Cactus to Clouds Hiking Guide
Maps, Photos, GPS, & Details
|Skyline in a Nutshell||Current Conditions||"What is Skyline?"|
|Safety Issues||Preparing for the Climb||Photos & Route Details|
|Maps & GPS||Linking to this Web Page||About this Web Page|
Current Trail Conditions
Hot. Assume there's no water. Usually the upper rescue box does not have any water this time of year because hikers consume it faster than it's replaced. This means that many hikers underestimate their water requirement.
Tramcams & Weather
"What is Skyline?"
Officially known as the Skyline Ridge Cross-Country Route, it's a challenging and scenic hike from Palm Springs to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. With 8,000 feet of vertical gain in approximately 10 or 11 miles, it's one of the most difficult day hikes in the United States. Skyline is not an official trail but a route that has been worn into the mountain through years of use. Origins and history are not well documented. Several rumors exist:
If anybody has documentation or witnesses to prove or disprove these theories, please feel free to send an email. That would be very interesting to hear about.
Today, it's mainly used by hikers but is not maintained by California State Parks or Bureau of Land Management. Skyline is also known as the "cactus to clouds trail" or the "sunrise route." "Cactus to clouds" is a vague term that sometimes refers to the entire hike from Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak and back to the tram. Most people finish at the tram and save the peak for another day. Less-common names for Skyline include "outlaw trail," "chino trail," and "palms to pines trail" (not to be confused with the Palms to Pines Highway).
Although not officially recognized as a trail, it's still legal to hike unless the State Park enforces a forest closure because of fire danger. This generally happens when the nearby San Bernardino National Forest is closed for the same reason.
Dehydration & Salt Loss:
Dehydration and heat exhaustion are the biggest contributors to rescues on Skyline. You might be wondering, "How much water do I need? I don't wanna carry extra weight." Well depending on who you ask, you might get a different answer. Temperature and sunlight make a big difference, and it's always better to carry too much water than not enough. For cool weather, 1 gallon is about right for a person who weighs 150 lb. In hot weather, a heavier person might need to carry 2 gallons. Yes, there are people getting away with less water. They are usually one of two types of hikers:
Carbohydrates are also important for maintaining blood sugar, and salt can reduce muscle cramps. Sports drinks have all three, but not all are designed for endurance activity in the heat, with the exception of Gatorade Endurance, GU20, and Cytomax drinks (all with higher sodium than others). With other drinks, mixing 1 cup powder per gallon is about right for hot weather or high altitudes, and adding one teaspoon salt per gallon can reduce risk of muscle cramps and a more serious condition called hyponatremia which may be a higher risk for some people because of their genetics (they naturally sweat out more salt). Some hikers prefer to drink plain water, in which case pretzels and bananas are good snacks, but there are plenty of other creative options (think: carbos, salt, and a little potassium).
Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar):
Many runners and cyclists are familiar with "bonking" or "hitting the wall." That's what happens when you run low on carbohydrates in your body, and it pretty much kills the fun-factor of the workout. You may feel like curling up and falling asleep, but unfortunately you still have to get home first. Hikers can experience the same thing, especially on very long extended climbs such as Skyline. When blood sugar gets low, the body goes into survival mode and relies more on protein and fat as fuel sources. While this is enough to survive and crawl up a hill, it's not enough to climb a steep hill at a reasonable pace. So despite what the latest diet programs will say, carbohydrates are essential for hikers, climbers, and runners (weight loss is a more complicated subject, and any effective long-term diet can be explained scientifically by the Satiety Index).
Most people on a low-carb diet will reach a dangerous level of hypoglycemia if they attempt Skyline, and the ranger station staff may have to rescue them which can be very embarrassing for an athlete or someone in really good shape. When glucose gets low, the liver converts protein into glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis. This allows people on low-carb diets to do a small amount of exercise, but the process is too slow to keep up with a mountain climber's metabolism. Low blood sugar also impairs judgement, so it's highly recommended to consume carbohydrates before and during Skyline, regardless of what the latest diet programs are saying. One thing to consider: diet programs are businesses trying to make money, so they will say anything to get your money. This hiking guide is free! I'm not selling anything.
