San Jacinto Peak isn’t done growing
Day hikers can head up the northern flank of the San Jacinto Peak on a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
The 5.32-miles round trip hike runs from a trailhead along Falls Creek Road to an intermittent stream that feeds a Snow Creek. Part of the trail technically is in the Palm Springs, Calif., city limits, but most of it sits in the desert portion of the San Bernardino National Forest.
To reach the trailhead, from Palm Springs, take Calif. Hwy. 111 northwest toward Interstate 10. Just before reaching the freeway entrance, turn left/southwest onto Snowcreek Canyon Road. Just before arriving at Snow Creek, go left/southeast onto Fall Creeks Road. When the road splits, turn left/east. The road gradually ascends the desert plain toward San Jacinto Peak. As reaching the first mountain ridge, watch for a pullout on the road’s right/west side. Park there.
The trail begins at 1660 feet above sea level by angling toward the ridge’s base. In about 110 feet, a couple of switchbacks take you up the ridge’s side. It’s a rarely seen view of the Coachella Valley’s northernmost tip, one of barren desert and isolation with only the tiny freeway and a few dirt road etched across the valley floor suggesting you’re not alone.
San Jacinto Peak’s summit looms above to the south. It tops out at 10,831 feet.
The mountain began forming more than 95 million years ago when tectonic plates slid against one another. The friction caused molten rock to rise and pool deep underground. As closing on the surface, it cooled and hardened into granite.
Erosion next wiped away the overlying rock, exposing the granite around 30 million years ago. At that time, only the upper portions of the granite block was above sea level.
As rounding the ridge, the village of Snow Creek appears below. The view is short-lived, though, as the trail switchbacks up then continues roughly northwest while heading through desert scrub. Cabazon can be seen on the horizon at the other end of the desert floor with San Gorgonio Mountain to the north.
Beginning about 20 million years ago, parallel faults formed along the San Andreas. Thanks to earthquakes over millions of years, the granite formation’s eastern face rose dramatically, resulting in San Jacinto Peak’s sharp escarpment overlooking Palm Springs. Runoff water from rain and snowmelt formed the peak’s several ridges by carving out canyons.
At about 1.33 miles in, the trail switchbacks up the ridge and turns southeast. You’re at about 2600 feet elevation – and what a difference nearly a thousand feet gain makes. You’ll notice that bushes appear along the next stretch of the trail.
San Jacinto Peak isn’t done growing. So long as faults run alongside each side of the mountain, it will rise while the valleys below sink. How long that lasts and how high the peak will reach is uncertain. The Pacific and North American tectonic plates are expected to rub against one for a long time, though – Los Angeles will reach San Francisco in 10 million years and travel up Alaska’s western coast in about 50 million years – so there should be plenty of mountain building to come.
Following the ridge’s natural contour, the trail continues to climb the mountain. As it veers south, the trail dips into an intermittent stream that feeds Snow Creek.
The trail begins another switchback at about 2.66 miles in. Rather than continue up the PCT, take a short off-trail excursion to a vista overlooking the valley floor below. The windmill farm in the Cabazon Pass appear to the northeast. You’re at about 3252 feet above sea level.
For a day hiker, this is a good spot to turn back. The trail does continue all the way into Mount San Jacinto State Park, but it’s an overnight backpacking trip to get there and come back.
While the mountain’s shadow will leave the route in shade by late afternoon, it is otherwise entirely exposed to the sun. Be sure to don sunscreen, sunhat and sunglasses. Good hiking boots and a trekking pole are advisable to traverse the rocky ground.
- 02 The trail begins by switchbacking up a ridge on San Jacinto Peak.: Rob Bignell
- The Pacific Crest Trail near Snow Creek heads through a boulder-strewn desert.: Rob Bignell
- 05 As the trail gains elevation, bushes soon replace the desert scrub.: Rob Bignell
- A trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail sits off narrow Falls Creek Road.: Rob Bignell