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Cactus-to-Clouds Hike FAQs

Long Valley Ridge from Skyline

Long Valley Ridge from Skyline

The Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) hike is one of the most challenging and rewarding in Southern California, but is not to be taken lightly. In addition to an overview, and logistical summary, the following FAQs are meant to answer any additional questions you might have. If for some reason you can’t find an answer to your question, feel free to ask in the comments section, below.

Note that these FAQs are for Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C), and not for the Skyline-only (C2T) or full C2C2C hike or run options. Most of the answers would be the same, but not all.

C2C Water & Nutrition FAQs

How much food do you need?

Varies / Personal. I have no idea how to answer this. For me, the answer is 1,200 calories more or less, for Skyline alone, but this assumes a climb to the tram taking no more than five hours and often far less–very fast for most people. The most important thing is to bring food you’ll eat, including salty foods when it’s hot. Don’t bring food high in fat or protein unless you know your stomach can handle it. Also avoid simple sugars if you can, going for more complex carbs, but this is all personal preference. The usual rule of thumb is 300+ calories per hour, based on how long you think it will take. If you check out this trip report, you can see how much I brought and ate on my first C2C, which is kind of a worst-case scenario (so don’t do what I did).

Do you need salt pills?

Yes. The answer is actually it depends (on the heat, your water consumption rate, sweat rate, body, etc.), but a handful of salt pills weigh very little and take up almost no room. Even if you don’t need them yourself, your friends or others on the trail might need them desperately.  See FAQ on water.

What is the “Skyline Ridge Cross-Country Route?”

Skyline Trail. Never actually heard anyone use the longer name.

How much water do you need?

1.5 Gallons (5.5 Liters). The standard answer is 1.5 gallons (5.5 liters) if you haven’t done it before and the weather is temperate (not too hot or cold). This is what I took  my first time, and it worked out fine.

Safety Sign on Skyline

Safety Sign on Skyline

On subsequent hikes in the heat, I’ve taken more than 6 liters (including 3 liters frozen) and run out because it was still over 90 degrees at Flat Rock, or taken 2 liters and only drunk 1.5 (in cold weather when moving fast). Plan for 1/2 liter for every hour you’re on the trail, minimum, and your first time, bring at least 1.5 gallons. See FAQ on salt pills.

Are there water sources on Skyline Trail?

No. Bring enough water to get you to Long Valley or you’ll regret it.

Are there water sources above Skyline Trail?

Yes. There is water at the Long Valley ranger station (almost always), at the Tram station (off route a bit, and only if open), sometimes via spigot in Round Valley, and sometimes via streams above Long Valley and in Round Valley. All stream water needs to be filtered or purified, but all spigot water is potable.

C2C Logistical & Trail FAQs

Are there limits on group size?

Yes. While Skyline Trail has few official regulations, San Jacinto State Park does not allow groups larger than fifteen (15) and has other regulations for groups, children, etc.

How long will C2C take?

Personal / Varies by season. The FKT (Fastest Known Time) is held by the god-like Brette Maune (Yes, the Barkley Brette Maune) and is under five hours. I’ll have to check the exact time (the Pro Boards / FKT site has conflated C2C2C and C2C). A more common time is around 10-12 hours, but some people take that much time just to get up Skyline. If you’re in good shape, have trained properly, and the weather is in your favor, 11-12 hours is a good target.

Still, this is just a swag based on anecdotal evidence. I’ve done it sub-eight hours, but I’ve also had days when my companions took 8.5 hours to get up Skyline. Check out this trip report if you want to see how badly wrong it can go (we almost missed the last tram down). And  as you can see from the Safety Sign picture (See the water FAQ), the search & rescue team says Skyline itself can take 8-12 hours.

Do you need a map?

Skyline Trail via Gaia GPS

Skyline Trail via Gaia GPS

Probably / Varies by Season. I’d say the first time, yes, at the very least on a GPS device (you’ll have trouble finding a printed map). During the winter in fresh snow, absolutely–you’ll be astonished how quickly the trail becomes impossible to follow without a map or GPS in fresh snow, especially at night or during a storm. See follow the trail FAQ. Some random resources are shown here, but most GPS systems will offer a map of the area:

Where do you park?

Uh. Depends? The simple answer is on North Museum Dr. or North Belardo Rd.  by the Palm Springs Art Museum, and not in the museum parking lot or public parking garage across the street (the former will get you towed, the latter will get you towed four hours later).  This is the closest parking to the trailhead.

Do you need a permit?