The type of carbohydrate is not that critical but can make a small difference if you are trying for a personal best time. Some sports supplement companies will scare people by talking about simple sugars and how they crash blood sugar and destroy performance. This is a marketing tactic that plays on people's fears to get them to buy their products so they can make lots of money. There are three logical flaws with this claim:
1. During extended aerobic exercise and for about two hours afterwards, the muscles absorb glucose rapidly from the bloodstream. This is either metabolized immediately or stored as glycogen for future use.
2. During exercise, glucose can usually be burned at a faster rate than it can be replaced, especially if you are drinking water simultaneously to replace what is lost through sweat and breathing. This explains why some people "bonk" near the end of a marathon, even if they have been drinking sports drink at every aid station along the way.
Both of these points can be verified by exercise physiology textbooks. What this all means is that it's very difficult to spike blood sugar during extended aerobic exercise. For a diabetic hiking at a slow pace, this might be more of an issue. Any diabetic considering Skyline should discuss with a doctor first, have lots of hiking experience, a high fitness level, carry all testing equipment and medication, and monitor blood sugar along the way.
3. Whether carbos are simple or complex does not necessarily correlate with spikes in blood sugar. This belief was more common before the development of the glycemic index, but it's still a myth that does not seem to die. Studies show that maltodextrin (an artificial complex carbohydrate) is the fastest absorbing carbohydrate and can significantly raise blood sugar while at rest. Fructose (a natural simple sugar) will not raise blood sugar as much, given the same quantity of consumption, because it has a slower absorption rate and has to be converted into glucose by the liver.
The irony is that many of these drinks, gels, and powders contain maltodextrin, but the products are effective for the opposite reason of what their web sites and advertisements claim. Studies have shown that a drink that is primarily maltodextrin with a little fructose tends to be the most effective. Again, there is irony here because fructose is a simple sugar.
Most hikers are not trying to set personal best times, so any type of carbohydrate source will work as long as it is consumed with adequate water and salt.
It's not the record high (123 ºF), but the consistent heat that makes Palm Springs so notorious. In a typical year, there are 100 to 120 days that break 100 ºF, so June through early September is a not-so-popular time to hike Skyline. In the summer time there is little relief from the heat, unless you start around midnight and keep your water in the freezer the day before. Highs at the tram are in the 80's, but in Southern California the sunshine is very intense. Most people wait until October to climb Skyline. Even in the fall, some hikers start before sunrise and use headlamps. Staying several days in the desert will help you adjust to the heat and actually improve your hike. Complete heat acclimatization takes about 10 to 14 days.
The record low for the Long Valley Ranger Station is -12 ºF. Typical winter lows are in the teens, sometimes single digits. Typical highs are in the 20's and 30's, sometimes 40's/50's on a really warm day. The tram is usually 25 to 35 ºF cooler than Palm Springs. Because the tram sits on a ridge in full sun, Long Valley and upper Skyline are actually 5 ºF cooler than the tram. Shaded areas near the peak can be 10 ºF cooler than Long Valley, plus a wind chill factor. On a nice winter day in Palm Springs, it could be 60 ºF with sunshine in the desert and 15 ºF with clouds at the summit.
The peak shelter is not particularly warm. It's mostly a historical building, but it's better than nothing. If there's a lot of snow accumulation or thawing and re-freezing, then it might be very difficult to slide the latch and open the door during the middle of winter. However, if there's a really bad storm and you can force your way inside, it could potentially save your life as it did for a snowshoer in February of 2008 after she broke her leg near the summit when a storm was coming in.
Hypothermia is also an issue on Skyline, even though it's lower elevation. There have been multiple rescues related to hypothermia.
Long Valley can have up to 8 feet of snow on the ground; 2 feet is normal. If you get lost in the snow and cannot follow the upper section of Skyline: traverse right (be careful crossing the ice or snow chutes) until you see the big pointy rock that sticks up (that's Coffman's Crag, there's a steep cliff next to the trail). Then climb straight up and you'll reach the edge of Long Valley.
