Before I ever went to Palm Springs, I didn’t get the hype. How nice could a town in the middle of the desert be? I’d spent relatively little time in deserts and generally turned my nose to them.
I was wrong. Deserts are incredible and Palm Springs is nice. It’s really nice. Really, really nice. Drive ninety minutes from your worrisome life in LA and you’re transported to an alternate time, place and feeling. Hot, dry air, brilliant sun, pools, cocktails, and midcentury homes. One feels like Clark Gable. All this set under the fantastic backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains. Snowcapped in winter while tourists sunbathe at the pool, Palm Springs is like a dream, delightfully improbable. Atop those mountains the story is the same, an alpine paradise that defies logic with pleasure.
Since my first visit to the Socal getaway, I'd wanted to climb San Jacinto Peak, the ranges highpoint at 10,873’. Laying at the pool, staring up at it’s bleached granite face and jarring ridge lines, I’d fantasize the climb—and then take another sip from my Bloody Mary. It was time to eschew the comfort of town and have a look from the top, a view John Muir called, “the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!”
Purists can climb San Jacinto from Idyllwild or suffer the Cactus to Clouds or Snow Creek route 10,000’ from the valley floor to the summit. We took advantage of the Palm Spring Ariel Tramway, the largest rotating tram in the world, whisking passengers from 2,643’ to 8,516' in less than fifteen minutes. Cheating by some standards, it’s an extremely fun way to start a trip and with gear to camp overnight, we didn’t mind the lift. The tram soars high over the green drainages hundreds of feet below, whipping past the mountain’s sheer face an arm’s reach away.
The door opens to a bizarre experience, a landscape of Ponderosa, hardened globs of granite and grassy meadows. It’s easier to imagine you were teleported to Tahoe or Sequoia than to believe this exists above Palm Springs.
We checked in at the Ranger Station and headed out on the Round Valley trail, the main trail toward the summit that would bring us by Round Valley Campground, our home for the night. While much cooler than the scorching triple digits where our car was parked, the desert sun beat down as we scurried for the forest shade. The two miles to Round Valley is gradual, with 500’ of elevation gain. However, darting up to 8500’ on the tram in fifteen minutes backfires as your body works to acclimate. A standard pace turns arduous in the first few minutes and we opted to take our time sauntering to camp.
Round Valley is a backcountry campground and doesn’t have the amenities usually associated with campgrounds. There is a ranger shack, a couple of vault toilets outside of camp and sites are numbered and marked. Check-in at Round Valley is easy and smart. One must first acquire a reservation ahead of time but this only reserves space in the campground, not a specific site. At the ranger shack there’s a large whiteboard with a map of the grounds. Simply circle an available site and initial it. Easy and obvious to the next party looking for a vacancy.
Sites are dispersed around Round Meadow, a fairytale scene of tall green grass across a long arching meadow, a perfect semicircle surrounded by pine forest. We walked down to the meadow and watched a deer graze across the field. She plodded along coolly in the hazy sunlight and we watched her in silence for even the mechanics of my camera shudder would rattle the organic acoustics of the scene.
We head back toward camp in the afternoon light, scrambling around the granite forms in the area. We posted up atop a tall boulder beside our tent with dinner and a armful of beers and relaxed as the sun shaded behind the ridgeline to the west.
We retired to the tent and I tried to keep my eyes open as the dim stars began to sparkle. In the dark I walked back down to the meadow, greeted by electric green eyes staring at me. In the spook of darkness I thought mountain lion but they were too high and they soon took off in the graceful bound of deer, stopping again to see what I was up to. I setup a makeshift tripod on some logs and fired off a couple night shot as the deer looked on from the woods.
In the morning, I was up before the sun, strapping on my boots in the cool dark. The stars had disappeared behind the twilight and the woods were navy blue. I set off east down the trail toward Tamarack Campground (THIS IS THE WRONG THING TO DO. DO NOT DO WHAT I DID, UNLESS YOU FEEL LIKE IT BUT I DON’T RECOMMEND). The main trail dead ends at the last campsite and I picked up a poorly worn use trail a few yards beyond assuming this led to the summit trail. Instead it took me down and further down a steep drainage that leads God knows where. It was sunrise, thirty minutes into my hike that I came to my senses that continuing downhill was definitely not the way to the top and I retraced my steps a half mile back to my camp.
THE CORRECT WAY is to return to the ranger shack from wherever your campsite is and find the 3.5 mile summit trail there. This is obvious to anyone who plans appropriately or carries a map but I made an assumption and paid the price.
Moving uphill, the low sun shot angles through the dry woods. The first mile is the steepest but hardly grueling. Whoever built this trail clearly favored a pleasurable march over a painful one and within thirty minutes I’d reached the mile marker at a trail junction and scenic outlook.
The second mile is even more leisurely, traversing a nearly flat ridgeline through dense Manzanita that give the open slopes the look of a lush grassy meadow. The trail is hardly wide enough to use poles without tripping over them and I paused to admirer the trail builder again for pawing through this thicket to survey the route. I paused again remembering that, though at 10,000’, I was in Palm Springs surrounded by a scene of alpine rock and vegetation pulled from the Sierras. Smoke from a nearby fire blocked the desert floor and the mountainscape appeared to float on clouds casting more doubt I was still in the vacation town.
Mile three climbs long sweeping switchbacks up the mountainside leading to the summit ridge. The trail cuts through the same dense shrubbery and the views down to Round Valley, out on the San Jacinto Mountains and across the Coachella Valley are incredible. Atop the summit ridge, the trail arrives at the emergency shelter, a handsome stone hut featuring a fireplace and bunk beds. The summit is just a brief scramble over broken granite.
At the summit, the views were even more striking. The altitude is obvious as you gaze down at the unobstructed valley floor. Opposite the valley smoke poured off the mountain horizon as the Lake Fire of Big Bear continued to rage. It was the first day of summer and fire season was already in full swing, four years into our record drought. The entire hike I’d notice the forests littered with parched debris, the whole mountain wired to ignite with abnormal force and abundant fuel.
I enjoyed the peace of the summit for a moment, I had passed only one other person on my way up, a maverick who’d camped at the summit. The tram still hadn’t begun turning for the day I felt I had the mountain to myself. I peered down to Round Valley where Alli was still sleeping and made my way down. By 9:00 I was back at camp and Alli was breaking down. Within a few minutes we were packed up and off down the trail.
Heading out of Round Valley we passed a ranger who told us there was a bobcat coming up the trail. The cat was apparently healthy and harmless and the ranger told us to basically not freak out if we saw him. Our eyes lit up and we hurried down the trail. Day hikers were already making their way up in droves and instead of a cat we just ran into several parties of them instead.
Nearly at Mountain Station, passing more hikers and kids wandering around with bouldering pads and guidebooks, we still could not believe we were in Palm Springs. The town surprised me before and after half a dozen times visiting for R&R, I thought I had it figured out. An adventure up it’s retaining wall challenged my conventional wisdom. With every vertical foot, the desert austerity gives way to alpine life, an oasis on high, pulling snow and rain from fickle clouds. It is a remarkable juxtaposition that enhances the awesomeness of San Jacinto’s landscape.
Sliding back down the steep tram cables, we grinned with satisfaction. A red tailed hawk circling his nest planed into a thermal and peeled by our car. The weekend was a victory. It was a fine start to a summer of adventures and an eye opening introduction to this land hidden above the sand. Only when we return to ski in the winter will we know such a wacky contrast of environment, the signature of San Jack.