within a few seconds you crack up and often laugh out loud. It’s one of the funniest books ever.

The movie is about Bryson (Robert Redford), a writer who decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (the AT), and can’t find anybody to hike with him, except his cantankerous, out of shape friend Katz (Nick Nolte). So they go off and hike into the woods, where they encounter odd characters, rain, snow, endless woods, priceless vistas and the bottoms of their souls. There is something in hiking that opens up a man. Bryson and Katz are going through some good male bonding out in the elements.

The movie A Walk in the Woods is nothing like the book. The funny scenes are a bit predictable and slapsticky. And the story, while cute, doesn’t much follow the book at all, other than both are about hiking. In the end, that’s what it’s all about, and I would not be surprised if the southern terminus of the AT were not swamped next spring with lots of Bryson and Katz pairs, at least for the first few days.

Two stars for the movie, and half a star because it’s about hiking. Hey, I can do that!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

Movie Review: Mile…Mile & a Half

Muir Project

A group of artists took the John Muir Trail (JMT) and filmed a documentary. In addition to carrying gear and food for 25 days, they brought camera equipment, batteries and all it takes to make a film. They documented their trip, from beginning to end, some of the lows, some of the highs, and all of it is inspiring. Now I have plans underway to hike the JMT with my son next summer. Seeing this documentary helped get me motivated. 25 days under the stars.

Rating - Three Stars


Movie Review: Wild


I went to see Wild because it was the top-rated movie this Christmas season, with 92% on the Tomatometer.

Wild is a movie about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, as it is commonly called. That’s how it’s presented.

But that’s not really what it is. Wild is a movie about a young woman growing up in middle America with disadvantages, lots and lots of disadvantages.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed that came out a few years ago.


I never read the book. Checking the cover, and trusting the reputation of Oprah’s Book Club, I decided that this was a chick book and it wasn’t for me.

I entered the theater to watch the movie only because of all the choices it was the highest rated. You might say I entered with prejudices.

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) and her little brother grew up mostly with their single mom Bobbi (Laura Dern), who left her abusive husband when the children were little. They were poor, mom working waitressing jobs just to keep things together. Bobbi got cancer at the age of 45 and died rapidly. The children tried to cope, each in their own way. Cheryl ruined her own marriage through her adulterous ways.  After her divorce she skided into self-destruction, seeking abusive male relationships, descending into the fog of the drug culture all the way to shooting up heroin. Somehow she decided to pull herself up by her bootstraps and hike a portion of the PCT. The hike of over 100 days was supposed to clear her foggy mind and extract the demons that haunted her life.

The movie starts out with hiking scenes, but is constantly interspersed with flashbacks to Cheryl’s childhood, youth and young adult life of self-abuse. The flashbacks are sometimes only seconds long. While lots of flashbacks in a movie sometimes make it disjointed, it actually works quite well here, since the scenery of the two lives are so vastly different.

The scenes on the trail are nature, tents, backpacks, mountains, meadows, snow. Unmistakably the present. The scenes in the flashbacks are mom, children, naked bodies, drugs, wife beater guys and life in run down houses. So I always knew what part of the story we were in without getting confused.

Being a hiker, I looked forward to the hiking parts, but hiking is basically boring, hours and hours of setting one foot in front of the other, surrounded by breathtaking scenery that you don’t even see, because you are hungry, thirsty, tired, and can’t wait for the next four miles to be over so you finally reach your destination and camp. Hiking does not an exciting movie make.

But the parts about flashback life are more interesting. Sex, drugs, illness, drama, all makes for a story to tell. So it is not surprising that’s what the movie makers focused on to move the story along. And it worked. Getting some frontal nudity of Reese Witherspoon probably also attracted a viewer or two.

Cheryl “only” hiked a part of the PCT, about 1,000 miles, from the Mojave desert to the Bridge of the Gods, the cross-over from Oregon to Washington. The actual Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile ribbon of dirt and rock that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. If you want to learn about what it’s really like to hike the PCT, you can check out the following blogs, all by people who hiked it just this past 2014 season.

  • Carrot Quinn – hiked the PCT in 2014, then the lowest to highest (L2H) from Death Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney in 6 days, and is now on the Florida trail, hiking 800 miles from the southern tip of Florida through the swampland north.
  • Not a Chance – hiked the PCT in 2014, then with Carrot the L2H, and is now hiking the Te Araroa, 1800 miles from the northern to the southern tip of New Zealand.
  • Twinkle – hiked the PCT south to north in 2014, ended in September, flew to Maine, and hiked a large part of the Appalachian Trail (AT) north to south, ending late in November. He hiked 4,400 miles between March and November 2014.

