As the Coachella Valley bakes with summer’s arrival, the best way to beat the heat is to gain some elevation. One great place for day hikers to do just that is the Pacific Crest Trail near Thomas Mountain.

The 12-miles round trip (6.5 miles each way) segment of the PCT between Calif. Hwy. 74 and Live Oak Spring Trail (4E03) sits high in the San Bernardino National Forest. It does sport an 1800-foot elevation gain, but the temperature at the trailhead can be 20 degrees lower than in Palm Springs – and it only cools as going up the mountain.

Pacific Crest Trail Heads Through Chaparral

The red hashmark indicates the Pacific Coast Trail.

To reach the trailhead, from Palm Desert take Calif. Hwy. 74 (the Pines to Palms Highway) south into the mountains. After passing Bull Canyon Road, look for a turnoff to the parking lot on the road’s right/north side. If you’ve reached the intersection with Calif. Hwy. 371, you’ve gone too far. A couple of short connector trails run from the lot’s northwest corner to the Pacific Coast Trail. Go right/north on the PCT.

From 4919 feet elevation, the trail winds upward to the ridgetop, growing lusher with vegetation as gaining elevation. Penrod Canyon sits to the left/west of the trail.

Interesting rock formations and plenty of fragrant pines and juniper line the trail. If going in a year with a lot of rainfall, expect the route to be even more green in April. Prickly pear cactus and sugarbush can be spotted at the trail’s lower elevations.

The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,653 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border southwest of San Diego to the Canadian border with Washington state. It generally follows the the highest ridges of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, about 100-150 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

Pacific Crest Trail Heads Through Chaparral

A sign for Live Oak Springs marks the turnback point for this segment of the Pacific Coast. Trail.

After following the ridgetop on the Hwy. 74 to Lost Oak Spring segment, the trail descends via switchbacks into Penrod Canyon. While there are some ups and downs after that, there also are some fairly flat stretches.

During the sixth mile of the hike, the rail gradually climbs the mountainside. Butterfly Peak looms to the northwest. A few old mines sit on its southern flank.

After passing Butterfly Peak, two more summits rise before you – Lion Peak at 6868 feet to the northwest, Pine Mountain at 7054 feet directly north. Devils Rockpile, at 6600 feet, is southeast of Pine Mountain’s peak.

The junction with the Live Oak Spring Trail (4E03) marks the turnaround spot. If you have some extra energy, you can head about a mile (2-miles round trip) east/right on Live Oak to the spring, situated in a grove of pines.

As descending, you’ll enjoy great views of the desert valley below. Lookout Mountain is directly ahead, rising over Hwy. 74 near the trailhead. Thomas Mountain sits to the southwest and Vandeveter Flat is to the southeast.

Be sure to bring plenty of water for this adventure. Good hiking boots for the rocky surface and a trekking pole to maintain balance on the ascents and descents are recommended as well.

Image Sources

  • The red hashmark indicates the Pacific Coast Trail.: Rob Big
  • A sign for Live Oak Springs marks the turnback point for this segment of the Pacific Coast. Trail.: Rob Bignell
  • Pacific Crest Trail: Rob Bignell