Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hike 2012.029 -- Mt. San Jacinto from Mountain Station

Hiked Saturday, May 12. I got an intention-ally late start on this hike because I wanted to hike in twilight, thinking maybe I might see some wildlife. I also figured hiking from Mountain Station would be pretty quick and easy, since the net gain is only about 2,300 feet.

However, having just woken up from that hike just an hour before writing these words (though many days before I finished the entire post!), I can report feeling pretty stiff from this little hike. Despite the head start in altitude, it's still about 11 3/4 miles roundtrip, and the gross gain is several hundred feet more than the net 2,200 feet.

To get to this trail head, I rode the aerial tramway from Valley Station to Mountain Station. To get to Valley Station, I took Interstate 10 east, about seven miles past Cabazon and about 1/2 mile past Hagen-Lehman exit (That's the exit I took to get to the trailhead for one of my Whitewater Preserve hikes, along the Pacific Crest Trail).

CA-111 splits off from I-10 here. I took CA-111 about eight miles, to Tram Way. There's a large sign on your right (I mean a LARGE sign and visitor's center). Turn right and head two miles up a somewhat steep two-lane road. When you get to the top, an attendant will direct you to a lot, where you'll either have to walk or catch a tram up to the Valley Station.

Here's a link to the website for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This was my first time riding up there, so I can tell you what's on the website, but can't tell you about how crowded or how long the wait might be later in the season.

Currently (May 2012), a ride up and back costs $23.95 for adults, $16.95 for children under 3-12, and $21.95 for seniors. I seem to recall seeing a reduced price for twilight tickets, but I don't see that on the web page. An annual pass is $150, and a summer season pass (good until the end of August) is $70. Buying a pass gives you the advantage of boarding the first available tram without needing a reservation and a 10% discount on gift shop, food, and guest ticket purchases. I bought the summer pass as an inducement for me to go visit the high country here at least twice more this summer (Note--later in the season, I was informed that the summer pass did NOT entitle me to a discount in the gift shop. I was peeved by this change of policy, and by the way the snooty little shop worker informed me of this).

The elevation at the Valley Station is 2,643. Mountain Station is at 8,516. It takes only 11 minutes for the ride up, and the view is impressive, to say the least.

Despite the express ride up to over 8,500 feet, the hike to the summit of Mount San Jacinto is still not a piece of cake. From the ranger station (which is, itself, about 1/2 mile from the Mountain tram station), the hike is 5.8 miles to the summit, so figure on about 12 1/2 miles roundtrip, with a net altitude gain of just over 2,300 feet.

By contrast, the Marion Mountain Trail approach I took to San Jacinto two years ago was only 10.6 miles roundtrip, though with 2,500 more feet of vertical gain.

The other difference between this trip and my last trip is that I haven't had a chance to work up my endurance. Yeah, I hiked Mt. Wilson the previous week, but that was my first hike with really serious vertical gain of the season, and the first hike over 10 miles since early February. Unlike 2010, I haven't been up Mt. Baldy, nor even up Icehouse Canyon. I haven't spent any time over 6,000 feet, either.

Thus, I knew I would have to take it easy.

I felt like a real dog as I sloooowly made my way up the trail, while other folks were practically bounding down the other way, having started at a more typical hour and, thus were already nearly back as I was barely heading out. I have to say this trail seemed to have some of the fittest collection of hikers I ever saw. I was still only passed heading up by one hiker going up, but that had more to do with the small number of hikers starting after me than my own slow hiking pace. Several passed me on the return trip, and some quite swiftly.

Also somewhat unusually, I'm pretty sure the women outnumbered the men on this trail. Not quite sure what makes this trail different from most others I've been on, but there you have it.

One difference might be that this is a pretty heavily traveled trail, despite it being high and far and relatively long.

People also seemed to be talking louder on this trail than many others. I heard numerous voices long before I could see the bodies with which they were associated. For all I know, that could be because hikers' ears get stuffed during the ascent on the tram. In fact, the tram ride back was REALLY loud.

I didn't mind the voices too much, as there were still spots along the way where the trail was not distinct (I was forced off the trail path by several patches of snow), and hearing voices let me know which way I would eventually have to go.

Despite being only mid-May, the light snowfall and recent warm temperatures left 98 percent of the trail free of snow. I was counting on as much when I made plans for this hike. There were a few drifts I had to navigate, and I post-holed my boot a few times. But those times were rare. I would wager nearly all of those areas will be clear this weekend.

The mountain immediately southwest of San Jacinto (Folly Peak, I think) had a north-facing slope that was still well-covered in snow, but I didn't have to hike there. So most of the way was just a brisk walk.

Despite the lack of snow cover, spring hasn't quite come to the high country. I expected to see wildflowers, but the grasses were looking like late summer, which I'm assuming is because they haven't started growing, yet. I saw one spot where I'm pretty sure in a few weeks there'll be a thicket of mule-eared plants (probably not the actual mule's ear, but something I've always thought should have such a name). Rapids of snow melt ran along much of the trail, and gave me a soothing song to make the miles go by quicker.

Chatted with a scout leader on the way up, too. As I often say, it's not that I'm anti-social---I just don't mind hiking alone. But I also don't mind having someone to share the experience with. They had started from down in Idlewyld, which made this a really long day for him and his group.

I spent a fair amount of the last mile or so debating if I had time to finish the hike. I caught a 12:45 tram ride up, wandered near the station and took in some views for a bit, then wandered a bit near Long Meadow before making my way to the Ranger Station to get my state wilderness permit (free, but required). Didn't leave the ranger station until about 1:30pm.

