May 12, 2012
When most people hear of a trail that starts at the desert floor and ascends over 10,000 ft to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto, the first thing that usually pops into their heads is the "Cactus to Clouds" trail. Cactus to Clouds is well known, well traveled, and easily accessible. It is seemingly the only one of its kind in Southern California.
What many don't know is that there is another one of those such trails which ascends a completely different side of the mountain. The elevation gain of this trail is slightly lower than that of Cactus to Clouds, but the overall distance is longer. This "Snow Creek Trail to San Jacinto (S2S)," is the only trail that ascends Mt. San Jacinto from the north. It contains very different scenery than one would encounter on any other part of the mountain. Out of all the trails I have hiked in the San Jacinto Mountains, in my opinion S2S is the most scenic one, even more scenic than Cactus to Clouds.
S2S begins on a road a little over a tenth of a mile before (north of) Snow Creek Village (elevation 1,200 ft), a small settlement below the north face of Mt. San Jacinto. Because of DWA property issues, one must park here and then walk 1.2 miles up a gravel road to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (1,700 ft), which branches off to the right. From here, the PCT switchbacks 16.3 miles to a campground and picnic area at Fuller Ridge (7,700 ft). After Fuller Ridge, the PCT goes for 5 more miles to intersect the Deer Springs Trail (8,900 ft). From here, exit the PCT and head 1 mile up the Deer Springs Trail towards Little Round Valley (9,800 ft), and then another 1.6 mi to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (10,834 ft). From here, most choose to hike 5.5 mi down the popular San Jacinto Peak Trail to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (8,500 ft), take the tram down, and shuttle back to their cars at Snow Creek Trailhead.
Getting to the trailhead (from the west): Take I-10 east, 6 miles past Cabazon, and turn right onto CA 111. Travel 1 mile on CA 111, then turn right onto the paved Snowcreek Canyon Rd. Travel 1.6 miles on Snowcreek Canyon Rd until you see two signs on either side of the road: one that says "Snow Creek Wildlife Refuge" to the left and another that says "Snow Creek Village" to the right. This is the trailhead. Upon starting your hike, be sure to veer left onto another paved road (Falls Creek Rd) 100 ft further up Snowcreek Canyon Rd from the trailhead. If you continue up Snowcreek canyon Rd, you will enter Snow Creek Village. You should not have to pass through any part of the village for this route.
Trailhead coordinates (lat/lon): 33.893765, -116.682985
Left turn onto Falls Creek Rd: 33.893587, -116.682969
It was early in the morning at around 2:30 am as twelve pairs of feet began hitting the pavement. Temperatures were supposed to rise over 100F on the desert floor later that day. At 3am, the temperature was already in the low 80s. A steady 40mph wind managed to keep us cool for the first mile or so. We hoped to get above 4,000 ft by sunrise, when the heat would really start vamping up. We started up the main road, but this proved to be wrong as we ended up in Snow Creek Village. We doubled back and found the left branching road. There was a gate at the intersection with a sign reading "no trespassing on watershed property." Feeling excited, Desmond and I quickened the pace. Soon, we had the group somewhere behind us. I didn't know how far they were because I couldn't make out their lights anymore. We kept on walking. After a while, I thought to myself that this could not be right. We had walked more than 1.2 miles. Suddenly, we head a voice on Desmond's radio. It was Mihai, who said that the group was already at the PCT turnoff and was wondering where we were. Oops, looked like we missed it. We doubled back and found it. It was an obvious turnoff. Someone had even spray painted "PCT" on a rock. There were another group of hikers bivying there. It looked like our large group had woken them up.
The PCT gradually switchbacked up the hillside. The upwards angle was so gentle that most of us were barely aware that we were ascending. Everyone was still generally quiet, probably not awake yet because of the early start. The only sounds that followed us were the rustles of legs brushing against desert shrubs. It was a very peaceful morning. As we ascended, it was nice to feel the temperature gradually drop. We reached 4,200 ft at sunrise.
Desmond welcoming a new day
sunrise at 4,200 ft
The group took a break when the sun came up. A nice glow swept over the mountains and surrounding hills and valleys. There were several rummaging sounds as people dug around in their packs for their cameras.
looking up at our destination (San Jacinto is the left bump. Folly Peak appears taller.)