Most people don't climb Skyline in the winter, for obvious reasons. The low desert trails are a very popular alternative this time of year. However, if you choose to do it in winter, you'll need to bring appropriate equipment for the conditions. If there's any doubt, it's better to err on the side of ice axe & crampons, instead of snowshoes & poles. If you go with snowshoes, it's better to have stainless steel cleats because aluminum cleats are not sharp enough to penetrate ice. Also be aware that a layer of powder snow covering a base of ice can be deceptively dangerous. Even if you have traction on the snow, the snow layer will slide across the ice beneath. An ice axe is only effective if you can make contact with the base layer, and there may not always be a tree that you can grab.
During a relatively dry winter, hikers can get away with just microspikes, but this is only recommended if you know for sure that there's not very much snow coverage, by talking with other hikers about recent trail conditions.
In the summer time, the main trail is the most popular route to the peak because most people don't like getting lost under the trees or wading through chinquapin and buckthorn bushes. Hikers also enjoy the view from Wellman's Divide. However, in the winter time, most people take a more direct route and snowshoe towards the saddle by Miller Peak (called "Miller Saddle"). This is where the main trail switchbacks from north to south across the east face. From this point, people usually snowshoe directly towards the summit. Other routes include snowshoeing to the peak saddle between San Jacinto Peak and Jean Peak, or some people just go straight up the east face, but these routes require more technique, especially in deep powder or icy conditions because they are steeper than the popular route.
A detailed topo map or GPS is highly recommended for travel in the snow, unless you are very familiar with the terrain of Mt. San Jacinto through years of snowshoeing in this area. The ranger station sells large black & white contour maps for $1. These are much more useful in the winter time than those little green maps because you cannot see the trails and sometimes people's footprints will go someplace completely different. It may seem like a very different world than hiking trails in the summer and it can be confusing, even for someone with a lot of outdoor experience (including myself the writer, before I became very familiar with snowshoeing this area).
If you go to the summit and get lost in the snow, walking downhill will eventually take you back to Long Valley. As long as you have not climbed over a major ridge, saddle, or peak, every creek you see will drain into the Long Valley Creek. The watershed for Long Valley runs all the way from Wellman's Divide to Miller Peak. Important: Do not try this in a snowstorm or foggy conditions! Only do this if visibility is clear. If you go too far and continue down the Long Valley Creek, then you'll end up in a dangerous canyon with slippery rocks. If you're south of the Divide Ridge which includes Wellman's Divide, then you'll never reach Long Valley and end up in another dangerous canyon. A common mistake at night is that lost hikers will try to reach the lights of Palm Springs, but it is almost impossible to go down these canyons without climbing equipment and rock climbing experience. An attempt of this led to the death of a PCT hiker several years ago who was trying to escape a snowstorm. All of the canyons on the east and north sides of the mountain are very steep and dangerous. The Skyline Ridge happens to be a less technical area between the north fork of Tahquitz Canyon and the east fork of Chino Canyon. Unfortunately, the upper areas drain into the various branches of Tahquitz Canyon, so it's very important to stay on the north side of the Divide Ridge and stop walking downhill when you reach Long Valley.
Typically Round Valley has almost twice as much snow as Long Valley. The peak has at least three times as much, partly because of the difference in elevation and also because the tram is on the dry side of the mountain, hence the desert below.
The north face frequently has avalanches throughout the winter. The east face is not as steep but may occasionally have avalanches after a very big snowstorm. Also keep in mind that the ridge between Cornell Peak and Miller Peak can be unstable at times. If the snow shifts and you slide several thousand feet down into Falls Creek Canyon that would kind of ruin your day.
It's easy to forget sunglasses in the winter, but it's important to remember because the snow is very bright in the sunlight and also reflects ultraviolet which is harmful to eyes.
