San Jacinto Peak
Palm Springs Tram Route
August 4, 2001
Last fall I climbed to the top of a knife edged ridge high up in the 12,000 foot range overlooking the Sawtooth Mountains near Yosemite. As I sat there perched on the edge peering down at Crown Lake thousands of feet below me I could feel the cool, crisp air blowing up off the ice that remained late into the year. While contemplating my thoughts and enjoying the view I had this great idea. Why not climb Mt. Whitney next year. All kinds of people make it, young, old, even the handicapped. Hell, a blind guy just climbed Mt. Everest and so did a guy without legs. That's it, I told myself, next year I'll train harder, run faster and climb the stairs longer in preparation for the highest mountain in the United States (excluding Mt. McKinley in Alaska). During the rest of the hike out of the Hoover Wilderness I began to gaze skyward inspecting the precipitous peaks looming down on me from above as I began to plan the Whitney trip.
Climb all the tallest peaks in Southern California, but which ones are they. Research pointed out Mt. San Gorgonio came out on top at 11,499 feet. There were more over 10,000ft near San Gorgonio but I wanted to focus on tallest peaks in different ranges. Mt. San Jacinto was second at 10,804 feet with its neighbors, followed by Mt. San Antonio (Mt.Baldy) at 10,064 feet. I thought the best way to train was to climb all the peaks starting with the easiest to the hardest over a period of several months cumulating with the toughest trail in Southern California just prior to my Whitney attempt.
This trip report focuses on our second installment in the series, Mt. San Jacinto via the Palm Springs Tram. We had climbed Mt. San Antonio via the Sierra Club Ski Hut Trail and around the Devil's Backbone in June for a ten mile loop with a 4000 ft elevation gain. We topped out on Baldy at 10,064 feet and I thought San Jacinto's 10,804 would be the second in a series of steps toward Whitney. Even though the elevation gain via the Tram is only 2800 feet, the loop I planned would be over 13 miles and would include side trips to Miller Peak and Cornell Peak.
The travel arrangements included Dave and Troy carpooling in from Orange County Ca. while I drove solo from my home in Temecula. We were to meet in the Palm Springs Tram parking lot at 7:30am on August 4, 2001. We'd catch the first tram up at 8:00am and begin our hike.
I woke up just prior to my alarm going off repacked my pack and ate a quick breakfast just before heading out the door. I drove out of the Temecula Valley fog through Hemet and towards the I-10 Fwy and Beaumont Ca. Heading East into the desert I could see the rising sun glinting off my windshield as I strained to stay within my lane. It was a beautiful morning, it was crisp and clear as only the desert can be and as the suburban traffic dissipated I saw the barren hills of the Banning Pass, the portal to the desert, lying in wait for me.
As I passed the hamlet of Cabezon and the Factory Outlet Center, I remembered the two huge lonely dinosaurs keeping watch on the desert. These dinosaurs, a T-Rex and a Brontosaurus, are now a part of Americana and were made famous in the Peewee Herman film, Peewee's Big Adventure. Passing Cabezon the windmills of the Banning Pass came into view. Hundreds of gigantic windmills dotted the floor of the desert as far as the eye could see generating electricity for thousands of homes in Southern California. I exited the I-10 fwy and headed Southeast towards Chino Canyon and the Palm Springs Tram.
I drove up the steep Tramway road in second gear, my truck struggling to keep up it's momentum. I arrived at 7:10am. Only a few cars in the lot and I got a parking place in the first stall. Troy and Dave had not arrived yet so I leaned forward and walked briskly up the steep slope to the public restrooms. Upon returning to the lot I met up with Troy and Dave who had parked next to me. They were both standing in front of Dave's car, bent over at the waist, peering down under the opened hood and into the venting steam from the radiator. "That's not good", I said aloud as Troy commented, "I told him to turn off the air conditioner". I was waiting for Troy to take off his ballcap and hit Dave with his hat like little leaguers do after an error but it didn't happen. I told them it's downhill toward the freeway from here and they shouldn't have any problems now. Plus the car will cool off while we're hiking.
I grabbed my pack and tossed it in the back of my truck while waiting for the guys to take out their gear. Troy was anxious to try out his new Lowe Contour Mountain 40 backpack I talked him into. Dave looked like the tan man as the shirt he bought matched his shorts and socks. "I should have bought the green shirt instead", he said as he closed the hatchback to his car and we all started up.
