Cactus to Clouds Overview
If you have been following my posts over the last 6-7 months you have seen my wife and I have been trying to train for Cactus to Clouds! Well I am proud to report that on Saturday, September 23, 2023 we accomplished our goal!
Cactus to Clouds, also sometimes referred to as C2C, is a 22.11 mile hike with about 11k feet in elevation gain (Data From my Garmin) all done in one long day hike.
Other than being a really long hike with a lot of elevation gain, what makes Cactus to Clouds such a special and unique hike? One word, "Prominence". Prominence as defined by usgs.gov "is a term in topography that refers to the elevation of a summit relative to its surrounding terrain. This is different from its overall elevation, which measures the height of the summit above sea level."
San Jacinto Peak according to Peak Bagger has the 6th largest prominence in the United States Lower 48.
So What does this large prominence mean to us for our hike? For starters epic views! San Jacinto Mountain just rises out of nowhere in the desert all the way up to about 10,800 feet. Secondly, as the name "Cactus to Clouds" suggests, you start in a dry hot desert environment, and hike all the way up to the clouds in a beautiful tree filled alpine environment! The views are stunning as your head tries to comprehend the hot desert below with the cool Alpine breeze at the summit.
There is also a hidden challenge to Cactus to Clouds, which is the heat. 22 Miles and 11k in elevation gain is a lot for almost any hiker. Starting in a desert environment adds the added challenge of trying to "beat the heat", the start of the hike can be a race against the sun rise. Ideally you want to plan this hike in the cooler months and not in the summer as the heat in Palm Springs is pretty dangerous. If you wait too long and try to climb in the winter though, Skyline trail can become a technical snow/ice climb which is also super dangerous. Track the weather closely and start early in order to get into the cooler alpine air before it gets too hot on the trail.
I hope my guide below is helpful to anyone planning to attempt Cactus to Clouds, but I also highly recommend checking out the Hiking Guy's blog post as well. It is one of the best, most detailed resources on how to hike Cactus to Clouds.
ℹ️ Pack smarter, not harder, with Don't Forget the Spoon. Our app simplifies trip planning with personalized gear lists, a community gear locker, pack weight statistics, and calorie tracking. Say goodbye to forgotten gear and hello to seamless planning for your next outdoor adventure
Cactus to Clouds Skyline Trail Map
The Caltopo map below can be viewed and downloaded here on Caltopo. This Caltopo map below takes two different maps I saw on the Hiking Guys blog post. There were two maps and one had more points then the other so I combined them together.
Cactus To Clouds Trailhead and Basic Logistics
Cactus to Clouds is an interesting hike because it does not start and end at the same point. The Cactus to Clouds hike starts Just behind the Palm Springs art Museum, and then ends at the Palm Springs Aerial tram which you take back down to Palm Springs. It's about a 17 minute drive between the two locations.
You can view the Cactus to Clouds Trailhead on Google Maps here. We chose to drive our own car and park at the trailhead along North Belardo Road. Then when complete we took an Uber from the Palm Springs Aerial Tram lot back to our car. There was wifi at the Aerial tram station which allowed me to call an Uber, since there is basically no cell service there.
I wont lie, parking along N Belardo Road at 2am was slightly sketchy, there were a lot of homeless around. No one bothered us when we parked, but we did not prep our gear at the car. Just a short walk away was the trailhead and it was pretty well lit. We also have a Tesla, and had sentry mode on while we hiked and our car was left alone.
Cactus to Clouds Packing List
Cactus to Clouds can be a tricky hike to pack for, starting in the desert and climbing all the way to 10,800 feet. The weather and conditions can change quickly from pretty dang hot to pretty dang cool. I tried to prep for both environments while staying lite. I still ended up with about 24.2 pounds in my pack at the start of the hike.
ℹ️ Click the links below to see our Cactus to Clouds Packs in detail:
As you can see in the image above, most of my weight to start out was water weight. There is no place to get water for the first 9ish miles and its some very steep climbing as well. Additionally this is the section where you risk getting stuck in some intense heat. I also know I sweat a lot while hiking so I came prepared to hydrate on this one.
