Mt. San Jacinto State Park via the Tramway

Distance: 4.8 Miles
Elevation Gained: 700′
Difficulty: Moderate
Critters: None

Get there like this.

When I was a kid, my parents took me up to Mt. San Jacinto via the tram. My cousin from Illinois was in town, and I think they were trying to prove to him that California gets cold too sometimes. This seemed to me a very silly boast, since we were spending time in Palm Springs during the winter, and the weather was a predictable 70 degrees and sunny.

After taking the tram 6,000′ straight up the terrifyingly steep northern escarpment of Mt. San Jacinto, we stepped out into the middle of a snowstorm. Surrounding us were a multitude of coniferous trees, which seemed to violently contradict the stark desert wastelands below us. Yes, my parents proved that California knows what winter is. My cousin from Illinois just shrugged.

Mt. San Jacinto represents one the most dramatic shifts in elevation anywhere in the United States. The city immediately below San Jacinto, Palm Springs, sits at 440′ above sea level. The summit of San Jacinto sits at 10,834′, leaving a difference of nearly two vertical miles from the valley floor to the summit, or from Cactus to Clouds as one trail has popularized the experience.

After two days in the desert, I decided to seize the opportunity for a brief stroll through a mountain forest. I love the desert a great deal. However, I find myself quickly satisfied any time I go. The stark vista and mostly-barren landscapes inspire a great deal of thought, but often those thoughts are tinged with darkness, lack, and solitude. The desert wants to dry people out and make them hard, just like it does to the rest of the life. For me, a little of this goes a long way.

My desires will always turn to cool mountain forests, far-seeing vistas, trickling streams, and meadows. With so much more water present, life becomes much more exuberant. As it turns out, Mt. San Jacinto has a fine forest sitting atop its triangular crown. That a forest so luxurious sits only a few linear miles from one of the most arid places in the country is a miracle of geology.

I’ve already discussed the process of adiabatic cooling, whereby air masses decrease in temperature about 3-5 degrees for every 1,000′ of elevation. Colder air masses can hold less moisture. Hot air masses holding 30% humidity over the desert become cold air masses holding 100% humidity at the summit. The mountains therefore receive a lot more precipitation, which supports a greater diversity of plant life.

Taking the tram up here is an exciting and slightly uncomfortable experience. The rotating tram car glides relatively silently up thick cables, and it goes up and over four towers along the way. After each tower, the tram car sways back and forth, which is uncomfortable for the average person and terrifying for acrophobes. On this day, we ascended through the clouds, meaning that all we could see was a few feet of cable and gray nothingness. This didn’t erase that there were thousands of feet of rocky tumbling below us should anything happen to the tram.

As far as I can tell though, there has never been that kind of accident on the tramway. The greatest damage you suffer is the $24 fee to ride up and back. While that is exorbitant, it also includes the park fee, which is usually $10-15 at the more popular parks, so I guess it works out. Once atop, you can fart around at the mountain station, which has the usual assortment of restaurants and gift shops for those who find hiking in the cold distasteful.

I find hiking in the cold very tasteful, and so I bee-lined it straight out the door into a classic mixed-conifer forest, slowly stirring on a 40 degree morning. This forest resembles Sierran forests more than any in Southern California, mostly due to the large amount of granite boulders strewn about the landscape. I don’t know why San Jacinto has so many boulders, whereas the San Gabriels and San Bernadinos don’t seem to, but their presence, along with meadows, rocky outcrops, and trickling streams makes San Jacinto feel a lot like a hike in Sequoia National Park (without the Sequoias, of course).

I took a relatively easy loop around Long Valley and over to the Round Valley campground, which is a backcountry campground available by permit. From this campground, a pretty extensive wilderness area is available to hikers, which includes the summit, more meadows, and a number of loops that can begin or end in Idyllwild.

I had half a mind to try the summit today, which appeared to be snow free but icy. Always a caution on San Jacinto is the presence of snow. With all of the boulders confusing the landscape, the trail is easily lost in the snow. If you try to hike this mountain in the snow bring a good map and a compass, and know how to use them because you probably will get lost and have to push your way across boulder-strewn country.

Not today, though, since time did not allow. I completed the long, leisurely loop, soaking in the forest as much as possible. I then enjoyed sporadic views of the valley below when the cloud cover would permit. The whole experience is a lot of fun, especially if you want to shock your system by going from desert to alpine wilderness. Lovely place.

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