These people didn’t hike 1,000 miles in 100 days, they hiked the full PCT 2,650 miles in 110 days, give or take a few. These are the badasses of ultra-light long-distance hikers, and their blogs are enlightening. This is where you learn about hiking.

But this is not a review of long distance hiking, it’s a review of the movie Wild. Cheryl Strayed, with her book and this movie, has put some spunk into PCT hiking, I am sure, and there probably are a number of people who went on the trail due to it. Not a Chance, somewhere, says that people keep asking her if she knew Cheryl Strayed, and she keeps answering “Cheryl hiked the PCT in 1992 when I was a toddler!”

The hikers I listed here didn’t affect the image of the PCT anywhere near how Cheryl did with her book and now movie. But then, Cheryl didn’t start out her hike wanting to affect hiking, the PCT, or the hiking world. Her story was about overcoming the demons of life. We are not all lucky enough to be born into affluent and functional families, with clean college educations, parents that can afford to send us to Harvard or Stanford. Many, many of us are born into much less fortunate environments. So it was for Cheryl. She chose hiking to expel the demons, and it seems she was successful.

And, in the process, she greatly popularized the PCT.

Wild is a wild ride, with stunning scenery, some suspense, good entertainment value, and no doubt a learning experience for viewers – particularly those that know nothing about hiking.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

Another Attempt at Sill Hill Waterfall

Early this morning I made another attempt – after several more over the last ten years – to find the elusive Sill Hill Waterfall. I didn’t reach the fall, and there were a lot of things “wrong” with this hike.

I was at the waterfall once and only once in the early 1990s, I don’t remember exactly what year. Then I had used Jerry Schad’s 1986 edition of Afield and Afoot in San Diego County – now very battered but still treasured.

Map Sill Hill
Map of Hike – click to enlarge

I started on the right side of the map, at a sharp angle of highway 79 just south of Lake Cuyamaca. There is a little parking area there in the bend which is impossible to miss. I got as far as the blue arrow on the map, which was 2.4 miles of hiking, moderately uphill, and then downhill for a while. The waterfall is located approximately where the red arrow points. There is no trail to the fall – never has been. That’s partly why it’s such a treasured destination. It’s just about impossible to find – or to reach. But let’s start at the beginning.

Milk Ranch Road
On Milk Ranch Road

Milk Ranch Road is a pretty well developed dirt road up the hill. There is no vehicle traffic since it is closed off by a locked gate down by the road. I left early in the morning, around 7:30.

Who is Waving At Me?

As I hiked up the road, suddenly I had this distinct feeling “somebody” was looking at me. There was a burned tree trunk to the right up the hill that looked a lot like a Hitler soldier saluting. I must add that the fires in the early 2000s devastated what used to be a forest up here, and dead trees are everywhere, as you can see in these pictures.

Six Way Intersection
The Six Way Intersection

After about two miles going steadily uphill I reached the 6-way intersection at a saddle. Here I am facing south toward the Azelea Spring Fire Road, which connects to the trail I took on July 4, 2012, described here.

Impenetrable Underbrush
Impenetrable Underbrush – Cuyamaca Peak in the Background

Zooming the camera looking south, I could see Cuyamaca Peak, the second highest point in San Diego County, in the background. The mountain is covered by dead burned forest. The undergrowth is as tall as two men or more, and completely impenetrable.

Toward Cuyamaca
New Growth Covers Floor

Here is a more panoramic view, with thick brush visible in the foreground. Some young fir trees are poking through, and a few old ones survived, but it may take another century before these woods are covered by forest again like they were in the 1990s.

Vast Meadows
Vast Meadows

Turning north, there are vast meadows of dry grass, some of it chest high. You cannot see the ground through the brush.

Supposed to Go This Way
This Way – Really?

As I reached the point where it was necessary to leave the road and head through the brush to find the waterfall, I looked west and contemplated entering the bush. When I first found the waterfall 20 years earlier, this was dense forest with not much coverage on the ground, good for reasonable walking, avoiding poison oak here and there. Now, I found it impossible.

Or That Way
Or That Way?

Here is another view west, the direction I was supposed to go. There was no way I would be able to cover half a mile downhill in this terrain.

I carried a GPS, so I was sure I would find my way back, but first I’d have to get through this. It’s not like I brought a machete.