You can also see above my next heaviest category was photography gear.... I just can't help myself and have to take my camera with me everywhere. I love photography and I hope you enjoy the pictures in the report below. I will say I did make one photography sacrifice on this trip... I left my tripod at home which is a big deal for me. That saved me an extra 2.89 pounds 😃
After photography, food was the 3rd heaviest category. I probably "fear" packed a little more food then I needed, but it honestly worked out well for me. Interestingly enough, I packed a total of 3,930 calories and Strava recorded me burning a total of almost 7,000 calories. If I was burning 6,000 calories per day, 3,930 calories comes out to 15.72 hours of energy. It took us 15 hours and 58 minutes to hike C2C. Calories isn't the full picture when prepping for a hike, but I did find that data point kind of interesting. And for the record I didn't eat all my food I carried, also my wife and I shared food between both our packs.
Cactus to Clouds Training and Preparation
Training for a hike like this is interesting, and everyone's body and fitness level is different. I won't go into a detailed training plan for Cactus to Clouds but I will share some of the hikes we did and some other tools and tips that may be helpful in your own personal journey if you want to attempt this hike.
The best way to prepare for hiking is to hike. I tried to intentionally pack a little heavy as well knowing that I would go a bit lighter on our actual Cactus to Clouds attempt. Here are some local Southern California Trails we enjoyed hiking in preparation for C2C:
We had planned to hike San Bernardino Mountain as well, but the day we planned it was pretty hot and we canceled. We also had some shorter hikes sprinkled in between these bigger ones, like Iron Mountain, Goat Peak, and Kwaay Paay. Kwaay Paay is fairly close to us, so on days where we didn't want to drive far we would go do a double and hike Kwaay Paay twice in a row.
We would also sprinkle in some runs on our local hills a couple times a week and I also love rowing as well to get some time with zero impact.
As for tools that you may or may not find helpful in training, I have a couple I can recommend. I am a huge Strava fan and track all my fitness on there. As a data geek it's fun to watch the graphs and they oddly motivate me to continue to work out. My favorite chart on Strava for training is the Fitness and Freshness Graph:
This shows my fitness over the last year. It's actually pretty fascinating because you can see the big drop off from when I got COVID over the holidays, then it slowly comes back up as I trained for Cactus to Clouds and peaks the day we accomplished our goal! Looks like it's time for me to start working out again as it drops 😆
Another great tool is an Android and iPhone app called HabitKit. It's an app to help you track your habits and motivate you to build streaks. You can see my cardio Habit here:
I honestly probably should have been more consistent, but work and work travel sometimes are a battle....
Cactus to Clouds Trail Guide
My wife and I didn't exactly have a hard date when we were planning on hiking Cactus to Clouds. We did mark September 23rd on a calendar, because let's be honest if we didn't put it on our calendar we would have been less motivated to train for it. The date was a bit fluid though because we wouldn't know the weather conditions till a few days before. About a week out I was feeling comfortable that weather would be decent temperatures to make an attempt, and we started packing our gear and getting ready!
The weather the day of our hike ended up looking like this:
We planned to start hiking at 2am and the weather would be still cooling off for the night at that time. One thing to note is that temperature drops about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Once we were committed, we booked a hotel for the night before for a "nap" and we wanted a room for the night after the hike as well so we would not be driving all the way back to San Diego half awake.
After leaving San Diego after work on Friday, we got to Palm Springs fairly late. Time was ticking and I just wanted to go to sleep but knew we needed a hearty meal in our bellies to carbo load for the next day's efforts. We ended up at La Bonita's in Palm Springs where I ate a huge Chicken Enchilada dish:
I know this sounds like a bit of a tangent but there is a relevant tip in here. I proudly pounded down the Enchilada smiling about how I could eat anything because I was about to Hike Cactus to Clouds in the morning. What I really didn't think through was that our hike was starting at 2am in the morning, so we were waking up around 1:30am.
In the morning I woke up still super full and bloated from the late night dinner since it was just a "nap" and not a full night's rest. I was a little worried because I had no room to eat breakfast before the hike and was nervous it would throw off my energy mid hike not having a good breakfast. So we drove to the trailhead with full bellies from dinner while we hydrated on some coconut water. It felt odd starting the hike feeling overly full at 2am in the morning, but luckily everything normalized and I felt much better an hour or two later while on the trail.
It was a short drive over to the trailhead in the morning, but it was an interesting drive as we watched people calling Ubers to head home after a night of Partying in Palm Springs. I was still slightly sleeping, but super excited that we were actually about to attempt Cactus to Clouds.
After parking on N Belardo Road, we were finally at the trailhead doing last minute gear checks.
It was nice that the trailhead was well lit, making me feel safe and comfortable while prepping our gear, checking our boots and readying our hiking poles.