I strapped my camera to a road sign with my ultrapod (a microsized tripod with a Velcro strap to attach your camera to a post, trekking pole or branch)and we posed for a group photo in front of one of the old tram cars. The tram underwent a ten million dollar renovation last year reopening in August last year.The new tram cars were shipped from Switzerland through the Panama Canal into the Port of Long Beach where they were trucked over the three hour trip to Palm Springs. The new cars cost over $480,000 each and have a scissor lift attached to the bottom of the cars which allow food, supplies and up to 800 gallons of water to be carried up from the Valley Station, (El. 2,643 ft) 2.5 miles up to the Mountain Station,(El. 8,516) at 12 MPH in about 10 minutes.
At 7:55am they announced the boarding of the first tram up the mountain and about 15 people zippered in through the turnstile. We all staged in the holding area peering out the window waiting for the car to come sliding down into view. Troy sat his pack on the wood slotted bench while Dave looked out the window. I glanced around the room and noticed a group of people chatting with the Tram crew. "Regulars", I thought as they patted each other on the back. They appeared to be professional people in their mid forties to early fifties. Experienced hikers who would probably race past us on their way to the summit. Maybe they were members of the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section and this was a prearranged group outing. The rest didn't seem any different than us, actually, we seemed to graduate into the semi-experienced category.
The rotating tramcar arrived and the automatic doors opened with the tram operator inviting us to quickly board the tram. Everyone jockeyed into position to get a window spot. I looked over my shoulder and saw something was wrong. Troy was pulling at his pack while everyone else was boarding the tram. I turned sideways and went upstream against the mob to aid Troy. The waistbelt of his pack had slipped between the slots of the bench and the buckle had somehow became wedged. He was clearly frustrated and irritated that everyone had already begun to board the tram. Just as I leaned over to help him the buckle shot out under pressure and Troy jerked his pack onto his back and we crowed into the tram.
The car lurched skyward and zoomed up the cable departing the Valley Station at a rapid rate. The car began to rotate 360 degrees at 6mm per second giving us equal opportunity to view the rocky cliffs of the mountain and the desert below. The windows to the tramcar were already open and the cool morning breeze eased our apprehension of being suspended high above the jagged cliffs below. The cars must pass three of five towers suspending the 27 miles of locked-coil cable weighing more than 80 tons. At each passing point there is a brief moment of weightlessness as the car drops slightly. That first experience is special as it is unexpected. I looked over at Troy with his eyes wide open and heard a "whew ! from the crowd.
The floor rotated 360 degrees two times during the trip but the control operator's station did not. Some people wanted to maintain their desert view orientation while others wanted to enjoy the 360 degree view creating positional confrontations. Along the way we changed from the lower transitional zone of granite batholith, a mass of granite solidified below the earth's crust and forced upward to form mountains, to the Artic-alpine zone, granite ridges heavily fractured by winter freeze-thaw cycle. The temperature can vary up to 30 degrees between the Valley Station and the Mountain Station.
On the way up the view opens up to reveal the desert and the Palm Springs metropolitan area. With a solid thud we docked into the Mountain Station and walked out onto the decking overlooking Mount San Jacinto Wilderness State Park.
The thermometer read 73 degrees on the wall at the Mountain Station as we gazed out over the valley toward the distant Jean Peak. I quickly showed them the gift shop where we could purchase a Mt. San Jacinto patch or get a pin on the way back. We clomped down the wooden stairs to the long winding concrete ramp leading out the back of the Mountain Station and stopped for a brief photo. I told the guys the hardest part of the climb was coming back up the ramp.
We followed the crowd down the ramp and across the dirt trail toward the Long Valley Rangers Station to pick up our Wilderness Permit needed by all those who enter the Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness State Park. The permits are free but are needed to keep track of the amount of people using the park. The ranger stood guard over the rail while Troy signed us all in.
We came to the Long Valley trail sign and headed up the trail 2 miles toward Round Valley. The trail is well defined and hard to miss. It is hard packed dirt with either logs or rocks lining the trail. Although we did not see any trail crews working on the trail their hard work was evident. Large flat stones were dug up and placed at critical slopes along the trail making for an easy hike.
