San Jacinto Backpacking Trip

I read once that the three major peaks of Southern California were:

I had previously had my sights set on Mt. Whitney and other well-known mountains, but how can I be an avid hiker in San Diego and not have climbed these peaks in my own back yard? They became founding members of my 101 Things list when I started my search for things to climb.

I decided to tackle San Jacinto first. The thing that attracted me right away: the “easy way” climb is 12.0 miles and 2,800 ft of elevation gain. The “hard way” is the “greatest elevation gain of any hike in the Lower 48” at 20.0 miles and 10,600 ft, ONE WAY. Basically you’re hiking from sea level in Palm Springs all the way to the summit. Furthermore, as we later learned, San Jacinto is the highest point in any state park in the U.S.. We decided to do the “medium-hard way”.

Amanda and Chuck on San Jacinto Summit

Amanda and Chuck on San Jacinto Summit

The Route

We wanted to tie the trip in with another item off our 101 Things lists: going on a backpacking trip of at least 2 nights. Amanda found a good resource in Backpacking California, from Wilderness Press. We basically did Trip 5 from that book, San Jacinto Loop, with some minor modifications. Instead of visiting Suicide Rock and ending at Deer Springs Trailhead, we cut across Pacific Crest Trail so we could return to our car in Humber Park.

Map of Our San Jacinto Route

Map of Our San Jacinto Route

The Preparations

Making the trip over Memorial Day weekend gave us a full 2 nights without missing work. Doing it in late May also in theory got us past the snow and cold of the early spring we would have faced earlier in the season (it was supposed to be a birthday trip in early April). After obtaining the necessary permits, adventure passes, gorp, and new hiking boots (Amanda always finds a good reason to buy shoes…), we set off on an auspicious May morning.

Day 1: Saturday, May 23

We left our place in downtown San Diego a little after 6am and got to the Humber Park trailhead around 8:45. There we found perfect weather: mid 60’s, sunny, calm winds. We decided to leave our winter gear (hat, gloves, long underwear, crampons) in the car to cut down on weight. There were a couple other backpacking groups getting ready and a bunch of dayhikers. We donned the hiking boots, strapped on the backpacks, and were off!

Trailhead in Humber Park

Trailhead in Humber Park

The first section of trail (Devil’s Slide Trail) is 2.3 miles and 1,600 ft up to a saddle junction that is a nice stopping point. As soon as we started I understood the folly of going from sea level to a 6,400 ft trailhead in a couple of hours. I was having trouble catching my breath for that whole section on what otherwise was a moderate slope. Even that early I started to question what it would be like 4,000 ft higher and whether we’d be able to make it. But we pushed on, thanks to some help from beef jerky.

View from Devil's Slide Trail

View from Devil's Slide Trail

I started feeling a bit better while climbing up the next section (1.0 miles from 8,000 to 9,000 ft). The switchbacks were a bit brutal on this section of the Pacific Crest Trail, and we even got to see our first of snow. I started to get blisters on my feet in spite of wearing both sock liners and medium-weight socks. So when we stopped for our tuna-and-pita lunch at the junction, I threw on a couple of blister pads and a third pair of socks as further preventative measure.

Junction between Deer Spring and Pacific Crest Trails

Junction between Deer Spring and Pacific Crest Trails

The next section of trail was short (1.0 mile from 9,000 to 9,700 ft) but started to give us some great views to the east. We could see Palm Springs and Borrego Springs in the distance, and made our way through meadows sparsely populated with trees. It was interesting how the vegetation of this eastern side of the mountain differed from where we started, perhaps because of the lower amount of rain. There were these bizarre foot-high green plants that looked like they were just starting to grow. We originally thought they were invasive but saw them several other times throughout the trip.

Strange Green Plants on Deer Spring Trail

Strange Green Plants on Deer Spring Trail

Gnarly Tree on East Side of San Jacinto Park

Gnarly Tree on East Side of San Jacinto Park

At 9,700 ft we reached the junction that leads to Round Valley and the tram. From that point onwards the trail was decidedly more populated, especially with happy people who had only climbed 1,200 ft. It was interesting to see the mix of them: some clearly prepared for their 12-mile jaunt, others not so much. One woman in particular was wearing sandals and had no water. We did not see her on the summit.