Cactus to Clouds is basically all uphill from literally the first step onto the trail up until you hit the summit of San Jacinto. Stepping off in the dark is a little surreal with the calmness all around you as you step onto a trail you know will be one of the toughest 1 day hikes of your life.
The entire trail is pretty steep but the first couple miles are steep switchbacks. We gained 914 feet of elevation in the first mile navigating by our headlamps. We had about 4 hours until the sun would rise and at the start it got darker and darker as we very quickly got further and further above Palm Springs. With how steep the trail was it was honestly quite crazy how quickly we rose above the city.
Luckily for us this was not our first time hiking at night together. We have had a couple long days on the trails on some previous backpacking trips and had to navigate at night with just our headlamps on. Hiking at night in a very dark location with just your headlamp is fascinating. During the day you take granite that you can see a decent distance in every direction. Hiking at night is like hiking with very narrow tunnel vision that only allows you to see in a small bubble in front of you.
One of the more odd experiences on the trail within the first mile or two was two red eyes looking at us from above. Now at night when you are on the trail and you can't see much in any direction, two red eyes above you on the trail are just a tad freaky. Fortunately for us it ended up just being a goat. But yea definitely got the heart rate up a little for a moment.
Just after the two mile mark you will run into what is known as "Rescue 1". There are two "rescue" boxes along Skyline trail. They hold water to be only used in an emergency for individuals who get stuck in the heat and need some help. They're reflective and hard to miss when your headlamp streaks across them.
Fortunately we didn't have to use either of the two rescue boxes on our hike. The trail was mostly easy to follow in the dark with our headlamps. There are white markers on the rocks that reflect. There were two to three times were the trail did have multiple routes and it was nice to have the entire map uploaded on my Garmin Fenix (Amaze Affiliate) for quick spot checks along the trail.
During the first few miles of the trail I didn't get a whole lot of pictures due to how dark it was. After a couple hours of hiking I was getting ready for the sun to come out. I was excited to be able to put the headlamp away and not rely on it for navigating the trail.
The impending sunrise did give me mixed feelings though. As it slightly became brighter out, I kept hoping we were at a good enough elevation where the heat wouldn't hit us too bad for the final push up towards the ranger station. The temperature math checked out on paper, but it was still a thought lingering in the back of my mind.
Eventually the sun did rise and it shed the light on amazing views in every direction!
With the light starting to shine, we decided to take a quick break and refuel. We also took advantage of the natural light to transfer water from our water bladders into our Nalgene water bottles. One unfortunate side effect of the sun coming out, was the bugs also came out as well. While we were transferring water and eating some pop tarts and power bars, the bugs came out in force! Bug spray was something I did not pack...
The mosquitos swarmed us, and I got eaten alive and my face puffed up a bit as well. Luckily it went down fairly quickly once we got back on the trail and were moving again. The mosquitoes also didn't seem to be interested in following us, so as long as we were moving, it wasn't too bad.
Oddly enough this was the only part of the hike where we got attacked by mosquitos. I did manage to snap a quick panorama photo at this point. We had been hiking most of the day, and it was pretty daunting to see what we had left to hike just to get up to the Ranger Station which is about the HalfWay Point...
To be clear, the highest point in that picture above is not the summit of San Jacinto. It's just the tram stop.
As we passed 6.5 miles we reached "Rescue 2" on the trail. At this point we were both feeling really great physically. I was honestly surprised how great we were feeling. My plan for this hike was to make it to the Ranger station and see how we were feeling. If we weren't doing well we could take the tram down from there and not push to the summit. At Rescue 2 though, we were feeling fantastic and it hit me that we had a very good chance at making the summit today. We also continued to see the amazing light show of sunrise in every direction as we pushed on.
The sun being up was quite the contrast from earlier in the morning where we were confined in view to our small 2 meter bubble. Now our eyes were in sensory overload with every fantastic view in every direction. I wanted to stop every 5 feet and take more photos, but deep inside knew we still had a very long day ahead of us. We hadn't even reached the halfway point. We also had the climb up to the rangers station which is one of the steepest parts of the trail. As we continued up, I took one more look at Palm Springs was below us marveling at that was where we started hours ago in pitch darkness.
As we approached the infamous traverse before the final big climb of the first half of the hike the trail continued to get steeper again. As the trail got higher and higher into the alpine environment the vegetation began to change. Throughout the entire hike the vegetation slightly changed as we got higher and higher, but then we started to see trees, and they got bigger and bigger as we went up. We had officially said goodbye to the desert and were in a new biome.