As we hiked in shadows of the tall pines and boulders we squeezed between rocks passing a small stream on the right. We crossed the stream and headed up some small switchbacks entering Round Valley. Lush green leafed plants grew in profusion along side the trail revealing tall bright green grass and a lush meadow. I had stuck to my plan and drained a full 1/3 of my hydration bladder and took special notice of the quaint wooden outhouse sitting all alone just before the Round Valley Tamarack Valley trail split.
We waited quite a while as a large group knelt beside the flowing tap of water refilling their water bottles. I opened my pack and bit off a big hunk of French Bread I had brought and dug out my Cytomax Powder to mix into another water bottle. I dropped two iodine tablets into the bottle and politely asked to fill up my tiny 20oz bottle. They happily let me take cuts then continued filling their jugs. It was a friendly party ,one of which who told me he had not filtered or treated the water here for twenty years. I heeded the sign to treat all water and continued up toward Wellman's Divide.
Troy went up ahead while I showed Dave the old stove that was brought up here by the California Conservation Corps in the 1930's and 40's. According to the story a burro hauled the heavy cast iron stove up from the valley and died under the heavy burden right here on this spot. Sad but supposedly true. We followed the trail upwards and traded places with several parties on the trail. The large group whom we met at Round Valley with a whole bunch of kids hiking without packs stopped for us to pass. So did another older couple. We hit one last set of switchbacks then we could see bright blue sky up ahead. "That's the divide", I told them as we closed in on the divide that separates the northeast Palm Springs side of the mountain with the southwest Idllywild side
We took an extended break here at the divide and ate while we looked around. People were arriving from below behind us and we beginning to spread out on available rocks at the top. A mother sunbathed with her young daughter while I pulled out my topo map and gave the guys a quick lesson on map reading and declination. I pointed out Skunk Cabbage Meadows and Strawberry Valley while I sucked down a strawberry flavored Clif Shot Gel ( a carbo energy gel). I had finished off my Cytomax and washed the goo down with water from my hydration bladder.
10:00am, 9700 feet. We had made the divide in less than two hours with breaks and were heading up across Jean Peak toward the summit. I mentioned to the guys that we needed to come back here and try for the summit via the Devil's Slide Trail beginning in Humber Park. I told them it'd be longer, steeper and much tougher.
I told everyone that the view would open up along the Jean peak traverse towards Palm Springs. The trail gets skinnier with chaparral and manzanita lining the path. The air begins to thin out and you will notice yourselves tiring out much faster than usual. My head was beginning to pound due to the constriction of my hat but I kept it on due to the relentless sun shinning down on us from the East. We began the long traverse in good spirits and feeling refreshed from the brief rest at Wellman's Divide.
As we climbed upwards on Jean we came upon the trail down towards Little Round Valley and more of the wilderness. The trail gets a little rockier but is very scenic.
We reached a switchback and began traversing back across Jean Peak and could feel the altitude. We also started seeing people who had already summitted coming back down the trail.
As we made another turn and headed back northward we could see more blue sky up ahead and the Stone Summit Hut came into view. Built out of mountain rock resembling flagstone the hut was built high atop Mt. San Jacinto to house stranded hikers and to provide a great photo opportunity for travelers. Dave and Troy stood by while I snapped a photo.
I told the guys to go on in and sign the summit register, something I forgot to do last time I was here. The inside was dark and musty but had a familiar warm feeling. Wooden bunks on both sides and wooden timber beams gave the makeshift cabin a rustic feel. Past summiteers inscribed their names and dates on every available timber in the place. We took turns signing the register and I checked for the oldest date on the log, May 2001. "Must get lots of people up here", I said to Troy as he took my photo.
From here we'll have to do some boulder hopping I told them as I remembered postholing in knee deep snow last December. "The trail kinda peters out just up ahead so just climb upward toward the blue sky, you can't miss it" I told them. We could see some successful summitteers on top and headed up toward the light. We took different routes up but made the top about the same time. On top we shared the top rock with others who came up from the tram and Humber Park. I pointed out Diamond Valley Lake, Santiago Peak, Mt. San Antonio, San Gorgonio Peaks and Catalina Island which were visible on this beautiful day. I have heard of days on top in the summer where the smog and haze ruins the view but not today. Dave cooked up some Alpine Air chicken with a pull string heater while I chowed down on some GORP. Others crowed around the top rock to take photos and make cell phone calls. I turned on my Yaesu VX-5r Ham Radio and was pleased to discover I could hit just about any repeater within 100 miles.
