The Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) hike is somewhat infamous as one of the hardest dayhikes in the United States. Rising from roughly 400 feet above sea level in Palm Springs to over 10,800 feet at the top of San Jacinto in just under 16 miles, the climb up is utterly unrelenting. If you’re in shape and prepared, it’s also one of the most enjoyable outdoor experiences in Southern California.
THIS IS A DRAFT IN PROGRESS
Table of Contents
- What is Cactus-to-Clouds?
- Step-by-Step C2C Guide
- Palm Springs to Long Valley (Skyline Trail)
- Long Valley to Mt. San Jacinto
- Mt. San Jacinto to the Tram
- Tram to Skyline Trailhead
- More C2C Resources
What is Cactus-to-Clouds?
Palm Springs is hot. Really hot. They grow some mean cacti and some even meaner scorpions. The peak of San Jacinto is cloudy and, thankfully, much cooler than Palm Springs. The Cactus to Clouds (C2C) hike takes you from Palm Springs at around 400′ to the top of San Jacinto at over 10,800′. Hence, you hike from the cacti to the clouds.
In truth, “C2C” is a bit of misnomer; if you just do cactus to clouds you’ll get lots of exercise but you’ll be quite lonely at night because you’ll be stuck at the top of a mountain. To finish the hike, you descend either part way to the aerial tram or all the way back to Palm Springs. The default C2C hike takes the tram down, and is therefore sometimes called C2C2T (Cactus to Clouds to Tram). This is the hike described here.
The longer, full round-trip back down the mountain is far less enjoyable, hard on the knees, pretty lethal in the summer, and thus well-deserving of the extra “C” in Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (C2C2C). I can’t emphasize strongly enough — descending from 8,500′ to Palm Springs in the summer during the day can be a really, really bad idea. Don’t do C2C2C unless you really know what you’re doing. Really.
There are a lot of details here, such as parking, shuttling, weather, training, tram operating hours, etc. To avoid making this post too long, these details are on another page. Please review all applicable logistics before doing C2C for the first time.
There are two primary trailheads for Skyline Trail, one starting at the Palm Springs Art Museum and the other further south at West Ramon Rd. The the trail from the art museum is by far the heavier used, and starts in the back of the museum parking lot. The alternate route from Ramon Rd. is less steep and easier to follow, but is also longer and plagued by rumors of car break-ins. Technically, there’s a third trailhead to the north, but I’ve never heard a good reason for parking or starting there.
Assuming you start at the museum on a weekend, the best parking is probably on the street in front of the museum. You can park in the museum lot itself and be slightly closer to the trailhead, but there are always threats of cars being towed (I’m not aware that any have been). The public parking garage across the street used to be available, but now as sub-four-hour parking requirements and is towing.
Palm Springs Tram (Website)
IMPORTANT! Before attempting Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) or any other San Jacinto hike depending on a tram ride down, check the tram website. The tram closes in September for a few weeks of maintenance, closed during the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, and has closed for fires, winds and other reasons. Do not get yourself stuff on the mountain. Always check the day before and morning of. Trust me, it’s a long walk down.
Rescue Boxes & Water Caches
There are two volunteer-maintained rescue boxes along the trail, but they have become so well-known and abused that you might as well assume that they are not there and, if they are, there’s nothing in them. The primary volunteer water cache higher up has also become iffy for the same reason. For all practical purposes, you’re on your own.
Weather & Water
Training & Fitness
Skyline Trail Map?
There really aren’t any. This is not a formally maintained trail. Honestly, if local park and rescue services could shut it down, they would. So plenty of information is available online, but no officially sanctioned maps will show the trail.
Step-by-Step C2C Guide
This is a detailed guide to the trail(s) in the form of major milestones. If this is the first time you’ve done this hike, I would strongly recommend reviewing the logistics section first, and making sure you have a GPS copy of the trail or track from a reliable third party (on your phone or GPS device), and a backup topo map. While the trail(s) on C2C are relatively easy to follow, people do go off trail especially at night or in winter.
NOTE: All distances here assume you stay on the original Skyline Trail without shortcuts. Due to the large and increasing number of such options, actual distances can vary by miles.
Palm Springs to Long Valley (Skyline Trail)
You’re on Skyline Trail from Palm Springs to Long Valley and the Aerial Tramway. It’s a trail with a bit of an attitude and maybe a sense of humor, but take it seriously; this is not a trail for the feint of heart.
Many people also do Skyline itself (aka C2T) as a completely hike, then riding the train down. I’d highly recommend this as a practice hike before doing C2C.
0m / Skyline Trailhead @ the Modern Art Museum
Come for the trail, stay for the culture. Just go before your hike; after, you’ll be smelly. Also, hungry, and the paintings are not edible. Elitists. More seriously, park on the street in front or nearby and head into the parking lot on the north side of the museum. The trailhead is at the back of the parking lot where they’ve cut a wee hole in the retaining wall. It’s quite charming, if you like concrete.
First Rescue Box
Coffman’s Crag is the last major milestone on your hike up Skyline Trail. This big f’n rock (BFR) as it’s affectionately known has actual built up over the years from the discarded lungs of unprepared hikers. You’ll see it, jump for joy, make your contribution, then slog your way to the top in no time.
