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.



Hiking: Cactus to Clouds (C2C) – Take Two

In preparation for hiking the famous / infamous Cactus to Clouds (C2C) hike this season, I did a preparatory hike last February about which I posted about here, exploring the bottom side of the trail. This last weekend I went back, took the tram to the top and found where the trail ends. I hiked down about 0.8 miles and descended 877 vertical feet from the top ridge. The top end is known to be the steepest and also the most dangerous in bad weather, that being snow and ice.

I hiked this section just to see what it was like, so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost on my way up when I’d be the most exhausted, tired, possibly dehydrated and all around not as sure-footed.

The weather was cloudy and much of the time I didn’t see much but the trail ahead of me. Here are a few pictures. You can enlarge them by clicking on them:

C2C - tram up

I took this photo from the tram riding up. We’re about half-way up here. You can see the cables disappearing into the clouds. The mountain station is above these clouds, actually in sunshine.

C2C - trail

Once on the trail, I found it quite rough and in some areas not too well defined. Can you see the trail in this photograph? Occasionally I had to stop, backtrack a few steps, when I found myself in the rocks or brush or on a slope with no obvious place to go. I can see how this would get very tricky in fresh snow. Without a GPS guiding the way, it would be a disaster to be trapped here.

C2C - view

The clouds were dramatic. Here is a typical view from the trail.

Once I got to exactly 7,500 feet (I started from the ridge at 8,377), after descending for about an hour, I decided the weather looked too dangerous to go on. So I took this video so you can get a feel of it. The clouds actually moved this fast. It was very dramatic.

After I turned around, it took me about an hour to climb back up to the ridge. I then took the Desert View Trail for some dramatic views down the mountain to Palm Springs, over 8,000 feet below. Here is one picture:

C2C - looking down

On the way down in the tram, I was well positioned to take a video of the opposite tram car coming up. This tram has two cars. They are both parked at the top and bottom at the same time and loaded. Then, as one goes up,  the other comes down. They meet in the middle. When the two cars meet, the rider has a unique opportunity to actually gauge the speed of the cars approaching each other. Here is the video:

After this exploratory hike, I think I am ready to do the full C2C, from Palm Springs at 400 feet to the mountain station at 8,600 feet. That’ll be enough. Next time, all the way to the peak at 10,800. But that’s another project.