Yes. You never need one on Skyline Trail, but you always have to get one at the Long Valley ranger station if you’re going onto the peak for C2C. These are free and self-issued at the station 24/7. Just don’t forget to return the permit on the way back.

What are the trail bail-out points?

None? On Skyline Trail, there’s no way to bail out; you either make it to the Tram or you turn around and go back to Palm Springs. Turning around when it’s hot can be a very, very bad idea. Generally, you’ll need to evaluate your water situation and the temperature before deciding to turn around; once you’re 1/2 – 2/3 of the way up, it’s often safer to keep going up even if it takes longer. This logic changes, of course, if you think you’re going to miss the last tram down.

So, figure out your water, water consumption rate, heat tolerance, speed, know the tram operating hours, and then figure out if you should turn around on Skyline or not. The answer is usually not. Of course, if you’re tired when you get to Long Valley and don’t want to finish C2C, just take the tram down and try another day. Skyline trail by itself is a great accomplishment.

Can you follow the trail?

Depends. I’ve never had any trouble following it except during winter (in heavy snow), but people get lost all the time. Are you awesome at off-trail navigation, do you have a great sense of direction, and do you possess a modicum of common sense? If so, I’d think it’s pretty easy to follow. But this doesn’t stop people from wandering off trail every year. I’d always recommend doing C2C with someone who’s done it before the first time. If you’re not sure, over-prepare. See map FAQ.

How much does the tram cost?

$13 or More. A one way ticket (down) is roughly half the price of a full round-trip ticket and can be purchased in the mountain station gift shop, though this is not listed on their price list. Parking at the bottom if you’ve left a car there is now about $10. A taxi ride from the valley station back to the trailhead if you didn’t leave a car at the tram is about $30 (but of course varies). Point is, bring money and credit cards. It’s a free country, but not a free ride.

How to you get from the tram to your car?

Taxi or Uber/Lyft. This assumes you’ve got a car at the trailhead but not one in the tram parking lot. In this case, customer service at the valley station will call you a cab that will cost around $30. If you’d rather use Uber, Lyft or another ride-sharing service, they are available but there is no reception at the valley station–you’ll have to schedule from the mountain station before you go down.

Is the tram running (Can you get down)?

Maybe? I can’t believe how many people forget to to check this. Always check to see if the tram is running before you go, or you’re going to have a much longer and possibly much deadlier hike than you intended. This means both “Is it running at all?” and “Will it be running when I get there?”

What’s the weather like?

It varies. That’s why they call it weather 😉 . Always check weather and trail conditions the day before, and weather again the morning of. The most important thing to remember is that the temperature in Palm Springs and the temperature on the peak of San Jacinto are dozens of degrees different. It’s often boiling (deadly) hot in Palm Springs while temperate at the summit, or temperate in PS and below freezing and snowing on the summit. Check the weather at different elevations, not just the trailhead. Some good resources:

  • Weather in Palm Springs. Check out the forecast for your time period on Weather.com, Weather Underground, etc.
  • Weather in Long Valley (by Tram). The Tram site always has something for current conditions here.
  • Weather at the SJ summit. Take a look at the peak and 8,000′ forecasts on Mountain Forecast or equivalent sites like NOAA. Note that SJ is not the Sierras, but it does get seasonal lightening on some afternoons.

See also the trail conditions FAQ.

What are current trail conditions?

Wellman Divide in the Snow

Wellman Divide in the Snow

Great question. This is always a bit of a challenge to find out. Skyline Trail is not an official trail, and to prevent rescues there is a bit of a local attempt to not tell people what’s going on on the trail. If you’d seen the stupid stuff people do, you’d understand. However, there is some basic information that will help:

  • San Jacinto Mountain Discussion Board. There is often a thread on the board by recent hikers talking about Skyline Trail and above.
  • Long Valley Web Cam. This is a courtesy of the Tram, and you should probably always check it to see how things look in Long Valley.
  • SacJacJon. Great local volunteer who does frequent trail condition updates, though usually not for Skyline itself. If you can, send in a donation.

See also the weather FAQ.

Should you take trail shortcuts?

No. Whatever your opinion is on nature and respect for the trail, if you take shortcuts you’ll probably just end up getting lost and ruining some rescue team’s day. Don’t be a jerk. Stay on the trail. Also, Leave No Trace.

When should you do C2C?

Goldilocks Season! If it’s too hot (100+) in Palm Springs, you might not want to do it and if you do, start well before dawn. If there’s two feet of fresh powder at Long Valley and you’re not an expert mountaineer with snowshoes or a ton of stamina, don’t do it.  Recommended times are fall before it snows, and spring after most of the snow melts. Usually May or October are good bets.

