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Mt. San Jacinto In Southern California – Old Friends And High Altitude

May 22, 2016

I had to travel to Oceanside California on business. Fortunately for me, I got one “free day” off and there are a few large mountains within a reasonable driving distance from this city. Even more fortunate, I have friends who live in the area and one who was willing to join me on a hike!

San Jacinto's snow capped peak viewed from the highway

While being totally unfamiliar with the area I had to rely on Google and Facebook to find the “must see” peaks within a 2 hour drive… I wanted to make my one day off count! At the same time, I knew I would have been a little worn out from working all week and traveling. My long time friend Jeff reluctantly signed up to join me for the trip. He prefers coastal, low elevation hikes but would make an exception today.

So! we opted to hike up Mt. San Jacinto (Hass-into… this took me a while). San Jacinto, standing 10,833 feet tall would be the highest geological point I’ve ever stood atop (previously Mt. Washington at 6,289 feet)! The mountain sits adjacent to Palm Springs and the city of Idyllwild.

The Route

There are various ways to climb Mt San Jacinto. Including one of “America’s Hardest Day Hikes” which starts at the desert floor and ascends nearly 10,700 vertical feet over 20 miles with almost no water sources available… We wouldn’t be doing this!

Instead, we opted to take the “popular” route which starts with a ride on the Palm Springs Tramway. After that it’s a modest trek over 10.5 miles and about 3000 feet of elevation gain to the summit.

The Tram

Jeff leading the difficult and strenuous climb up the Tramway Stations staircase.

We arrived at the Tramway Station at around 8:30AM. Lines were already forming. Most people had climbing gear, crash pads, and rock shoes to boulder the large rocks near the Mountain Station at the top of the tramway ride. A few others looked to be the hiking type.

Tramway making its departure

The ride cost us each $25 and starts at 2,643 Feet in elevation. The tram slowly ascends a large canyon in the mountain side. I was originally skeptical to “cheat” and ride the tramway… but it was an enjoyable experience. The views of the massive rock faces were really incredible.

Going up!

Near the top

The Tramway Ascends 5,873 feet over the course of 15 minutes. The gates opened and we were now standing at 8,516 feet in elevation. Not a bad short cut!

Hitting The Trail… Finally

We explored the Mountain Station for a few minutes, then moved on down it’s long concrete ramps to the natural dirt floor.

Stopping at the Ranger Station

San Jacinto National Park requires a permit, even for day use. However, this permit is free! We stopped at the ranger station a short walk from Mountain Station and filled out our permits. Then we hit the trail.

The first section of the trail winds through large boulders, this is obviously where all the climbers we saw on the tramway were headed!

Round Valley

Round Valley trail is very tame and nearly flat. The trail meanders through lush forest and exposed giant rocks. In the wetter months this trail follows a bubbling brook… today it was bone dry.

The vegetation here was such much different than what I’m used to. MASSIVE pine trees surrounded the trail with trunks that were at least 5 feet around. A mixture of desert type sand and green on the forest floor.

Snow in SoCal!

After a short while we saw our first patch of snow next to the trail… Not quite enough for MicroSpikes!

Wellmans Divide

About 3.3 Miles into our trip we arrived at Wellmans Divide. This area is beautiful and offers incredible views into the adjacent valley.

A short scramble up some rocks nearby grant you a really impressive nearly 360 degree view.

There is a trail junction here with the much more difficult route coming from Marion Mountain. Some hikers end their trip here only to enjoy the views from Wellmans Divide and head back to the tram. Jeff and I were excited to get to the top of San Jacinto.

On To San Jacinto Peak!

After taking in the views we moved on. We almost immediately lost the trail here because everything was so dry it all kind of blended together. Some creative bushwhacking brought us up to the next switchback.

The remaining 2 miles to the peak of San Jacinto gained substantially more elevation then the previous trails. I was definitely starting to feel my heart pump here… but it was still quite tame and enjoyable. We kept a brisk pace at around 2.3 MPH.

The views along the last section of the trail were incredible. Walking open forest with these gigantic trees and rock. I’ve never seen anything like this.

Emergency Shelter

About 1.5 miles later we approached the stone shelter near the summit. This shelter is entirely community maintained. People leave items behind to help in dire situations.

Some New England vandalism. 

A quick peak inside and I saw an emergency sled / stretcher, some sleeping bags, and basic food rations. It most definitely wouldn’t be comfortable but I suppose it could save your life if the weather went south.

We stopped to explore the shelter area for a few minutes and moved on.

The Scrambles

Right after the shelter the trees open up and the remainder of the hike is exposed to the elements above treeline. Some rock scrambles provided some challenging fun nearing the top.

Jeff making his way up.

Mt San Jacinto Summit 10,833 feet!

After the scrambles we arrived at the summit! A solid high five and a few “wooooo!’s” later we took in the views and started taking pictures.

Really incredible being up here. The terrain is so diverse. Looking east you see desert, looking down you see the city of palm springs. Looking west you see Mt. Baldy in the clouds.

With only a few other hikers on the summit. We found a nice cliffside spot to eat lunch.

After about 10 minutes of hanging around at 10,000+ feet  I started to feel a little loopy. I’ve never been at this altitude and I could only wonder if my body was reacting to the lower oxygen levels up here. It wasn’t debilitating, but it was definitely noticeable!

Geodetic marker at 10,833 feet

We finished up our lunch, took about 500 more pictures, and started our decent.

Heading Back Down

This hike is not a loop hike, so getting out means backtracking the entirety of the trails you took to the top. We kept a fast pace going downhill with lots of talk of which beer we’d be drinking once we got back home.

I was glad we started this day relatively early because it was obvious that the tramway had brought A LOT more people up from the mountains base. As we got closer to Mountain Station more and more people seemed to appear. Most people seemed to be hanging around Mountain Station and taking in views or taking short walks. Not many seemed to be going all the way to the top of San Jacinto.

By about 2:15PM we were riding the tramway down. The ride down was less enjoyable as it was really packed tight!

Crowded tramway

Summary

In total we hiked 10.6 miles and about 2,700 feet in elevation gain according to my Garmin Fenix watch. The trip took us 4 hours and 45 minutes including breaks at the summit and along the way.

Our GPS track recorded by my Garmin Fenix

Our GPS track recorded by my Garmin Fenix

 

This may have been the easiest hike I’ve ever experienced. Which is odd considering it’s also the tallest mountain I’ve ever hiked! It seems strange to compare the “little” New Hampshire mountains I’m used to, to something this large. I’ve become so accustomed to the relentlessly rocky terrain of the North East and this was a pleasant break from that. I’d love to try a more challenging route next time I’m in the area, Maybe Marion Mountain?. First I’d like to hike Mt San Antonio (Mt. Baldy)!

It was eye opening to experience the light headed feeling at 10,800 feet. I’m really interested to see how my body would react at even higher peaks.

This was a perfect hike for a relaxing day in the mountains… exactly what Jeff and I were looking for. The views from the top of San Jacinto are incredible. The tramway ride was also unexpectedly pleasant. I’ll definitely recommend this to anyone traveling to SoCal in the future!

Hiker, climber, father, and husband. The mountains have become a tremendous source of inspiration, physical challenge, fitness, motivation, and enrichment for me. I love the gear, and technical aspects of climbing. I also enjoy sharing this other type of lifestyle with people who haven't experienced it!

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