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Mount San Jacinto

Trip Report

Dec. 9, 2000

In December  I decided that I would attempt to climb the second highest mountain in southern California, Mt. San Jacinto. With an altitude of 10, 804 feet it is second only to Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499) and looms up above the resort town of Palm Springs Ca. I’ve read some very good web pages on the mountain and thought I’d give it a try. I was on a tight time schedule and had to be back home in Temecula by 3:30 PM so I knew it would be a race to get to the top in time. Looking at the topo map it appeared to be close to 12 miles from the Tram Station to the peak and back with an elevation gain of 2800 feet.

The plan was to ride the first tram to the top at 8:00am and race up through Round Valley, Wellman’s Divide and scramble to the peak by 11:00am. I knew I had to catch the 1:30 PM tram back to the valley floor to make it home before the 3:30 PM deadline so I set a tentative turn around time of 11:30. When the day came to make the assault on San Jacinto. I decided to take my usual lightweight backpacking gear which included a small Lowe Contour Mountain 40 daypack, fleece vest, Sierra Designs windshell and fleece beanie and gloves. I knew I couldn’t run in my Gore-Tex Zamberlan boots but I would jog the downhills and as many uphills as I could and just see how far I could get before the predetermined turn-around time of 11:30am.

On Saturday morning December 9th I sped off toward Palm Springs exiting the I-10 onto highway 111 and drove up Chino Canyon (Tramway Road) to the Palm Springs Tram Valley Station at 7:30am. I was the only one in the station except for the girl at the ticket desk and paid the $17.00 (AAA club discount) and waited for the 1st ride up the mountain at 8:00am. The tram cars were very shiny and new since the remodeling in August and they whizzed up the mountain a couple of times on a check-out ride as the tram operator prepared for my entry. The first car didn’t get going until 8:15 and I was beginning to get worried. The ride up was extremely fast and quiet (about 10 minutes). The scenery down to the valley floor was spectacular at the early morning hour but was somewhat eerie being the only one on the tram except for the operator. I told the tram operator of my plans and he told me that the usual time for the trip to the peak is about 4-5 hours up and 2-3 back during good weather. I told him of my predetermined turn around time and that I was planning to make it to the summit. He told me that if I felt confident of my navigational skills I could shoot down the drainage on the way back and save a lot of time. I thanked him for the tip and jumped off the tram at a dead run, 8:25am, 8516 ft up at Mountain Station.

I jogged out the back door of the Mountain Station and down the back concrete ramp leading to the Long Valley Ranger Station where I signed in and picked up my wilderness permit. I began running along the well-marked trail winding through the path of tall pine trees and rock formations. The air was a crisp and clean 35 degrees and the forest was so quiet all I could hear was my heartbeat. About mile out of the station I came upon my first obstacle, snow. I couldn’t recall it raining recently but I knew it had been at least a couple of weeks and didn’t anticipate having to travel to the peak in the snow. The snow wasn’t too deep so I continued jogging along until I reached the first of several stream crossings. The trail up until this point had been well marked but now the snow was covering most of the trail. In some spots I could see where a trail probably was as I could see places where brush was cleared and blazes were visible high up on the trees. I pulled out my topo map to verify my position and continued up the trail. I wasn’t sure I could make the summit now with the added snow slowing my progress so I figured I would just go as far as time permits, maybe Wellman’s Divide.

I skirted the edge of Round Valley and was disappointed to see remnants of other hiker debris scattered along the sides of the trail. I saw candy bar wrappers, toilet paper, leftover bags of freeze-dried dinners and a large block of a water bladder filled and frozen in the snow. Off the trail I noticed a large cast iron looking object that looked really old and heavy. It might have been a stove at one time and I wondered how this thing came to be way up here on the mountain. I would have checked it out but I was in a hurry and kept moving. I was concerned about the elevation and worried about altitude sickness because the ride from the valley floor to the mountain station climbs about 6,000 ft in only about 10 minutes. I felt pretty good so I walked as quickly as I could. I passed Round Valley and reached the grade and switchbacks toward Wellman’s Divide. Here I encountered ice and hardened snow. The trail was visible but now under hard packed snow, which had, turned to ice in the shaded portions of the west side of the hill. My boots gripped the ice but every 2-3 steps I would slip. My homemade trekking poles kept my balance but made my cautious. At the top of the switchbacks I could see light up ahead and could tell I reaching the top of something. I was surprised to find out I had climbed to Wellman’s Divide by 9:30am.

As I neared the top my eyes caught some movement coming from the brush up ahead. I saw something huge and dark brown bounding down the trail at me. Prior to going on the hike I had talked to a friend of mine (who worked for Animal Control). He told me that bears had finally begun to make the crossing from the San Bernardino Mountains across the newly constructed wildlife corridor. I had not heard of any confirmed sightings in San Jacinto yet but the thought quickly crossed my mind. I was somewhat relieved to see that it was a really thick and furry dog. This dog was all of 150 lbs. and I hoped was friendly. The dog skidded to a stop and sniffed my hand. He let me pat him on his meaty side and I noticed he was sweaty. He followed me to the crest of the Divide where I met his owner, Dave. He had come up from the Devil’s Slide Trail in Idyllwild and had stopped for a rest at the Divide. He told me that dogs were allowed in the National Forest but not in the San Jacinto Wilderness. He said he’d act ignorant if any rangers questioned him about it. The dog had been carrying a large red doggie pack that was temporarily removed to let him air out. The pack looked like it weighed 20 lbs. but this stud of a dog had no problem carrying his share of the load.

