Thursday, November 7, 2013

San Jacinto Peak via Palm Springs Tramway

View at the peak towards the west; Diamond Valley Lake
  • 11 miles round trip (10.78 miles on our gps)
  • 2,318 ft gain/loss
  • Out and back
  • Location: San Jacinto State Park - Palm Springs Tramway
  • Direction (from Los Angeles): 
    • Take the I-10 east for an estimated  93 miles
    • Exit on Hwy 111 (a.k.a. Exit# 111); estimated 8 miles
    • Turn right on Tramway Road by the Palm Springs Visitor Center
    • Parking lot for the Valley Staion is 4 miles ahead
  • Weather link: San Jacinto Peak forecast
  • Permits: FREE Self Issue Day Hike permit outside of Long Valley Ranger Station; Required overnight permit can be applied by mail for $5 per person in the group. Click here for a copy of the application.

The San Jacinto Peak has been in my radar to reach ever since the idea of reaching a summit was ever introduced in my head. To check off the 3 highest peaks of southern California, I thought I'd start with this one as it seemed like the most attainable. Situated at 10,834 feet above sea level, one can reach the peak by taking the aerial Palm Springs Tramway from the Valley Station (2,643 ft) to the Mountain Station (8,516 ft) in about 10 minutes for $23.95 ($21.95 if you're a AAA member!) then hiking about 5.5 miles the rest of the way to the peak.

It wasn't until my third attempt did I finally get to check this off my list. My first try was a planned backpacking trip, camping out at Round Valley with summit day the next day. Alas, the night before our entry date I had eaten something that did not agree with my stomach. On hindsight, I should have just thrown in the towel but I insisted and ended up just staying in the tent and the following day became a hike back instead of summit day. The second attempt on a late May, was so poorly planned that we encountered winter snow that barely started to melt and being snowshoe-less and crampon-less, it was too risky to continue on. It made for a good picnic day still at some random overlook point.

This day was going to be the day. With me always looking for a hiking companion on big hikes, my cousin and a friend were, just so happens, to be looking for a place to hike out that Saturday, it was like.. fate! Opting for a day trip, we were on the road by 6am. Hoping to catch the earliest tram up. Upon turning at Tramway Road by the visitor center, we were greeted by security blocking the road going up to the tram. I have checked the tramway's website and did not find any info for any closures! It turns out it was the 28th Annual Palm Springs Tram Road 6K Challenge. How is that and any road info not plastered all over to warn non-participant visitors, I have no idea. No road closure warnings anywhere, just until you turn on the tramway road, pass the visitor center a few hundred feet and you'll find a sole security car hindering you to go beyond, physically telling people driving up that the road is closed and will be open at 10am. Slight delay but it made for a good reason to pile on fuel for ourselves for the hike. Mmm egg breakfast!

At promptly 10:00 a.m. we zoomed passed the visitor center and up to the tramway's parking lot. Gathered our stuff, eager to get the first trams from the Valley Station. And fate was not done toying with us. Even after getting our tickets a few minutes after 10am, our tram boarding was not until 11:15 a.m. A huge group Junior ROTC got first dibs loading up the tram for some training up top. A big group, but we never saw them again after the tram ride.
Finally boarding time for our tram and 10 minutes after departing the Valley Station, we have finally ascended to 8,000 feet elevation at the Mountain Station. Along the tram ride, the floor of the tram rotates inside giving you different views on the way up. Keep an eye out for when you pass the towers holding the cables, it kinda gives you some quick tummy tickles when you pass by it!

Walked down on the cemented pavement from the Mountain Station to the Long Valley Ranger Station, it was almost noon by the time we filled out our permit and did our first step on the trail and went our merry way to reach the peak.

There is a fork at the beginning of the trail, taking the right fork will eventually meet up with the left fork trail at a junction 2 miles in and about .3 miles before the Round Valley campsite, to be able make the Round Valley Loop hike. We decided to rake the right fork going in and considered taking the left fork on our way down, which would then be a "right fork" -- details, details! haha.

We did a quick bathroom break at the Round Valley Loop junction. Along the trail, just slightly pass the signs, we found some log cabin looking outhouses. Although there are already outhouses by the camps last time we were here, these 2 by the junction looked fairly new.

After a hop-skip-and-a-jump, we approached the Round Valley campground, we've seen some flat areas that could be good to set-up camp, but we didn't explore the area much. We got to talk to a ranger coming from the Round Valley ranger hut and showed us a map of the Round Valley campground, as well as the Tamarack Valley campground about a .5 mile spur trail right by the only water source in the area.

Trail sign by Round Valley Camp; ranger hut behind.

"Purify water before drinking."
From here, we're about half way to the peak and getting higher. We encountered more snow on this part of the hike, remnants of the early snowstorm the SoCal mountains received from 2 weeks previous, too bad there was no follow-thru.. yet! It is about a mile more to the Wellman's junction.

Wellman's junction, A nice overlook area to stop and admire how far high up you've come. A meet-up group we've been leap-frogging with since we started the hike had decided to take their break out here and have the rest of their group catch up. Good choice, I'd say.

2 more miles to the peak and the views along the trail from this point are spectacular. One could easily forget that just earlier you were at sea level and weaving through the urban jungle of Los Angeles. 

A little pass 3:00 p.m. we reached the top, passing by the really nice looking emergency hut (seems more like a cabin on the outside to me!) just .3 miles away from our destination. From here to reach the peak, a little scrambling  is in order. Nothing technical, just some rock hopping, hands and feet usage are involved. A bit more of fun, for sweeping views of the desert floor and some must-have photos of the benchmark.

Hut by 0.3 miles from the peak - an emergency shelter for stranded hikers.

We didn't get to stay much up top, rested for a bit after the obligatory photo souvenirs were taken, then headed off into the sunset (yeah - I did that.. LOL). We came across a couple of more groups trying to make it to the top before dark, sun sinking in the horizon on that clear day would have been amazing to look at! That'll be my next trip here.. after winter (snowshoeing first!).

We were trying to get to the tram before dark sets in, seeing as I broke my glasses by the peak (thanks for catching my glasses, rocks!), hiking in the dark even with headlamps, I know I'd still have a difficult time. Don't want to be even more a liability, as it is I'm already slightly blind without my glasses. On the way down, dusk was starting to settle in, a tad earlier during this season. I was sandwich by my companions. My cousin behind me and his friend leading the way - grateful that I have the extra brightness of having more light behind and more light in front of me. We made back to the Mountain Station, cursing the pavement climb on the way. Exhausted but stoked we didn't backed down even after all the delays we kept encountering earlier. San Jacinto Peak, you've just finished my 3 peaks goal for Southern California!