When temps soar to triple digits in the Coachella Valley, the best way for hikers to escape the heat is to go up – way up, like to some of the summits surrounding the valley.
Tahquitz Peak, which rises over Palm Springs and Cathedral City, is one of those great destinations. Temperatures at the peak’s trailhead in Idyllwild average about 30 degrees lower than the valley floor – and the trail only gets cooler as approaching the summit.
The South Ridge Trail from Idyllwild to Tahquitz Peak, plus an access trail, runs about 9.8 miles round trip while gaining 3,057 feet in elevation. If a physically fit, experienced hiker, you easily can go to Tahquitz’s summit. If not, the hike always can be shortened to what you can handle; it’ll still offer great views.
To reach the trailhead, from Palm Desert take Calif. Hwy. 74 (the Pines to Palms Highway) south into the mountains. Upon reaching Mountain Center, turn right/north onto Calif. Hwy. 243. Go right/east onto Marian View Drive (if you passed Animal Rescue Friends of Idyllwild, you’ve gone too far). Next, take Saunders Meadow Road right/south. When the road reaches Clubhouse Drive, stay on Saunders Meadow by going left/northwest. Then take a left/north onto Pine Avenue followed by a right/east onto Tahquitz View Drive. In about 0.2 miles, you’ll reach Forest Route 5S11 on the right/south. Park well off the side of the road and head up the dirt forest road.
If you don’t mind a white-knuckle adventure, the mile-long Forest Route 5S11 can be driven rather than hiked, but you should have a 4WD and a high-clearance vehicle. A small dirt parking lot awaits at the end of the forest road with the South Ridge Trail running roughly north-south from it.
Those who opt to walk will gain 800 feet over a mile as heading through a scorched area recovering from the summer 2018 Cranston Fire, which burned much of Tahquitz Peak’s south ridge. Along the way you’ll pass South Ridge Spring. Once at the aforementioned parking lot, go left/north onto the South Ridge Trail. The lot is at 6,475 feet and 3.49 miles from the summit.
A granite mountain, Tahquitz is named for a luminous spirit-demon of Soboba Indians lore. After a battle with the demon – which resulted in many of the area’s natural formations – it was killed. When the demon’s body was burned, its spirit escaped and took up residence in a cave somewhere in the San Jacinto Mountains. In 1901, the U.S. Geological Survey called the peak Tahquitz on a topo map, cementing its name.
From the end of the forest road, the trail is a steady grade up. To the left/west is Fern Valley below with San Jacinto Peak rising directly to the north. To the right/east is the impressive 1000-foot face of Tahquitz Peak.
The trail’s last half-mile or so is a series of switchbacks and the steepest portion of the hike. Jeffrey pines grow here.
Near the summit is two-person fire lookout overlooking Tahquitz’s face. You usually can climb it from late spring to mid-fall. It offers panoramic 270-degree views of the Inland Empire to the west, the Desert Divide to the south, the Santa Ana Mountains in the southwest, and San Diego County in the south.
Constructed in 1937, the fire lookout was the national forest’s last active tower when shot down in 1993. Volunteers reconstructed it in 1998 and have staffed it since. The tower is the second highest lookout in California and supplied by mules carrying materials up the trails.
Just a few more feet beyond the tower is the summit at 8,846 feet above sea level. Among the sights here are Palm Springs and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the east, the Desert Divide, Garner Valley, Lake Hemet, Thomas and Cahuilla mountains, the Palomar Range (on sunny afternoons, the dome of the Mt. Palomar telescope glitters), the Santa Anas, Temecula, and even the Laguna and the Cuyamaca mountains.
You’ll probably also notice several other trails coming from different directions up the mountain side. Among them is the Pacific Crest Trail, which is half-mile walk from the peak. The most direct route to the summit, however, is the South Ridge Trail.
Altitude sickness is a possibility on the hike. If you find yourself short of breath, dehydrated, or suffering a headache, rest and drink plenty of water. If the symptoms return after continuing the hike, turn back from home. Pace yourself, keep taking rest breaks, and the symptoms should go away as you lose elevation. There really is less oxygen that high in the mountains.
Also, since the trail sits in the San Bernardino National Forest, the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa National Monument, and the San Jacinto Wilderness, a permit is required for this hike. Fortunately, it’s free, and you don’t even have to talk to anyone to get it. While on Hwy. 243, instead of turning on to Marian View Drive, simply go to the Idyllwild Ranger Station at 54270 Pine Crest Ave. After filling out the permit form, take the carbon copy on the the hike, and drop the top sheet into the marked slot. You’ll also need a recreation pass to park in the national forest; that costs $5 for a day permit or $30 for an annual pass.
- The views from the South Ridge Trail: Rob Bignell
- South Ridge Trail Map: Rob Bignell
- 03-the-fire-lookout-atop-tahquitz-peak-dates-to-1933: Rob Bignell
- 04 Volunteers staff the fire lookout: Rob Bignell
- 05 The San Jacinto Mountains rise below Tahquitz Peak’s fire lookout.: Rob Bignell