As the trail got steeper, we continued to push forward repeating a half joking saying, "When in Doubt, go up!"
The traverse is a horizontal section of trail that lines you up for the final push through grubs Notch. At this point, you are beginning to be in the shadows of the larger alpine trees and the trail begins to get very rocky. This section can be extremely dangerous in the winter time and is not advised for those not properly trained and equipped. For us there was no snow, and just beautiful views as we prepped for the impending steepness just up ahead.
We were a little over 6 hours into our hike as we crossed the traverse and began the steep rocky climb up through grubs notch. We had about 9.5 miles on our legs and were at around 7,800 feet in elevation. We had been walking uphill for over 6 hours and not halfway done for the day. That thought slowly sank in and we looked for the path ahead. At this point the trail wasn't super clear cut. We would look at the map, then look at the "trail" and pick what seemed like the safest path up through the notch. My body was excited to make it up through Grubs Notch as quickly as possible. Once through, it would flatten out for a bit on the walk to the Rangers Station for a small bit of recovery time.
Once through Grubs Notch, I felt like I had conquered the world! And then again it sunk in that we were about half way through with the hike. Either way it felt great to be on semi-flat ground for a little bit as we made our way to the Rangers Station.
The Ranger Station is a must stop on Cactus to Clouds. From the Ranger Station to San Jacinto Peak you need to have permits. The Ranger Station is where you pick up your permits for the rest of the hike. The Rangers here are also super knowledgeable about the trails etc. if you are looking for any trail info for the final half of the hike.
The Ranger Station is also your best bet for water as well. There is a hose at the back and you can fill bottles from the sink in the bathroom as well. On that note, this is also a great stop for a bathroom break before you push on to the summit.
The sign at the Ranger station should probably read "Hikers/Campers Must Check in", so make sure you stop and check in! The Ranger we met also was great motivation, he was super stoked that we had come all the way up from Skyline Trail and told us we were looking great for the summit!
For the next mile and a half or so the trail continues to rise but is not too steep. Its a nice walk through the forest as you walk towards Round Valley campsite.
The terrain has continued to change, we were now walking past a small creek with beautiful green trees. Again a huge contrast from the light browns in the desert below. We did take a couple short breaks next to the creek to enjoy the shade and the sounds of the flowing water. The other big change after making it through Grubs Notch and the Rangers Station was the amount of people we saw on the trail. On the Skyline trail we saw 2 other small groups and one solo individual on the trail. Now the trail felt almost crowded with people who took the tram up.
We quickly made it past Round Valley Campsite, and then up to Wellman's Divide. Wellman's Divide has some beautiful views and we unnaturally didn't stop for them. We were getting tired from the long hours on the trail at this point and we were beginning to get tunnel vision on making the summit. We both began to get quieter as we focused on just pushing our tired bodies forward.
As we passed the eastern side of Jean Peak from Wellman's Divide, it felt as if we were on the longest switchback ever. On the map at this point, it looks like one massive and one medium switchback before making the final straight push to the summit. This section of trail I was beginning to really slow down and we took multiple stops for food and water to continue energizing our bodies.
To illustrate how tired I was feeling at this point, we crossed paths with a fellow Naval Academy grad on the trail who recognized my hat and asked me what year I graduated. It took me way longer than it should have to answer that question, and it was time for more water and another snack.
Eventually those two never ending switchbacks finally ended and it was the final stretch to the summit. After turning off the switchback, my eyes were looking for a large pile of rocks. I had hiked San Jacinto a number of years ago on Deer Springs trails as a shake out Hike for my High Sierra Trail trip. I was familiar with the summit and knew the pile of rocks would boost my spirit once I saw them. The summit was so close!
The "pile of rocks" appeared around a bend welcoming us toward the summit of San Jacinto! We had our final short challenge after 16+ miles of hiking since 2 am. Just had to make the final rock scramble to the summit! When we got close to the summit, we immediately looked for a place to plop down and rest for a bit as we caught our breadth before getting a picture with the San Jacinto Summit sign.
Being at the Summit after conquering Cactus to Clouds was an amazing feeling. This hike has been a bucket list item for me for years. Thanks to my amazing wife for "forcing" me to add it to our calendar which helped us not push it off any longer and actually start training towards the goal!
We finally made it and thankfully just had to backtrack just a couple of miles to the San Jacinto Tram to take us back down the mountain. Lucky for us there is a bar at the tram station as well for some well earned victory beers!