At the Divide I could see why they called it a divide. It divides the Idyllwild side of the mountain from the Palm Springs side. I was rewarded with fabulous views southward toward Strawberry Valley and Idyllwild. The view northward overlooked the trail where I had come and the outskirts of Palm Springs. After a brief rest we decided to make for the summit together and I followed their lead up out of Wellman’s Divide skirting the northern edge of Jean Peak. The trail was easy to follow through the brush but the dog was having problems at the narrow spots carrying the pack. His rear end kept bouncing of the boulders not used to the additional width of the pack. The traverse around Jean peak was tiring but not unduly so. As we climbed up the views to the north opened up toward Palm Springs. The air up here was so crisp and clear I wished I had brought a camera to take some photos.

At the end of the Jean Peak traverse the trail came to the head of a small valley. The snow deepened to about 2-3 feet and I began to posthole in places. I tried to stay in the shaded areas and looked up ahead for signs of a trail. Dave and his dog headed off S/E, I found a spot on a rock and whipped out my map and compass. I could tell we needed to go north and pointed toward an area devoid of brush on the slope. He saw it and said ,"That’s it"), and we continued toward the peak.

Shortly after we could see up through the trees and see the stone shelter covered with snow. I walked around the building and scrambled up toward the summit. I didn’t know what to expect at the top. I was surprised it was just us two and the dog. Basically it is one big slab of a rock on an angle pointing up into the sky. I climbed up on the rock and tiptoed to the highest point. The view was spectacular, in a 360 degree rotation you could see from Palm Springs, across to San Gorgonio, into the Los Angeles Valley and off toward the ocean. We were so high up the clouds were below us and the view was stunning. It was about 40 degrees now with a breeze of about 15-mph at the summit. I was beginning to feel a chill so I dug out my fleece jacket, beanie and gloves. I ate a clif bar and chugged down some water.

Dave showed me the bolts still embedded in the rock where a summit plaque was once mounted. It’s a shame someone stole it prior to my arrival. He also said the last time he was up here there were about 20-30 people up here including a party of 10 college girls having a bachelorette party complete with booze. He asked me if I saw the stove on the trail on the way up. He said the stove was brought up in the 1920’s or 1930’s by the California Conservation Corps trail crew who were building the trail at the time. He said it was brought up the mountain by a mule that died from the heavy burden. Supposedly they left the stove right where he died and it’s been there ever since.

I had been too lazy to dig my gaiters out of my pack on the way up and snow had gotten packed down inside my boots. My socks were soaking wet and a large block of ice had formed a donut shape around my ankles inside the tongue of my boots. I was surprised to see steam coming off my feet when I removed my boots and changed into a new pair of Smartwool socks tying my sweaty socks to the outside of my pack. If you’re considering buying really great hiking socks don’t hesitate to spend the $15.00 for the Smartwool socks, they’re worth it.

It was now 11:25am and I had to get going. We both left the summit and started back down toward the divide. I only had two hours to get back to the tram and I wasn’t sure I could make it. I knew I had to go really fast to make up as much time as I could so I started looking for the drainage. I said goodbye to Dave and his dog and could see the top of Mountain Station across the valley. The snow was about shin to knee deep and I began plunge stepping down the drainage on a beeline towards the tram. I was making great time and the cushioning of the snow was easy on my knees and feet. I caught up with the trail by cutting through Tamarack and Round Valleys. I know you should stick to maintained trails to prevent further erosion and damaging plant-life but I never bottomed out in the snow and didn’t think it would damage anything. As I crossed the last part of the drainage I was surprised to see a ranger standing there, hands of his hips, looking at me. I said," hi", and he said, "A little off the trail aren’t you". I told him I lost the trail in the snow and I’m sure glad to find it again. He checked my permit and I continued toward the tram.

It was about 1:00pm I started seeing groups of people coming up from the Tram Station. It’s scary seeing so many people so unprepared for the environment. Some wearing tennis shoes and shorts, most not carrying any water and certainly not any of the 10 essentials necessary for any outdoor outing. I passed along some trail tips and told them of the ice up ahead. I came out of the snow at about 1:15 and could see the long concrete ramp up to Mountain Station. I read somewhere that the ramp is the hardest part of the 12-mile hike. I totally agree. It took all I had to make it up to the top. I had to stop to rest several times. It was embarrassing when people looked down from the deck and saw me huffing and puffing.

I had done it! 12 miles to the top and back in 5 hours, in the snow. I had a few quick minutes to buy a Mt. San Jacinto Patch in the NFS gift shop and caught the tram back down. I didn’t notice as much on the way up but the tram car rotates to give you a full 360 view on the ride up and down. People were trying to stay in one spot facing north but they had to keep moving to stay there. People kept bumping into me then quickly backing away and making faces. Only later did I realize that I probably stunk and my old sweaty socks still hung on my pack.

I made it back to the car and arrived home promptly at 3:30 PM, right on time. While I enjoyed the trip, I wished I had more time to take in the beautiful surroundings. I want to spend more time on top, take photos and bring a large scale map to identify landmarks visible from the top. I also want to try it from the other side in Idyllwild using the Devil’s Slide trail. On the way down Dave told me the summit log in located in the stone summit hut near the top. While I was basking in my glory he was signing the summit register. I didn’t get to sign in and I guess that’ll give me another excuse to go up there again.

Great San Jacinto Links

Offical Palm Springs Tram Site

Tram Cams Live Photo's

G.O.R.P's Mt. San Jacinto Link

Bob Urlrich's San Jacinto Hiking Page  

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