Cactus to Clouds Hike (Attempt)

This last weekend, I headed down to Palm Springs and made an attempt at hiking the Cactus to Clouds route. Starting in Palm Springs and climbing all of the way to the summit of San Jacinto peak, it is often cited as one of the most difficult day hikes in the country. It made for a blast of a day!

Spending a couple of last days in Bishop, I headed south towards Joshua Tree, where I camped at a free, BLM spot just north of the park for a couple of nights, taking some time to do laundry and other necessities.

Saturday morning, I woke up early and set off on the hike.

The extremes of this hike leave small windows, with the best time to do it being in the fall. Yet even in the fall, the heat in Palm Springs can easily reach over 90 or even 100 degrees, necessitating an early start for this hike. Of course, with such difficulty, an early start isn’t a bad idea at all!

I woke up in my campsite outside of Joshua Tree at 2:30am and was able to get to the Palm Springs Art Museum shortly before about 4am. Parking in the parking structure across the street from the museum, I walked over and headed up the trail.

This hike starts on a steep but rather easy to follow Museum Trail, before it hops onto the Skyline Trail, which is the most difficult section of this hike. The Skyline Trail is very well worn and marked frequently with white dots on rocks beside the trail, but it isn’t really officially maintained by any official agency or organization. I found it fairly easy to follow for the vast majority of the hike, but I watched other hikers veer off and get stuck attempting routes with lots of hand-requiring scrambling. The true route never really needs your hands–it’s basically a rough class 1 the entire time.

Starting out in the dark, there wasn’t much in the way of picture taking, but the city lights of Palm Springs became more and more vast as I made the steep climb, and sunrise proved absolutely stunning midway up the steep climb. Overall, the whole hike isn’t all that remarkably scenic, but it does have a unique diversity, at least.

With sunlight also came the heat of day. I was already getting above 4000-5000ft by the time the heat really started setting in, offering a nice, cool breeze and significantly less concern than if I had tried to start at such a still early time. However, the air is dry, the hiking is steep and strenuous, and I was glad I brought lots of water.

The last couple of miles before reaching Long Valley at about 8400ft are actually the most brutal. Although it begins to feel more like mountain hiking and less like desert hiking, with plenty of trees and granite everywhere, this section, called “The Traverse” is absolutely brutal, having already climbed so much. The extreme steepness and difficulty of the terrain makes for an exasperating experience.

But alas, The Traverse ends in the entrance to Long Valley, finally reaching where everyone that just took the Palm Springs Tram up are already at. I walked over to the ranger station, filled up my water bottles, and enjoyed a lunch I packed with me.

For some reason, the water I filled up with at the ranger station tasted like pool water. It was the only way I was even going to attempt to try to get to the summit, itself, so I tried to just ignore it and carry on towards the summit…

Thankfully, the way up to the summit from the ranger station is much easier and much more straightforward than all of the hike before it. The trails are actually much more maintained, and signs even tell you generally where to go. And it’s a lot less constant elevation gain! I enjoyed the fall colors among some of the trees and the smell of the pines otherwise.

Unfortunately, this is where the hike finally got to me. About 3 miles shy of the summit, I found myself sitting down every 5 minutes, feeling just ill. I didn’t feel anywhere near needing help, but I began to question if I was going to make it to the summit. After struggling for over half an hour, I finally decided that it just wasn’t going to be safe to continue. Although so close, I decided it would be best left to another, safer attempt at a later date. So, I turned back and made my way back down towards the Tram.

Thankfully, a one-way ticket for the Tram is only $12 at the gift store, so I stopped in, bought a ticket, and took the Tram down. There were actually several people who had never heard of the route that heard an announcement concerning people who had hiked up, so I got into some fun conversations about the hike while waiting in line. It was really quite entertaining.

One thing is certain: taking the Tram down, the full scope of the climb up came into view. It really didn’t feel like as much of a climb when I was doing it, as crazy at that may sound. But taking the quick Tram down, staring out the windows at that elevation difference, the whole hike really came into view.

Down at the bottom, I called an Uber using the free wifi, and made my way back to the car. I called up my parents real quick, who invited me to come stay with them in San Diego, which certainly sounded wonderful after that difficult hike! So, I headed out and made my way back to San Diego.

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