Upper Skyline is shaded and north facing, so it can potentially turn to ice in the spring or winter. Whenever this happens, crampons and an ice axe are required for the traverse section (7,800 to 8,000 feet) and the steep climb up to Long Valley (8,400 feet). Even if snow is not visible from Palm Springs, there may be ice chutes hidden by the trees. It's always a good idea to assess conditions the day before and read the weather forecast. If nobody on the Internet has reported on recent Skyline conditions, you can take a ride up the tram and hike down a ways, carrying an ice axe and crampons all the way to the beginning of the traverse, then hiking back up to the tram.
If you take a gamble and do Skyline without bringing crampons, there's a possibility of being stuck at 7,800 feet for a long time until somebody comes to help. If it's extremely icy, one slip could be fatal. On the other hand, you don't want to panic and head back to Palm Springs, run out of water, and become dehydrated and fatigued in the desert. Best thing to do is just wait and stay warm... It would be embarrassing to get rescued, but it's better than having a bad accident. If you do have some food, water, and a flashlight then it may be possible to hike down at night to conserve water. This is only recommended if you are very comfortable with night hiking and your legs are ready for over 7,000 feet of downhill impact...
Most hikers wait for the ice to melt before attempting Skyline in the spring. After a dry winter this can happen as early as March. After a decent snow season this won't happen until May, so there's a short time window before the heat arrives. During an El Niño year, the mountain will still have snow as the desert starts to heat up, so it's best to wait until October...
The tram mountain station is officially at 8,516 feet above sea level. San Jacinto Peak is 10,834 feet. High altitude exercise depletes blood sugar quickly because fat-burning requires more oxygen than carbo-burning to produce the same amount of ATP (energy) in the muscles. Therefore carbohydrates are even more important at high altitudes.
A side note: it's still a healthy aerobic workout, even if your body is not burning as much fat at high altitudes. Weight loss is a more complicated subject that has to take into account fat burning while resting and also changes in appetite. Hiking seems to make everybody lose weight, regardless of altitude, and many say it's more fun than the gym.
At high altitudes, people also lose more water with every breath, so it's best to carry more water than you would normally need.
If you get dizzy or have a head ache, best thing to do is ride down the tram as soon as possible.
Most snake bites in the United States are caused by people messing with snakes for fun, but it can also happen to hikers who aren't paying attention. It's not uncommon for hikers to almost step on snakes, but to actually get bit is more rare. The second person to pass by can be at a higher risk, since the snake is already coiled and ready to strike. Snakes are most active in the spring time once night time temperatures stay above 60 ºF. When low's are in the 50's in Palm Springs, hikers may occasionally see rattlesnakes at the lower elevations. Generally, rattlesnakes reside in the desert, but on rare occasions people have seen them at the higher elevations. The Red Diamondback and Speckled Rattlesnakes have previously been thought to be less-toxic than the Mojave green snakes to the north, but recent research has shown changes in venom in a few snakes and raises questions about which is the most deadly today and in the future. Some people consider them less aggressive than the Mojave, but they should still be treated with caution and respect.
Today's medical advice is different than past advice. In the case of Skyline, calling 911 and getting a helicopter ride to the hospital ASAP would be recommended. However, it's possible that nobody has ever received a snake bite on Skyline in recent history. If I'm mistaken, please feel free to send an email.
For remote wilderness areas, it's unclear whether a suction cup will help, and using your mouth or a friend's mouth is not recommended. See this article on sucking out venom.
On the lighter side of things, if you do stumble across a snake, then the rush of adrenaline may help you set a personal-best time on Skyline...
Preparing for the Climb
Getting into Shape: Being in good shape makes a huge difference. Even a marathon runner needs to get used to climbing hills, and even a hiker needs to get used to long duration. A good strategy is to gradually work up to 5,000 feet of climbing per week, then do a 5,000-foot climb 2 weeks before Skyline. This will prepare your body for the physical demands of doing an 8,000-foot climb. If you don't have access to an area with a continuous 5,000-foot climb, then a workout that includes 5,000 feet of climbing may be adequate, although less training-specific than a continuous climb. Skyline will be challenging but not impossible. It's important to get plenty of rest and eat carbohydrates the night before.