And then I got scared. All of a sudden I realized that there were a lot of things wrong with my situation.

I was more than two miles away from the nearest human beings (at the road) and all alone. It was the middle of July, and at 8:30 it was already hot, with flies buzzing around my face. Cuyamaca is mountain lion territory. It’s not wise to be alone, defenseless except for my hiking poles – which were strapped to my backpack – in mountain lion terrain. I am sure I was making plenty of clumsy noises, and I was smelling of fear, now that I realized how exposed I was. Then I looked down and noticed I could not see the trail through the thick grass. The summer heat would have rattlesnakes very active, and hidden perfectly under the brown and yellow shrubs, invisible to me. I had actually SEEN rattlesnakes on this trail previously.

Invisible rattle snakes, invisible cougars, and me all alone – I was freaking out.

Sorry, Sill Hill Waterfall, to conquer you I must:

  1. Come in the winter, when rattle snakes are slow, and flies are rare
  2. Come with several more people, two minimum
  3. Bring a machete
  4. Scare away mountain lions by the sheer ruckus our group makes

What was I thinking?

Sign Mountain Lion
Sign at the Parking Lot

I hightailed out of there, watching carefully where I was stepping, and turning around and looking for furtive eyes stalking me in the brush from all directions. I was relieved when I safely reached the parking lot an hour later.

And then I saw this sign.

The Day I Didn’t Hike Mt. Baldy

Mt. Baldy, sometimes called Mt. San Antonio, is the peak of the huge mountain range just south of Pasadena. It’s 10,064 feet high. The trail head is at 6,100 feet, so it’s a 3,900 foot and very steep climb. I got the idea from Kyle blogging at Hiking Angeles Forest. He was there the weekend before me and pointed out a ridge with a number of flat spots very suitable for spending the night. You might read his account yourself. It drew me right in. On Saturday, May 4th, I made my attempt.

I had been on the top of Baldy several times before, but each time I had taken the route via Baldy Notch and Devil’s Backbone, which is much less step. Also, each time before I did day hikes, carrying a day pack only.

This was a two-day trip, however, and I wanted to break in my new pack. Fully loaded, at the parking lot, it looked like this:


Can you spell “TOO HEAVY” ???

My  plan was to hike to Kyle’s Ridge (here you go, I gave it a name) on the first day. I brought five quart bottles for water, only two of them full. I figured I’d need no more than two to reach the creek at the Sierra Club Hut (see below).

Once at the ridge, I’d build my camp, then hike down again to the hut and the creek, fill up all five water bottles, and hike back to the ridge, this time carrying only water.

Five bottles of water should be enough to remain hydrated through the night, provide for breakfast cereal, then keep me in water for the ascent to the peak the next day, and finally all the way back down via the Devil’s Backbone.

Good plan.

Here is the map of my trip, showing my actual hike.

[click to enlarge]
You can see the trail head and the start of my hike at the red arrow. The first 0.7 miles is a fairly steep paved road ending at a major switchback with a great view of San Antonio Falls. Then the road becomes dirt. Following it leads up to Baldy Notch and it was to be my way back down. After 0.3 miles exactly at way point 022 on my map, there is a little side trail that may be easy to miss, climbing up the slope on the left of the road.

The green arrow points to the hut, at way point 023, 1.7 miles from the trail head. The blue arrow points to the approximate location of Kyle’s Ridge.

The word steep is no kidding here. This is definitely as steep as “the wall” on Vivian Creek Trial on Mt. San Gorgonio. I labored up weighed down by my pack and I found myself surprised how hard it was for me. I blame some of it on my new pack, but most of it on my lack of practice. It had been almost two years that I had done an overnight trip carrying a full pack. I was glad I was alone, lest I embarrass myself by my slow pace.

At 1.2 miles, the view opened up and I saw my destination:

Where I am Going
[click to enlarge]
The blue arrow points to the peak of Mt. Baldy, where I wanted to be the morning of the next day. The red arrow points to the Sierra Club’s San Antonio Ski Hut, which was built in 1935, burned in 1936 and rebuilt in 1937. If you enlarge the picture you can see a little white dot, which is a reflection off the hut – I know, not much to see from a distance of 1.7 miles.

And a long, long, long 1.7 miles seemingly straight up the mountain it was.


Here is a typical stretch of trail.


Just about three hours and 2.7 miles after leaving the parking lot I arrived at the hut at 8,200 feet altitude. The hut was occupied by a group of at least 20 or more rambunctious boys and a few men, all in identical T-shirts, maybe a church group or scouts. It was a noisy lot, so I had my lunch break outside on a bench.