For the 11 mile roundtrip, I was estimating a bit under six hours, which would get me back to the ranger station (still at least a half-mile from the tram) by 7:30pm, which would be right about when things start getting dark.

Given the altitude, I had some concern the temperatures might drop quickly once the sun went down. Still, I figured shorts and a hoodie would be sufficient, since I wouldn't be out THAT late.

So, during that last mile and a half, I kept checking the time on my cell phone. First, I said I wanted to turnaround at 4:20. Then 4:45. Then, well, hey, I'm only 3/10ths of a mile from the top, so I might as well go all the way.

Reached the summit around 5pm. That meant I had used up my entire margin for error. If I managed to get seriously lost on the way back, I'd be walking in pitch darkness.

So I only spent about eight minutes at the summit before making my way back down.

It's a bit of boulder-hopping at the very top, before the actual trail resumes. Then there's a long run to the east. I had just hiked this up, so I knew there was a long lateral. That part's really weird, because you can see the tram station during your lateral, and it sure seems like there ought to be a more direct trail between here and there.

So, on the return trip, as I was racing the sun, I kept feeling like I was going the wrong way. But I suppressed my urge to try a more direct route and stayed on the trail. I still lost it briefly around several of the snow patches, just as I had on the way up.

Also, as I descended, I could see that I'd be walking in the shade. The ridge line blocks out the sun early, so pretty much the whole return was in the shade. I started feeling a little cool, and stopped to pull on my hoodie.

Except my hoodie wasn't in my backpack. Crap.

Turns out I pulled it out of my backpack when I checked to make sure I had the sunblock, just as I left the car. Forgot to put the sweater back in. So now if I got seriously lost, this was really going to suck.

Fortunately, I did not get seriously lost. I would have preferred the sweater to no sweater the last 90 minutes or so of hiking, but I only felt uncomfortable, not cold.

The last bit of the hike was tough. I knew when I got started that there was going to be the paved sidewalk, switch-backing up to the tram station level. Feels like solid 100 feet vertical, at least. Yeah, 100 feet isn't much. But there's the altitude, and being at the end of the hike, and knowing from past experience that if I get my heart rate up at altitude, I'm going to get a headache.

So when I heard the PA announce the next train was leaving in ten minutes, boy, but that was a long way up.

But, of course, I did make the next tram. As I said earlier, it was REALLY loud in there on the way down. Also, the rotating floor seemed to mess with some people's sense of place, so I got completely squeezed out from where I stood and had to move back about two feet. No biggie--it's not like you could see much in the dark. Didn't stop one doofus from shooting flash photos of. . . Well, I'd guess, when he got home, he had some really nice pictures of the window of the tram car! And then he's talking about wanting to shut off the flash, which made me laugh, because if you're shooting a dark landscape, hand-held, you're going to get a picture of darkness, no matter what ISO you set.

Man, I must be in a grumpy mood as I write this. Too much caffeine today, I guess. I kept feeling like I was going to fall asleep at work, so I drank three cups of coffee and two cups of cola. And another large glass after I got home. Still. What a doofus.

Haven't started packing for my Mojave/Utah trip, yet. I have the star party on Saturday, the solar eclipse on Sunday, and Guilder to frame for it. . . . Heh, heh. Even grumpy, I still have an odd sense of humor.

OK, bottom line: twelve miles of hiking, a bit over 2300 feet. But the key is the altitude. You start at over 8,500 and your turnaround point rises to over 10,800. Even some people who are very fit at sea level can have trouble at high altitude. Give yourself plenty of time and drink plenty of fluids. The trail junctions are well-signed and heavily traveled, so as long as you don't wander off the trail, you'll be fine.

No time for any other hike this last week. I had to spend the week wrapping up a night class I'm teaching this semester. That means I'm heading out to the Mojave without a well-thought out observing plan. So I'm a bit rushed as I get ready to take off. No time to proofread. Not sure what I'll look at tonight. But it will be dark, and that pretty much guarantees a good night.


  1. We did this same hike last July (Fourth of July weekend) and loved it! And it definitely kicked out butts as well...we were feeling it for days. Like you, we did unfortunately notice a lot more loud talking that we normally encounter on trails that venture out of the crowded Disneyland hikes.

    Not sure we'll make it this year, but we do plan to do this hike at least every couple years. It's just that good!

    Colleen @

  2. Thanks for visiting here. I enjoyed your write-up. Yeah, this is definely easier than any of the other 10K-plus hikes in the area. Still a fair workout, though!

  3. I am a regular and an experienced hiker, do you think it's safe to hike alone on this trail? I plan to go on Sunday, July 14, as so far, can't find a group to go with on that day. Thanks!

  4. I almost always hike alone. Partially, that's because I do a lot of impromptu hiking. It also gives me the flexibility to change my plans at the last minute.

    The key will be if you can handle the altitude gain at high altitude. Personally, I just need to walk slower to keep from getting a pounding headache at altitude. Other than that, there's no technical reason why you couldn't do the hike alone. It's a walk-up, with maybe just a little Class 2 near the summit.

    There will be plenty of other hikers on this trail on a weekend, so if you have a real emergency, someone can carry a message back to the rangers near Mountain Station.

    Just be careful. Dress in layers, bring lots of liquids to drink (there's no potable water after you leave Mountain Station), have a map, be prepared for the possibility of thunderstorms, and bring sunscreen. You know, just the standard level of preparation you probably already do on your other hikes.