General Stuff to Know: The one-way tram fare is $12. Wilderness permits are required for those who wish to hike to the peak. They're free and located on the front porch of the Long Valley Ranger Station. It's a good idea to let someone know about the hike and when they can expect a phone call. The tram has pay phones. Cell phones are not reliable but sometimes work from Grubb's Viewpoint or the restaurant balcony. It's always nice to have transportation arranged ahead of time. Instead of hitting up people for rides or looking up taxies in the phone book, you can just relax and hang out at the bar... Most cell phones do not work at the valley station (bottom of the tram) because it's in a canyon.
"How Long Will It Take?" Most hikers finish at the tram in 6 to 10 hours. Some people try to get away with 2 water bottles in the summer, and they sometimes take 11 to 14 hours or they end up getting rescued. A few fast and well-prepared hikers can break 6 hours. Middle-of-the-pack marathon runners: 4 to 5 hours. Competitive mountain runners, adventure racers, triathletes: 2½ to 4 hours. October is a good month to set a personal best time. The first big snow storms usually come in November or December.
A few hikers will go to the summit and return to the tram. Average hiking time from the tram to the peak is 2½ hours each way, so the entire "cactus to clouds" hike takes about 11 to 16 hours to travel 23 miles with 10,700 feet of climbing and 2,700 feet of descent (Skyline has about 300 feet of downhill, and the cement walkway adds 100 feet of uphill). It never hurts to bring a flashlight and check the sunrise/sunset data for Palm Springs. Snow or heat will add time to the trip.
What to Expect: An amazing experience! You'll remember it the rest of your life.
Photos & Route Details
Skyline hikers have the option of starting at the Palm Springs Art Museum and taking the Museum Trail, or starting at Ramon Road and taking the North Lykken Trail (these are links to a different hiking web site). Either way will meet up with the Skyline trail which begins near the painted rocks. There is also a less-popular trailhead on the North part of the North Lykken Trail. The North Lykken Trail does not connect with the South Lykken Trail. They are separated by the Tahquitz Canyon visitor's center which is private property.
The Museum Trail doesn't waste any time: it's a grind from the start, whereas the North Lykken Trail covers more distance and is somewhat gradual in comparison. Starting at Ramon Road, you'll head up the dirt road a short ways and immediately depart from the dirt road, taking the single-track switchbacks straight up the hillside. Both trails have various "use trails" that go in different directions, which can be a little confusing until you reach the trailhead for Skyline. The irony is that Skyline is not even a designated trail, it's just a route, but the high desert section is easier to follow than the Museum and North Lykken trails.
Numerous switchback-cutting has occurred in the past few years, and now the shortcuts are easier to follow than the traditional Skyline route. This is most noticeable in the low desert and upper Skyline. Some hikers now choose to take the new route while some may prefer to follow the route as it used to be. There has been a lot of debate on the message board. If you search "skyline shortcuts," you can read various points of view on this subject.
The Skyline trail actually starts near the painted rocks. To reach the tram in 6 hours, you need to comfortably reach the painted rocks in about 35 minutes from the Museum, 40 minutes from Ramon Road. This rock would be correct to say, "Long Valley... 9 or 10 miles," instead of, "Round Valley... 8 miles." Regardless of the errors, the point is very clear: it's a long ways to go, and there's no water along the route. The first 3,000 feet of climbing is rather quick, mostly uphill. Once you reach the top of the "shady slope," you're almost a third of the way (timewise) to the Mountain Station. If there's any doubt, this would be a good point to turn around. It may look like you're close to the tram, but it's actually farther and higher than it looks. If the "shady slope" is not shady, then you probably started too late and may want to turn around if you're unsure of your water supply.
Painted rock photo by Cy Kaicener.
The high desert section covers a lot of distance but only a moderate elevation gain. The first part briefly nears the edge of Tahquitz Canyon on the left and continues on Skyline Ridge with moderate inclines, some flat sections, a few steep sections, and occasional downhills with switchbacks. Before you reach "flat rock," there are a couple scenic overlooks where you can see down into Chino Canyon on the right.