Up we go
Fuller Ridge up ahead
I noticed several wildflowers which started appearing at about 5,000 ft. There were a very nice mixture of purples and yellows, which matched up nicely as they are complementary colors. Despite my pollen allergies, I couldn't stop taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. I could tell that Mihai was trying to keep the group together, but this proved impossible as everyone split into smaller sub groups corresponding to pace, which is very common on hikes like these.
looking towards Mt. San Gorgonio
At 5,400 ft, the scenery really started blowing up. I couldn't help thinking I was standing in the Alaskan tundra, looking up at gigantic, glaciated peaks. Other trails of Mt. San Jacinto, such as Cactus to Clouds, head directly up their main ridges. This allows one to see no more than a few thousand feet above them as the remainder of the mountain is blocked by closer highpoints. S2S heads up a small sub-ridge which wraps around Mt. San Jacinto, allowing one to see all the way up to 10,834 ft. The overall grander of the mountain is truly expressed.
We entered a forest of pine trees at 6,400 ft after a small portion of trail slightly overgrown with buckthorn. It was very nice to have some green and some shade.
16.3 miles after the PCT turnoff, we came to Fuller Ridge Campground (7,700 ft). The trail had crossed a few roads shortly before this (see map at the bottom of this page, most maps are a little funky depicting this section).
Five of us reached the picnic tables shortly after 10:30 am. We dropped our packs and retrieved a water cache that Mihai and a group of eight had left there a week earlier. The area was nice and cool, shaded by a grove of conifers, finally above all that desert heat. We decided to have lunch at one of the picnic tables and wait up for the back end of the group, which was more than an hour back. We chatted with a few PCT'ers who had started from the Mexican border a few weeks ago and hoped to reach Canada later that year. They said that the PCT season was off to a full blast, and we would meet several more thru-hikers on the trail.
The whole group eventually rejoined and was back on the trail by 12pm. The remaining trail to the summit snaked gently up the mountain under a forest of large conifers. The conifers blocked off much of the views, but it was very nice to have them for their green color, shade, and contrast to the desert below. We ran into patchy snow just below 8,000 ft.
At 8,500 ft, the trail briefly contoured to the east side of Fuller Ridge and we were met with great views of Mt. San Jacinto
At 8,900 ft (5 mi after Fuller Ridge Campground) we exited the PCT and latched onto the Deer Springs Trail, which branched off to the left of the PCT. From here, it was a mile to Little Round Valley, a popular primitive campground, and then another 1.6 miles to San Jacinto Peak. The trail ascended nice and steadily. I began to feel a little sleepy, but was fully awake again at 10,000 ft as a slightly chilly wind began blowing in from the west.
Little Round Valley
The first four of us reached the summit at 5:30 pm. Although it was a little hazy below us, the views from Mt. San Jacinto never failed to impress.
We spent about half an hour on the summit, rejoicing and cheering as several more members of our group made their way up to the summit. By 6:10 pm, most of us had made it. There were still a few that were supposedly 45 minutes below the summit. We hoped that they were closer so they would be able to make it in time for the last tram off the mountain at 9pm. Mihai said that he would wait for them below the summit. Greg, Gong, and I headed down the San Jacinto Peak Trail to the tram station to inform them that there might still be people on the mountain after 9pm.
A few last photos
Greg, Gong, and I left the summit at 6:15 pm for the tram station. Gong and I were very familiar with the San Jacinto Peak Trail, and we hurried down at a brisk pace. Somewhere around Wellman's Divide, Greg, who had never been on the mountain before, had disappeared. Gong and I figured that he was probably somewhere up ahead, since I had to pause briefly to exchange an empty water bottle for a full one inside my pack.
Gong and I made it to the tram station at about 8pm. Greg was nowhere to be found. We informed the rangers that there were people on the mountain who might miss the last tram. They said that they would wait at the station until the group got back, but didn't mention anything on getting them down the mountain after that.
At 8:40 pm, we saw a string of headlamps hurriedly making their way up the tram station ramp. They had made it. It turned out that they had ignored their burning legs and hurried down the mountain as fast as they could. Along the way they had ran into Greg, who was sitting on a log waiting for them. Apparently Greg had to delayer at some point during the descent. When he had finished, Gong and I were nowhere in sight. He had continued along the trail, eventually running into a large snowfield and was unsure of where to go. Not wanting to risk getting lost, he waited for the rest of the group to catch up.
We took the last tram down, chatting and recounting earlier moments in the day. It was a very memorable hike.
10,600 ft/3,200 ft gain/loss
Fuller ridge Campground
Summit of Mt. San Jacinto
Palm springs Aerial tramway upper station
Mt. San Jacinto
Mt. San Jacinto (although S2S is not mentioned, there are many other trails that head up the same mountain)
Fuller Ridge Trail (consists of a 7.6 mile portion of S2S between Fuller Ridge campground and San Jacinto Peak)
Mt. San Jacinto message board
Pacific Crest Trail Association
Webcam at 8,000 ft elevation near upper tram station
Palm springs Aerial tramway website
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