On May 12, 2018 our little hiking group hiked the (in)famous Cactus-to-Clouds trial from downtown Palm Springs (~450ft elevation) to the top o San Jacinto Peak (10,834ft) and down to the tram mountain station. It was Jack and Paul’s first time for this tough route. For me it was the 10 year anniversary of my first C2C (June 7th, 2008). At the time I did it solo since I did not know anyone who would join me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The trail back then was much less traveled and I was warned by those familiar with it that it was not hiked every week that time of year! How times have changed…
Backpacker Magazine calls it the 5th toughest one day hike in the Continental USA. I’ve never done the other 4 so can’t pass judgement on that but I’m sure everyone will agree, it hasn’t gotten any easier.
The idea started a few weeks ago when Paul and I walked past each other at the PX at my school. He asked when we were going to hike C2C again. A couple years ago I accompanied him on his first attempt but we got snowed out at Wellman Divide and didn’t make the peak. After consulting the team, we agreed on 12 May which was a major challenge for Matt considering his parents were in town and he was suffering from a night of partying after completing his PhD thesis defense.
The plan was essentially the same as Matt’s first C2C experience. Matt, Kevin, and Paul met me at our designated spot and we drove to Palm Springs. Friday afternoon traffic was bumper to bumper from Escondido to Temecula as usual. Thus, they arrived 35 minutes late. In anticipation of traffic, Jack left early but was still stuck for 90 min trying to get through Temecula. We took hwy 76 to Rice Canyon and up to Pechanga Casino and hwy 79 to avoid the gridlock. Then drove the back roads to Anza and Palm Desert/Palm Springs. We stayed at the downtown Motel 6 which had adequate but spartan accommodations. Jack followed me to the tram where we left my truck. We returned to the hotel and walked to an IHOP a few blocks away for a late supper. Well, supper was actually breakfast but who cares? Uwe joined us about 2100. Original plan was to start the hike at 0300 but weather was cooler than expected so we modified the start time to 0500. We were up at 0400, got coffee, packed up and made our way to the Museum of Art. Spent some time looking for a parking spot but all street side parking was occupied. There was a parking structure in front of the museum that had time limits. Those limits resulted in both Jack and Uwe getting a parking citation upon our return. Bummer. Many changes to the area since our last experience. New museum, new parking regulations, areas under construction, etc.
We stepped off at 0500 with Matt leading us up the hill. We had observed a large group assembling just before we started. In short order we passed a 15 person group of Koreans. We got by them and found that traffic on the trail was almost as bad as the freeway. Faster hikers blew past us and we passed a few groups. Amazing how many people were taking on this challenge. Some were only doing the Skyline trail to the tram and others, like us, doing the C2C. There are many trails and shortcuts on that ascent and the trail is not always obvious. Some shortcuts required significant rock hopping and effort but we always came back to the main trail. We used headlamps and arrived at the picnic tables in 30 minutes, totally soaked in sweat. That trail is no joke…it’s steep and unforgiving. Temperature was probably 70 but wouldn’t matter because it took significant effort to go up and up. We didn’t mark progress by miles, more by time and altitude. Some places we gained as much as 1,500 feet per mile. The first 1/3 passed quickly and we took a break almost every hour making sure to eat and drink. My school provided me with re-hydration packets to mix with water in lieu of pure salt. They seemed to work well, at least no one suffered too badly from dehydration. The 2nd third of the trail took us into areas unseen from below. There are multiple ridge lines between the bottom and the final slope before the tram. Those ridges had some ups and downs which were mentally challenging. You didn’t want to give up a single step of gain only to have to do it again. Thus the advertised 10,500 foot gain was actually more considering we did some gains more than once. We took a good break at Flat Rock. That is a well known spot where rain water has created a water fall but I’ve yet to see it with water running. From that point, the real work began. The trail actually steepened and became more difficult with rock and log obstacles. There were many hikers sitting/lying along the trail suffering from altitude and effort.