Rocks Near Round Valley Junction

Rocks Near Round Valley Junction

Junction Sign for Round Valley

Junction Sign for Round Valley

The next 2.3 miles and 900 ft elevation was quite difficult. We made our way slowly between the several stops we had to make along the way. There was only one other backpacking group that we saw, and I don’t believe they started at Humber Park.  My head was pounding by this point and I started popping aspirin and Balance bars  like candy. But in spite of the pain the view was amazing as we made the long final switchback on the east side of San Jacinto.

Dead Tree on San Jacinto

Dead Tree on San Jacinto

Long Final Switchback on East Side of San Jacinto

Long Final Switchback on East Side of San Jacinto

View of Palm Springs from San Jacinto Trail

View of Palm Springs from San Jacinto Trail

We could see the tram station in the distance, which is where the happy Round Valley people originated. We also passed various patches of snow along the way. Finally, at 10,600 ft, we reached the saddle junction to the top.

San Jacinto Summit Junction

San Jacinto Summit Junction

We briefly debated whether we should ascend to the summit that day, or immediately descend towards our camp and return the next day. Not wanting to have to hike up that high again, we decided to stash our packs behind a tree and go for the top. That last 0.3 miles and 250 ft were straightforward and richly rewarded. The final ascent involved a bit of bouldering and snow avoidance, and my head was pounding even more urgently as I reached the top around 3:30pm.

Northwards View from San Jacinto Summit

Northwards View from San Jacinto Summit

Westward View from San Jacinto Summit

Westward View from San Jacinto Summit

We were faced with awesome 360 degree views once we crawled atop that last boulder. The north slope of the mountain is quite steep, and we could see wind farms and freeways laid out like patchwork 10,o00 feet below us.

The Desert 10,000 Feet Below

The Desert 10,000 Feet Below

Mount San Gorgonio from San Jacinto Summit

Mount San Gorgonio from San Jacinto Summit

Mount San Gorgonio stood to our north, capped with a small bit of snow. The view to the west was hazy, and we could see the nearby (slightly shorter) summit of Mt Jean to the south. There were about 20 people on the summit with us, and it felt good knowing we were probably two of the very few who start at Humber Park and backpack to the summit in one day: a total of 8.0 miles and 4,400 feet. While the trip up from the tram is still a difficult hike, we were particularly proud of what we had accomplished.

Snow on the San Jacinto Summit

Snow on the San Jacinto Summit

After snapping several pictures we began our descent to our campground at Little Round Valley on the western slopes of San Jacinto. End-of-day descents always feel longer than they really are, and this one was no different. The camp is at 9,700 ft elevation, and as we neared we ran into another camper who explained to us which of the six camps he thought were taken and how utterly confusing they were. We had two maps of the campground, and they disagreed. Once we got to Little Round Valley we realized why: nothing was signed, and the trails to the individual camps were obscure unless you knew what you were looking for.

Tree Near Our Camp Site

Tree Near Our Camp Site

After trying a couple different camps, we found an empty one that we thought was Granite Gulch (but later turned out to be Nutcracker Perch once we explored more the next day and found the real Granite Gulch). It was about 50 ft higher than the main trail, so we weren’t particularly happy with that extra bout of climbing. But it was secluded, scenic, and non-windy. We set about pitching the tent, unfurling our sleeping pads and bags, and preparing our dinner. We had brought some salami, aged gouda, and Triskets to eat, figuring they’d keep well unrefrigerated.

Our Cozy Tent in Little Round Valley

Our Cozy Tent in Little Round Valley

Once we got over the campsite confusion, Little Round Valley turned out to be a pleasant campground in spite of its name (it was neither round nor little nor really a valley). The ranger on the phone had told us to expect a drinking water pipe, but we couldn’t find that. The seasonal ranger station there was an abandoned platform. But at least the campgroup had pit toilets (better than having to dig your own) and a pleasant stream running down the center. There was also a meadow with more of those strange plants.