Looking down

Looking down from my spot, I had a nice view of the valley from where I came.


Looking north-east in the other direction, the top of the ridge in the background is the peak of Mt. Baldy, another 1.4 or so miles of trail and 1,800 vertical feet away. But now I faced the crux of the problem.


This picture shows Kyle’s Ridge from the hut, basically where I needed to go now, and then back here to fetch water, and then back up again. This is the blue section of trail I painted in the map between the green and blue arrows. With three and a half hours of daylight left, and my legs already weak from the climb up, I didn’t think I could do it. The altitude, the exhaustion, the weight of the pack, the time of day, all told me NOT TO DO THIS.

I considered for a minute to fill up all five bottles and make the trip only once, but even that seemed dangerous in my weak condition, adding six or seven pounds of more water to my already heavy load.

Finally, I considered spending the night near the hut. I decided that the trip up to the ridge under a full pack the next day would still be a challenge, and the presence noisy boys topped it off.

I finished my apple and hiked back down the trail the same way I came. I had a wonderful day hike carrying a full pack. When I got back to the parking lot two long hours later, my quads were jello from the constant braking downhill, and I was glad for having made the decision that ensured my safety.

My resolution is to come back to this spot with a day pack early one morning, go up via Devil’s backbone and come down to Kyle’s ridge, then the hut and complete the circle counterclockwise.

Meanwhile – I’d better train up carrying my pack.

Hiking Mount San Miguel

Mount San Miguel is the prominent mountain in the approach path for airliners into San Diego. It is the mountain with all the antennas on top, seemingly close within reach as the planes bank to the right for the final approach to downtown. Sometimes the planes fly so close to the mountain, it’s almost scary. After flying into San Diego for more than 25 years, I have always wanted to hike that mountain. And today we did.

This was not trivial. We had one false start last weekend just finding the right place to start. This is not a hike in Jerry Schad’s books, and while there is a decent, if rough, trail, there is very little hiker traffic. It’s one of those hikes you have to really want to do.

The peak is the mountain in the very back with the antennas. This picture was taken within 5 minutes of starting the hike. It is surrounded by suburbia and upscale housing developments, gold courses and reservoirs.

There is no trailhead and no proper place to park your car. You have to park in a residential neighborhood. There are two different places to park, one on Duncan Ranch Road, just north of the intersection with Proctor Valley Road. You walk down Proctor Valley Road about a quarter of a mile. There is a field to the left where a narrow trail starts that eventually leads to the ridge behind the homes and up. This start makes the hike three-quarters of a mile longer than it needs to be.

We  took the alternate route and parked in a neighborhood just beyond that intersection.

Parking for Hiking Mt. San Miguel

Park on Iron Gates Lane in the bend (red arrow). The main gate to the gated community to the north is right there.  There is a concrete access road heading west which is locked with a steel gate to keep cars out, but a hiker can easily walk around it. Hike straight up to the power post on the ridge, then turn right. You are now on the main trail to the peak.

Trail Map for Mt. San Miguel

The red arrow points to the place to park the car. Once you start hiking up the access road,  and turn right, the trail meanders through shrubs and bushes along the main ridge. It is almost always exposed to the wind, which today was welcome and cool. This trail simply climbs straight up and does not have a lot of switchbacks. The trail itself is rough, rocky and just what you’d expect from a trail that is not very popular and does not get a lot of use. From an intermediate peak it descends 130 feet before it climbs the main cone for the final peak.

Mt. San Miguel Trail Profile

Here is the profile. In a length of 2.5 miles, we ascended 1,750 feet, for the most part relentlessly up, except for the one dip. The whole hike up, including a few water and breathing breaks, took two hours. We were back at the car five hours after leaving, with ample time lingering at the peak and at the flag.

Trisha Showing the Way

Here is Trisha, showing where we’re going, on the intermediate peak, just before the dip.

Just before the intermediate peak, since it’s the day before Memorial Day, we took a little side trip so I could pose next to the flag posted there. The location of the flag is on the map above at the blue arrow.

Ready for Memorial Day

Finally, the views from the top are endless. We could see Mexico and Tijuana in the distance in the south, downtown San Diego and the ocean beyond in the west, and of course endless mountains to the north and east.

At the Top of Mt. San Miguel

You can’t get to the exact top, since the array of antennas is fenced in with razor wire on top, but it was rewarding to stand there, after all these years looking down onto this mountain from airplanes.