We had agreed that there were no time limits on this hike but all that went out the window over the last 1/3 of the hike. Matt, Kevin, and Uwe took off and flew up that last segment arriving one hour before us. Jack, Paul and I took our time. Soon Jack pulled away as Paul started feeling the effects of altitude. All his training did not include altitude conditioning and above 6,000 feet covering over 1,000 feet per mile gain, it was very difficult. Step by step, breath by breath, we proceeded until eventually we made the top. It’s an incredible relief to step onto flat ground. Instead of taking a long break there, we proceeded to the ranger station to replenish water and use the facilities. That break was well needed and deserved yet we still faced another 6 mile ascent and ~2,500 more feet.
Talk about traffic jams, with the number of people on that trail, we needed speed limits and traffic signals. Most of them rode the tram up and hiked just the peak segment. Since we had been on trail nearly 8 hours at the beginning of that segment, we could have used some of their energy. As it was, we used our own and proceeded quite rapidly to Wellman Divide and to the top. Descending hikers were accommodating, moving aside so we could continue up unimpeded. The last few feet to the peak is another challenge of rock hopping, especially as tired as we were. But, we got there, got our picture taken, and took a long break for food/drink. Temp on top was 47 degrees but sun was really warm. There was no breeze which is very unusual for that peak. The view was spectacular with cloud cover over all points west and bright sun to the east. You can see forever limited only by the haze. Very beautiful sight.
The descent off the rocks was sketchy but once on trail the pace went to warp speed. How could we be flying down the trail so fast? As tired as everyone was, the fact that we no longer had to climb, plus the food & water regenerated us and we hauled ass. We passed lots of people. The sun dropped below the ridge and temps dropped. It was cold but we were going so fast, no need for more clothes. Paul’s recovery from the altitude was incredible as he almost ran off the peak. Matt took the lead with Paul and I trying to keep up. We made the descent in under 2 hours. The bathroom was a welcome sight and once we stopped, the cold became an issue. The last climb up the concrete walkway was tough but the warm building at the top was very welcome. Once there we got our tickets down and didn’t have to wait long. Arrived at the parking lot and everyone crammed into my truck for the ride back to the museum. Once there, we separated all the gear, drank an ice cold beer, and got on the road home by 2030. Paul kept me awake for the drive home. Headwinds were horrendous going up the pass but we made it back by 2200. I dropped them at their cars and got home, into the shower and bed within 45 minutes. Awesome day!
Thursday, at the end of Matt’s dissertation defense, he gave recognition to many folks who helped him through his years of study. He acknowledged his hiking team and said we taught him about GRIT! Jack exemplified that word with the tremendous effort expended in completing this event. We wonder if that wasn’t a record time for Skyline for someone his age. Paul overcame severe altitude sickness and fatigue to make that awesome descent. All of us dug deep and completed that magnificent mountain. I’m not inclined to do again…at least for a couple months.
End of John’s report
Distance ~22.5 miles, elevation gain ~10,800 ft
Total recording time from the gap in the wall at the bottom to Tram patio: 13h 58m
Start time: 5:00
Arrival on peak: 16:17
Arrival at Tram: 18:58
Total time my backpack was at total rest, i.e, breaks: 4h 26m [breaks lasted anywhere from 5m to 1h 2m, 43m on peak]
Time from bottom to peak: 11h 17m
Time from Ranger station to peak: 3h 7m
Time from peak to tram: 2h [some were in a rush…;)]
Hiking up Skyline is a good way to test one’s hiking shape and so it is kind of customary to keep track of the time it takes from leaving the museum parking lot in Palm Springs (there is a little step through a wall) up to arriving between a couple of rocks at the top. Here are the individual times for Skyline this time.
Uwe: 6h 25m
Kevin: 6h 27m
Matt: 6h 38m
Jack: 7h 12m
John, Paul: 7h 23m