10.5m / Grubb’s Notch (Long Valley) – 8,500′
Welcome to Long Valley, the crest of Skyline Trail, and a short walk to the Ranger Station or the Tram depending on your state of body.
Long Valley to Mt. San Jacinto
Desert View Trail
This is a loop trail that takes you from viewpoint to viewpoint around the southern end of Long Valley. More importantly here, it takes you from the top of Skyline Trail to the Long Valley Ranger Station. Enjoy the brief and pretty much flat walk in the shade of beautiful evergreens.
One safety note. When it’s warm, the top of Skyline Trail marks a distinctly cooler section of the trail, offering both shade and easier walking. During the Spring and Fall, and especially in the early morning, it can be substantially colder in the valley than just minutes earlier on the Skyline Trail. Don’t be surprised, and don’t let yourself catch a chill. You won’t be in the sun again consistently until after Wellman Divide.
11m / Long Valley Ranger Station – 8,500′
The LVRS offers several important things, not the least of which are bathrooms, water (in bathroom or seasonally at outside spigots), and permits. You’ll need day hiking permits for the hike up to San Jacinto, and they do check, so be sure to get one here. Boxes are available outside for self-service after hours.
San Jacinto Mountain Trail
Round Valley Trail
The Round Valley Trail is a 2.2 mile hiking path starting near the Palm Springs Tram. At the bottom of the tram ramp, the left trail is the start of the Round Valley Trail. This leads within 0.1 miles or so to the ranger station, here you can acquire a free but required day use permit.
Shortly after the ranger station, there is a branch with the lower Hidden Divide Trail. Continue to Round Valley by staying to the right. About 1.8 miles later you’ll reach the second junction with the HD Trail and, again, you’ll stay to the right. Round Valley itself is just a short distance beyond this junction. You can return the same way, or add some minor additional elevation and 0.3 more miles by following the signs for the Hidden Divide Trail.
The Round Valley Trail is mostly under the cover of trees, and the aroma of white fir and lodgepole pine can be intoxicating. Other plants you are likely to encounter include corn lily, San Jacinto lupine, multiple species of monkeyflower, wild tarragon, western columbine, sedge, canyon live oak, western azalea, scarlet bugler, Indian paintbrush and many, many more. The bloom is most impressive in June and July.
This is a very serene and peaceful hike, but there are not a lot of vistas, since the trail follows a creek valley. There is a primitive campground at Round Valley. From there, you can continue your hike to Wellman Divide or even further to San Jacinto Peak. Just make sure to pace yourself due to the higher elevation and drink extra water.
14.3m / Wellman Divide – 9,720′
Wellman marks the first time after reaching Long Valley that you have an expansive view, this time to the south toward Tahquitz. From this point on, the trail is more open (well, mostly) and traverses somewhat less steeply up the northern flank of Jean Peak and San Jacinto. Many hikers take a well-deserved rest here, and a picture or two.
16.7m / Marion Mountain Trail Junction – 10,600′
At this junction, you’re a mere 0.3 miles from the summit of San Jacinto. The Marion Mountain Trail, a beautiful if shorter way to reach the top from the Idyllwild side, is to your left at the sign. Keep moving straight and you’ll be at the top in no time.
San Jacinto Hut
This CCC hut marks the end of the trail per se, after which point the climb up to the peak is a short bouldery scramble.
17m / Summit of Mt. San Jacinto – 10,834′
Welcome! You’ve made the climb and done most of one of the hardest day hikes in America.
Mt. San Jacinto to the Tram
22m / Tram Mountain Station
Hey. Who put this tramway here? Well, turns out some clever guy you’ll learn all about in dulcet tones as you ride down in air conditioned comfort. Have a beer at top, put on some deodorant, and enjoy the ride back down to the Valley Station at 2,643′. Just remember that when you get out you’re back in the desert and you may melt.
One note about the Tram Station; there is an inexplicably irksome ramp that leads several hundred feet from the station itself down to the valley floor. On the way back from a long hike such as C2C, it is strangely exhausting and utterly annoying. Someone should write a letter.
Tram to Skyline Trailhead
Back to Your Car
There are several ways you might arrange for transportation to and from the trailhead to the tram station and vice versa. I’ve found the least challenging to be dropping my car at the Art Museum (trailhead) and taking a cab back from the tram station. The customer service desk at the lower station calls cabs regularly for just this purpose — just go up and ask. It’s surprisingly convenient, and not too expensive all told.
One alternate model is to leave your car at the tram station and take a cab from there to the trailhead. I’ve always found this less convenient, especially when your hike starts pre-dawn and cabs are harder to find. But it is probably a nice relief at the end of the hike to be able to just jump in the car, crank the AC and bail.
More C2C Resources
External C2C Resources
- Hiking Guy Overview. One of the older and more detailed summaries, and non-commercial so no distracting ads.
- Hiking Project Overview. Good summary and logistical information, but not much detail.
- Modern Hiker Overview. A great summary on a site that has unfortunately become overwhelmed by ads. Still worth reading if you have the patience.
- Wikipedia Article. An interesting overview including history, but useless for hike planning.