The Skyline Trail – aka the Cactus to Clouds Trail – runs about 21.2 miles from Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak with a hike back to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It sports 10,332 feet of elevation gain.

This is no day hike, but the trail could be treated as such. Indeed, if you were to walk parts of the trail just three times a week, starting in mid-August by going up only 100 feet in elevation the first time and then adding 100 feet in gain each outing, by mid-April you’d reach the summit. It’s a worthy goal, and you’d be in great shape within just a few months.

Palm Springs Trail: Greatest Elevation Gain in U.S.To reach the trailhead, drive to the Palm Springs Art Museum (101 Museum Drive). The trail starts at the foothill just to the north of it, about 492 feet above sea level. Parts of the trail’s opening 6500 feet can be overgrown during summer and autumn. While spray painted markers initially show the way, you should carry detailed topo maps to ensure you stay on course.

The Cahuilla Indians called San Jacinto Peak “I a kitch” (or “Aya Kaich”), which translates to “smooth cliffs,” an appropriate name given that the mountain’s north escarpment at 10,000 feet is the most severe in all of North America. For the Cahuilla, this was the home of Dakush, their founder.

Beginning about 740 feet elevation, be careful of not turning onto the three side trails that run to the left; they do loop back to the main trail but add unnecessary mileage to your hike. Around 1350 feet, you’ll come to a trail running right and a picnic table. This is a good spot to rest and take in the sun rising over the desert hills. Continue left/west on the main trail.

About 1390 feet up, a trail goes left/south then two more head right/north. Continue hiking straight/west (or up). Another side trail runs to the left/south at about 4240 feet.

Euro-American settlers in the area began climbing San Jacinto Peak in the 1870s with the first recorded ascent in 1874. The Wheeler Survey followed in 1878 and officially named the mountain “San Jacinto Peak.” In that era, grizzly bears inhabited the mountain, but they’ve since disappeared from the region. More slowly disappearing is the survey’s name for the peak, which increasingly is known as Mount San Jacinto.

About 4880 above sea level, a side trail goes right/northwest. Though shorter than the main trail, it’s also steeper, so avoid going on it.

At just past 5700 feet, you’ll officially enter Mt. San Jacinto State Park, though the boundary is not marked.

Palm Springs Trail: Greatest Elevation Gain in U.S.

Temperatures will grow colder as ascending San Jacinto Peak. The trails climb from a montane forest to a subalpine area.

After you pass Rescue Box 2, the trail grows difficult. It’s very vertical for the next two miles until reaching the tram station.

At 8364 feet, the trail arrives at the area near the tram station and levels out for a while amid conifers and boulders. You’ve walked about 9.7 miles.

The last half of the hike covers 11.5 miles round trip. You’re 5.75 miles and 2400 feet of elevation gain from the summit. Begin this portion of the adventure by veering right at the next three trail junctions.

At the next intersection, going right takes you to the tram station; instead go left. You’ll quickly come upon the ranger station, where you can refill your canteens and, if you so desire, change your socks. Because of this, you only need to carry enough water to reach the tram station and not for the entire hike, which cuts down on the weight hauled during the hike’s most difficult part.

From the ranger station up to Wellman Divide is an easy, shaded incline. Just after the ranger station, the trail splits. The Willow Creek Trail is to the south but go right/west into Round Valley.

The trail parallels an intermittent creek. You may spot coyotes tracks on the ground or hear their yips and howls in the distance. They generally stick to themselves and so are no danger.

Palm Springs Trail: Greatest Elevation Gain in U.S.

Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley from the top of San Jacinto Peak.

At the next junction, with the High Trail, you’ve reached the Round Valley Meadow at 9000 feet elevation. Go right/northwest, continuing on the Round Valley Trail. In 0.3 miles, the trail reaches a seasonal ranger station.

A mile later, at a little more than 9600 feet, the trail reaches Wellman Divide and the Wellman Cienega Trail. Turn right/north for the peak.

Lodgepole pines dominate at this higher elevation. Sporting twisted needles that spiral out, the highly adaptable lodgepole is among the few trees that can grow at a subalpine elevation. They depend upon forest fires to propagate, as heat breaks the pitch on their cones, releasing the seeds.

Upon leaving the pines, the trail makes a switchback through manzanita bushes. After completing the switchback, you’ll probably notice a cool wind picking up and how taking a few steps is even more difficult than at the steeper part of the trail before reaching the area near the tram station. That’s because there is less oxygen at this high elevation. The good news is you’re almost at the summit.

At 2.4 miles from Wellman Divide, go right/north onto the spur, also known as the Mt. San Jacinto Summit Trail. You’ll pass an emergency stone shelter built by CCC in the 1930s. For the last 300 yards, you’ll scramble over granite boulders to the very top of San Jacinto Peak, elevation 10,824 feet.

Palm Springs Trail: Greatest Elevation Gain in U.S.

Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley from the top of San Jacinto Peak.

The 360 degree panoramic views from the peak are fantastic. To the northwest is San Gorgonio Peak, the highest summit in Southern California. Little San Bernardo Mountains rises in the northeast. Looking east, you can see Palm Springs and Cathedral City in the valley below. The Santa Rosa Mountains are to the southeast. And on the clearest of days, the gleaming blue of the Pacific Ocean is visible to the west. As naturalist John Muir wrote, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps back to the tram station.

Take the tram the rest of the way down. As the tram station on the valley floor is several miles from the art museum trailhead, you’ll want to arrange to have someone pick you up. There is a fee to use the tram.

Temperatures will cool as you go up the trail – the summit can be 20 degrees cooler or so than the valley floor. However, if hiking this trail as a series of increasingly longer day hikes, watch the temperatures on the valley floor; you may want to start early in the morning prior to dawn and return before the valley floor’s heat tackles you, especially during spring and summer. You definitely do not want to attempt the whole trail and probably not more than a half-mile of it during the daytime in summer. Also, if hiking the trail in winter, be prepared to encounter snow on the peak.

As the first several miles and the last couple of the trail are exposed to the sun, be sure to don sunscreen, sunglasses and a brimmed hat. Always carry enough water. A trekking pole and good hiking boots are a must.


Image Sources

  • Ascending San Jacinto Peak: Rob Bignell
  • Granite Boulders: Rob Bignell
  • 05-palm-springs-and-the-coachella-valley-from-the-top-of-san-jacinto-peak.: Rob Bignell
  • The trailhead for the skyline trail is at the Palm Springs Art Museum: Rob Bignell