Photos by Rosa Leon & friends.
"Flat rock" (not shown) is a dry stream bed at approximately 6,000 feet that rarely flows and should never be considered a water source. For that matter, almost nothing on Skyline is a water source, even in the spring time, unless you want to eat old snow on the upper section.
In the last few years, a couple rescue stations have been installed, and there has been an informal water cache known as "Florian's cache". However, they are often depleted shortly after being replenished by volunteers. It has been speculated that they have been abused by lazy hikers who were not in emergency situations. If you are in an emergency or potentially running out of food and water, then you could get lucky and find something in these places. However, it's best to assume that these storage areas are empty. The safest plan is to carry plenty of supplies, even though it may feel heavy to carry all the extra weight, especially in the summer time when the water (and salt) requirement increases significantly because of the heat.
Photos by Scott Scott.
At this point, you'll need to decide whether to make a push for the peak, or save the peak for another day. Keep in mind that most people stop at the tram. The peak, while being the easiest of the two parts, is still an 11-mile round trip from Long Valley which adds another 2,400 feet of climbing and 2,400 feet of downhill. In late spring, the snow disappears quickly from Skyline, but it takes much longer for the snow to melt off shaded sections above 10,000 feet. Under some conditions, an ice axe and crampons may be necessary for the peak trail on the east face. Normally though, hikers use snowshoes and poles in the winter and carry microspikes in the spring. If the upper section of the trail on the east face is still filled in with snow, it's easier to take a direct cross-country route from Miller Saddle (the big switchback) to San Jacinto Peak. However, there is potential to get lost and come down the wrong way if you go off-trail. Hikers have in the past ascended from the Tram (east side) and accidentally come down on the west or north sides.
(That's an old photo of the summit. The peak sign has been replaced, so I will update this...)
"How Far is It?" Good question. Depending on what route you take and how you measure it... there are different answers ranging from 10 to 12 miles for Skyline. Starting at Ramon Road and taking the Desert View Trail and cement walkway will be a little longer than starting at the Museum and finishing at Grubb's Viewpoint. A large wheel would be the most accurate measuring tool. GPS devices have a margin of error, and depending on the algorithm used... sometimes the computed route will cut the switchbacks, but waypoints can improve the accuracy of distance calculations.
Maps & GPS
The aerial photo, topo map, and GPS data below were produced by Dan Reich, Mike Iasparro, Chris, and Matt Webb in 2004 and do not include the newer shortcuts that have developed recently. The maps help illustrate that the picnic tables are at the very beginning of the hike because the tram is still very far away at this point. If you start from Ramon Road, you will not see the picnic tables, but you will see the nearby painted rocks.
Driving Map (139K)
Here is a Skyline KML file by Norris Merritt.
Links to Other Web Sites:
Linking to This Web Page
If you're discussing the topic of Cactus to Clouds on the Internet, then please refer people to this other page instead. Taking the annoying quiz can potentially save lives and reduce rescues. If people do link to the main menu, then I'll just change the file name and re-direct the quiz link to the new link. This means your old link won't work anymore. Sorry for being weird about this, but I'm afraid that without the quiz, people might rush out and try Skyline without really understanding the risks.
About This Web Page
Skyline is not a secret anymore. It's already been publicized in a bunch of ways: newspapers, Internet, word-of-mouth, signs, maps, books, and magazines. Some people are going to try it no matter what warnings they hear, so it makes sense to help them be successful. This web page was created to provide useful information to hikers and reduce the number of future rescues and fatalities.
Even with the highest precautions there is always some chance for injury or death. Mountain weather and trail conditions can change very quickly. Information regarding trail conditions is sometimes obtained through word-of-mouth. Although the author attempts to put useful and accurate information on this site, the author cannot guarantee 100% accuracy, so information given here should always be questioned. The author is not responsible for any consequences to the reader. Attempt Skyline at your own risk.
This is not an official web page, and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of any government agency.
Web site created by Perry Scanlon.