Mt. San Jacinto, with its accompanying state park and federal wilderness, is one of the best example of montane, mixed-conifer high country south of the Sierra Nevadas. One of the most dramatic geological features in Southern California, the towering peak and its surrounding highlands dominates the Inland Empire, and provides appropriately astounding views.
Distance: 11 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,500′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Critters: Squirrels, hawks, ravens
Note: You will need to pay a $23.95 fee to ride the tram up to the tram station. You will also need to find a wonderfully supportive wife to pick you up in Idyllwild at the end.
I get the most ridiculous notions in my head sometimes. Lying in bed with Kelly, with her looking at her goofy Imgur pictures and me reading through hiking books (typical bedtime routine, by the way), I got this wild hair up my ass about the idea that I could take the tram up Mt. San Jacinto, walk up and over the mountain, and then back down into Idyllwild. Of course, such notions never come true without cooperation, as I would have struggled to make this hike there and back again. But here is why my wife is so awesome – well, one of several thousand reasons at least.
|Downtown Palm Springs|
She showed willingness to pick me up in Idyllwild on our way back to San Diego. She actually encouraged me to work out the details and make the plans, even after I got gun-shy due to the realization of how much work this would be for her. Then, using just her natural enthusiasm, she even rallied her parents to come up the tram with us, where they would enjoy a cup of coffee and a brief nature hike, while I committed attempted manslaughter on my knees over 11 miles, most of them downhill.
Without my wife’s support, patience, and understanding over my ridiculous obsession with hiking in remote locales, along with her willingness to suspend her own anxiety over the fact that I basically have to rely on wits and good planning lest one of those famous “accidents” that happen to one in every 50,000 hikers strikes me. Because of her tolerance, grace, and good humor, I’ve hiked a lot over the last three years. Occasionally, she steps up far beyond just being understanding and supportive to actually assist me with doing something kind of nuts.
Today, I walked up and over Wellman Divide and then up and along the PCT through Strawberry Cienega before dropping down into Idyllwild. Kelly dropped me off on one end and picked me up on the other. Shuttle hikes are rare and wonderful things, as it takes a lot of planning and cooperation, but yields an amazing traverse experience. I covered a ton of ground on this hike, and I saw some spectacular views and sites.
|From front to back – Tahquitz Peak, Thomas Mountain, Cahuila Mountain, and the south end of the Palomar Range|
Including, but not limited to: the spires and pinnacles of the San Jacinto escarpment, the Coachella Valley, 8,000′ below, the Desert Divide stretching out into the distant haze, the Peninsular Ranges stretching out to the Laguna Mountains, the Palomar Mountains, the distant curve of the coastline, the Santa Ana Mountains, and, finally, the deep bowl within which sits Idyllwild. Mt. San Jacinto certainly has some of the most dramatic views anywhere south of the Sierras.
|Looking south at the Desert Divide|
The oddity of this hike was that it could occur at all. In mid-February, there should probably be about 3-6 feet of snow on the ground. Today, there was only snow in thin patches in shady recesses untouched by the sun. As everybody knows by now, we’re experiencing a historic drought, and San Jacinto is showing just as many signs of this as the rest of the state. Of course, evidence of the recent Mountain Fire, also drought-fueled, provides a constant reminder of at least one of the risks of the dry spell. However, the streams that would be trickling in the absence of snow are dry and leaf-choked. It looks and feels like mid-May, while still being in the heart of the so-called rainy season. It’s a surreal feeling.
However, the long-term repercussions and concerns about whether rain will finally arrive must be set aside when enjoying a treat like this. Dry or not, the opportunity to hike here is always welcome, and on this day the mountain was every bit as enjoyable as it ever was. This is my fourth time up here, and every time has been memorable, including my first major peak bag (trudging through a foot and a half of snow in May!) as well as loop through Round Meadow in and out of the fog.
I have to give both the Forest Service and the State Park some grief here, though. If you look up the extent of closure for the Mountain Fire burn zone, you’ll see that the PCT and the trail from Wellmans Divide to Saddle Junction appear to be open. However, the State Park’s map shows that it is closed. Talk to a ranger, and they will tell you that it is open. Make it up to Wellmans Divide, and the signs all tell you that the trail is closed. Even the ranger didn’t really seem to know what was going on, and I had to do a lot of figuring out on my route, since I was relying on Kelly being at one of two trailheads. Without an ability to get there, I would have screwed both myself and her.
For anybody thinking of hiking here before this weekend’s coming storm, here is the scoop. The PCT and Wellman’s Divide Trail are open between Saddle Junction and Wellmans Divide. Everything west of that is open. Everything east of that is closed. Everything south of Tahquitz is closed. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?
The highlights of this trip include both Wellmans Divide and the PCT along Strawberry Cienega. For those who love mountains, neither of these stretches of trail should be missed. Wellmans Divide offers a 180 degree panorama of the eastern half of Southern California, which would have been more visible with less cloud cover. The PCT along Strawberry Cienaga features a truly dramatic stretch of trail at the higher reaches of the “bowl” within which sits Idyllwild. The views here, especially of Tahquitz Peak, are enough to cause a few twisted ankles. Fortunately, this part of the trail is well-maintained and relatively smooth, which can’t be said for other parts of this decidedly rugged place.
|Deer Springs Trail|
I still stick with my assertion that the Mt. San Jacinto area holds the best mountain environment and hiking in Southern California. No knocks on San Gorgonio or the San Gabriels, or even less lofty areas like the Laguna and Palomar Mountains, but nothing really comes close to the San Jacintos. The combination of beautiful forest, spectacular views, and, surprisingly, moderately challenging (as opposed to the severe challenges of the San Gabriels and San Gorgonio) make this area as enjoyable as it gets down here.
February: 58.8 Miles
Year-to-date: 160.6 Miles