Hey & Kam in Snow

Huy & Kam in Snow

This picture is right above Flat Rock from a year when there was just too much snow to get to the tram in time so we turned around around 6,500′. Yes, I’m wearing shorts. You probably shouldn’t do that.

See the weather and trail condition FAQs.

C2C Gear & Equipment FAQs

Do you need bug spray or netting?

No. I never have.

What shoes should you wear?

Personal Decision / Varies by Season. I wear trail runners with great traction (lugs) 95% of the time, and light hiking boots if an only if there’s fresh snow and I’ll be post-holing for a while. I’ll even wear waterproof running shoes rather than hiking boots in rain, light snow, ice, etc. However, this is a deeply personal answer and the right answer is what’s safe and comfortable for you. Unless you’re taking shortcuts, bushwhacking for some reason, or in a winter storm / powder conditions, you’re always on a trail.

However, you’ll be passing cacti, bushes, rocks, dead trees, etc. To preserve your skin, I often wear long socks. It may not be fashionable, but all the minor cuts and scrapes can be irritating after a while.

Do you need sun screen?

Probably. But it’s your skin. Same with lip balm.

Do you need trekking poles?

Depends / Varies by Season. Nobody needs them, but it’s a steep trail and they absolutely make life easier; easier on your legs, easier on your ankles, etc. In the winter when it gets icy or snowy higher up, they do become close to necessities, and there are (rare) times when an ice axe is even desirable. I take ultra-light carbon fiber poles except in powder when I need powder baskets and stronger poles. But I’ve also done it in most conditions without poles. Recommended unless you’re experienced and sure you don’t need them. See FAQ on microspikes.

Do you need trekking spikes / microspikes?

Kahtoola MICROspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes

Depends. In most winters, it gets a bit icy / snowy / slippery around the Traverse (or lower). If you have microspikes and don’t mind the weight, just bring them. If you’re concerned about the weight, research trail conditions first and then make a decision. I’ve brought them and not used them, and not brought them and wish I had. As long as you have trekking poles, at least, it usually works out–but it’s definitely not always safe. There are also some very rare conditions where you’ll need actual mountaineering crampons and not just spikes. See FAQ on trail conditions and trekking poles.

Other C2C FAQs

Is it dangerous?

Yes? All danger is relative to preparation. It’s not that dangerous if you’re prepared and you avoid the summer heat and winter snows. It’s incredibly dangerous if you’re unprepared, arrogant or an idiot. If you get rescued off this trail and it’s not due to injury or medical emergency, the fault is yours.

There’s plenty of information online about what can and does go wrong, including this article (old but good) on Skyline Trail rescues: “Uncalculated Tragedy” that includes a nifty factoid: “From 2009 to mid-2015, 61 rescue missions occurred on the Skyline Trail below the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Nearly two-thirds involved hikers with heat-related trauma. Five died from their injuries.” It hasn’t gotten any better since 2015.

Can you take your dog or other pet?

No. Skyline Trail has little enforcement, but you can’t take dogs or pets into the SJ State Park at the top of the trail. You can only take service animals on the tram.

Who will rescue me?

Volunteers. If you get yourself in trouble on this trail, the Palm Springs Mounted Police Search & Rescue team will have to deal with it. So, you know, don’t make them spend their time and money just because you didn’t prepare. But if you do need them, 911 works on most of the trail.

Is it runnable?

Yes? Technically, pretty much anything is runnable if you’re Killian Jornet. I’ve jogged up most sections and run down the whole way (including from the Tram to Palm Springs on Skyline), but it’s hell on the lungs on the climb and worse on the quads on the descent. I would strongly, strongly advise hiking both directions before running either.

That said, the video shown here by “The Ginger Runner” is a good example of how to run / fast-hike the trail. You’ll notice they’re not doing a whole lotta running.

What training do you need?

A lot. Think of climbing Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal without the high-Sierra elevation. It’s harder than that because there’s a lot more elevation gain. Train climbing steep hills with moderate pack weights until you can do six-thousand feet or more without too much of an issue. Beyond that, the training you need depends on your fitness, age, weight, experience, time goals, etc. If you have to ask this question, you probably need more training.

What else would you like to know?

Just let us know in the comments, and we’ll answer if we can.

Other C2C Hike Resources

More to come, but for a start:

Have fun out there. You know, ultra fun.


Disambiguation: This site is inspired by the C2C hike, but is about a lot more; it covers all sorts’a ultra-running and ultra-hiking stuff. 

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