Hike the Skyline Trail (Cactus to Clouds) to San Jacinto Peak

Skyline Trail (Cactus to Clouds), Palm Springs, California, United States

  • Activities:

    Hiking

  • Skill Level:

    Advanced

  • Season:

    Spring, Autumn

  • Trail Type:

    Point-to-Point

  • RT Distance:

    16.4 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    10834 Feet

Easy Parking
Forest
Scenic

This is one of Andrew Skurka's 10 favorite hikes and Backpacker Magazine's 5th hardest day hike in the United States. This climb is only 400 vertical feet shorter than the climb to the summit of Everest from base camp.

The Cactus to Clouds Trail begins in the parking lot for the Palms Springs Art Museum. Get ready, you're going to start heading uphill right away and it's not going to stop for 16.5 miles. Get an early start if possible, I like to leave the trailhead at 4:30 AM. Even without the sun, the desert heat can be brutal and suffocating. To start this hike under the baking desert sun could cause a lot of problems. Keep in mind, there will be no available water for 11 miles (8000 ft), so bring plenty.

I would NOT recommend hiking this in the summer, as the temperatures can be triple digits. I would also advise against a winter attempt as steep ice chutes toward the Aerial Tramway require an ice axe and crampons.

The trail climbs steeply over the first few miles and offers beautiful early morning views of Palm Springs at sunrise. The trail is not maintained over these first 11 miles but is easy to follow as it's marked by white circles of spray paint on rocks along the way. If you're not sure where to go, stop and go back to your last spot. This is not the trail to get lost on. People suffer from heat stroke and die here, so keep that in mind.

One of my favorite parts of this hike is watching the fauna change as you climb higher towards the summit. Leaving the desert behind to see ponderosa pines and firs is a pretty special moment. At mile 11 you'll receive your first break as you arrive at the Palm Springs Ariel Tramway. This Tramway has food and beverages available, and allows for an easy option to return home once you've reached the summit, or if you're not feeling up for a summit push. Next to the Tramway you'll see the ranger station. They have a water hose on the back porch so you can refill your pack. Stop inside to grab a permit, as you'll need one for the remaining 5.5 miles to the summit of San Jacinto.

This next section of trail is a breeze compared to the first 11, as it's well maintained with a moderate grade. Still, with 8000 ft of climbing already on your legs, the next 2,400 won't come easy. Follow the switchbacks until you reach the rock outcrop of the summit. At this point it's just a short boulder hop until you claim your prize: A 360 degree view of Southern California.

On your way down you can stop at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and take the tram back to Palm Springs. 

Pack List

  • Hiking Essentials
  • Comfortable Trail Shoes
  • Lots of Water
  • Snacks/Lunch
  • Camera
  • Trekking Poles
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Reviews

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This hike was absolutely beautiful in the early hours of the morning with the lit up city of palm Desert below. Afterwords it soon turns very difficult with heat and crazy elevation gains. Come prepared for a hell of a hike but it’s one more thing off the bucket list;)

3 months ago
3 months ago

Don't attempt this if you're not very fit and experienced. People die on this hike. I have a full trail guide with turn by turn directions on my blog here: https://hikingguy.com/hiking-trails/hiking-la/cactus-to-clouds-hike/

over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago

It is not for the faint of heart. If you are not committed before you start, take the tram.

over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago

Started hiking at 5am from the Art Museum on Feb 20, 2016 with a headlamp and a wonderful cool breeze. Hiked for three hours and didn't feel the elevation gain or any pain. Great trail and well marked with nice stretches of flat terrain mixed with the ascent. Started seeing snow along the trail at about 6,700 feet. From that point on there were large portions of the trail covered with snow - really could have used poles and micro spikes! The last mile or so was extremely difficult with limited gear for snow and ice. Thankfully there were plenty of postholes and footprints to manuever slowly and carefully. From the first snowfield at noon it took almost two hours to hike up and across approximately 20 more snowfields. I found myself punching my fist through the ice covered snow to maintain confidence and balance. Some sections could have been treacherous in a slip and fall. Purchased my ticket for the tram ride down at 2:00pm for twelve dollars. Nine hours from Museum to Tram with serious delays due to the snow. Ranger said for the stretch from the Tram to Jacinta Peak that spikes and poles were a must and that is was snow and ice the entire way. Not a cloud in the sky and seemed to be little or no wind with morning temps in the low 60 and comfortable at the top in the sun. Lucky to find a taxi cab at the Tram parking lot for a twenty five dollar cab ride back to Palm Springs near the Art Museum. Kudos to the awesome hiker that found my shirt that I lost somewhere along the way!

about 2 years ago
about 2 years ago

Start early and bring plenty of food and water.

almost 3 years ago
almost 3 years ago

Drew Robinson

trailtopeak.com // Instagram: @trailtopeak

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