Most people took quick naps or tried to identify distant peaks. We all talked about climbing Mt. Whitney and discovered almost everyone was in the same group which planned to climb Mt. Whitney later this month. A man with his two red haired sons of about 8-10 years old had made a successful climb and I congratulated both of them. Other hikers exchanged high-fives while I shook Troy's hand. It was a cool 73 degrees on top with a good breeze. I felt great with the wind cooling my moist t-shirt. A couple wore jackets but most enjoyed the relief from the desert heat.
We all crawled to the tallest rock and delicately sat still for a brief moment while we coerced a friendly hiker to take a group photo. The exposed bolts still remain on top sticking up about two inches where the original summit plaque once stood. We slid off the rock and took turns posing nonchalantly for some solo shots then turned the rock over to others to gloat. I showed the guys the round benchmark button embedded in the rock.
After taking a 360 panoramic photo we reluctantly left the summit for a side trip to Miller Peak just north of San Jacinto. I had heard they had a summit plaque of Mr. Miller embedded on a rock. We hiked back down to the Stone Hut. As I tried to walk behind the Hut a small group of hikers told me not to go that direction as one of their female companions was going to the bathroom off behind a tree somewhere. I waited patiently then saw movement coming from the trees. I asked her, "All Clear". She just turned red-faced and nodded.
We separated and hiked over the mountain top for over 30 minutes and never found the exact spot of the top or the summit plaque but I did find an even more interesting rock formation. On the far N/W corner was a rock outcropping with a vertical drop of over 1,000 feet below. You could step out onto a lone pinnacle of rock about 3 feet square and look straight down a fall line. It was quite a rush and with the breeze blowing I got the chills. I yelled for the guys to come over but they were already heading back to the Stone Hut. I told Dave of the rock outcropping and he had to check it out for himself. I heard Troy yelling for me at the Hut so I headed back up.
Somewhat disappointed we started back down. Our next trip was to find the trail that takes a shortcut to Tamarack Valley without going back to Wellman's Divide. We never found it and ended up at the Divide anyway. We hiked back to Round Valley quickly and saw some interesting people along the way. Many people where now coming up from the tram now, some totally unprepared. We saw one guy hiking in flip-flops wearing only shorts, carrying a 1 gallon jug of water from the grocery store. No shirt, socks, hat or pack.
Upon arriving back at Round Valley we stopped for a quick break, refilled our water bottles and headed off to find Cornell Peak. We headed west on the trail and took a trail off to the right. We ended up going cross-country through the fallen timber toward the spire of Cornell Peak. We could see it off in the distance but we were getting too tired. We figured that it would take us another hour at least to climb to near the top and we were pushed for time so we headed back through Tamarack Valley camp to the trail.
The hike back to the tram was uneventful as we were getting tired. Our ankles were weakening and we tripped on quite a few tree roots and rocks in the trail. Troy twisted his ankle while watching a man and his son stopped along side the trail Dave also slipped once and I thought he was going to land on top of me from behind. The last few miles seemed endless and we all swore the signs were incorrect. We were pleased to finally see the Long Valley Ranger Station again and the welcome Tram Mountain Station up ahead. The long concrete ramp didn't seem as difficult this time probably due to our hill training for Mt. Whitney. Lots of tourists looked at us funny as we approached and some made fun of our ski poles (trekking poles).
The upper tram station was busy and Dave and Troy hurried into the waiting area for the next tram while I went into the store to buy a patch. I met up with them and we all crowded into the first available tram down. The car was packed and I'm sure my pack bumped into somebody on the ride down. One old lady complained to me about my trekking poles sticking out above my pack but I was too tired to really care.
We hurried out to the cars to find most of the ice in our ice chests had melted in the 109 degree heat of the Valley Station parking lot. We ripped off our sweaty socks, slid on our sandals and fired up the A/C for the ride home. I followed Dave and Troy until I had to turn off to head south to Temecula just in case their car overheated again but it did not.
The trip pretty much went as planned. We were definitely in better conditioning, we hiked about 13-14 miles and reached a new high of 10,804 feet. The weather was great, the view outstanding and the experience was one to remember for a lifetime. Next up, Mt. San Gorgonio 11,499 feet.