I typically get horrendous headaches when I overexert myself. When combined with that altitude and the only 5 hours of sleep I got the previous night, I was ready to collapse by 7pm and not sure I’d make it through the night. After popping a couple more aspirin and sleeping for 11 hours, however, I was ready for a new day.

Day 2: Sunday, May 24

We began the day with some Starbucks DoubleShots, which turned out to be incredibly convenient mechanisms for ingesting my daily dose of caffeine. After that I felt much better than the night before and was ready to spend the second night there, thus completing my 101 Things item. We also quickly realized that we should have brought gloves along, because mid 30’s weather is colder than you might think.

Cool Tree and May Gray Descending from Little Round Valley

Cool Tree and May Gray Descending from Little Round Valley

San Gorgonio and Castle Rocks

San Gorgonio and Castle Rocks

The original plan was to hike out to Castle Rocks, which are about 1,000 feet below our camp along Fuller Ridge. We set off around 9am at a leisurely pace; after all, we had all day to make this journey. The western side of San Jacinto is much more lush. We passed a couple different “rivers” along the way as we quickly descended around 1,000 ft along a rocky trail that had been overgrown with thorny bushes.

San Jacinto "River"

San Jacinto "River"

Once we reached 8,700 ft we realized we still had a couple miles left hiking along the ridge to get to Castle Rocks. It also was not clear that, once we got there, we’d be able to climb them (as opposed to just look at them). We sat down and relaxed on a rock outcropping for a while and then headed back up.

San Jacinto River in Morning Sunlight

San Jacinto River in Morning Sunlight

To be honest, the rest of the day was exceedingly boring. I had forgotten to bring cards or any other distractions. We whiled away the hours by filling our water bottles from the stream, hunting down the other camp grounds, exploring the boulders behind our camp, visiting the ranger station (which was still sad and unoccupied), eating, drinking, airing out our socks, and planning our meals for the upcoming week.

Rock Outcroppings Near Our Camp

Jagged Rocks Near Our Camp

Our Socks Take a Break to Dry Out

Our Socks Take a Break to Dry Out

Mount San Jacinto, Dead Tree, and Me

Mount San Jacinto, Dead Tree, and Me

Around sunset time we hiked around the boulders near our camp to get some shots in the fading light. It was cloudless yet hazy to the west, which illuminated the surrounding rocks, trees and mountains with an orange glow.

Silhouette Self Portrait

Silhouette Self Portrait

Dead Tree Frames San Jacinto at Sunset

Dead Tree Frames San Jacinto at Sunset

San Jacinto at Sunset

San Jacinto at Sunset

San Jacinto and Flashed Pine Tree

San Jacinto and Flashed Pine Tree

The Sun Sets on Our Second Day

The Sun Sets on Our Second Day

Day 3: Monday, May 25

We knew ahead of time this would be a difficult day. Not just because my knees don’t like descending much, but also because in the midst of our 10 mile return journey is a 1,000 ft climb; the last thing we wanted to be doing!

Morning Clouds on the Descent from Little Round Valley

Morning Clouds on the Descent from Little Round Valley

We awoke around 6am, packed up our camp, and were on the trail by 7am. Our leftover gouda and salami served as breakfast when we reached the Fuller Ridge junction. From there, our sun-dappled descent from Little Round Valley to Strawberry Junction went by quickly. There was a lot of tree cover, and it was fascinating to see the strata of vegetation and rocks as we made our way from 9,700 ft down to 8,000 over nearly 4 miles.

Trail Junction Near Strawberry Camp

Trail Junction Near Strawberry Camp

At Strawberry Junction we explored the camp a bit. It seems like a scenic place to stay except that it has no water and only 3 campsites. After re-energizing with gorp we began our trek eastwards on the Pacific Crest Trail for 2.3 miles and 1,000 ft of elevation gain.

There’s something psychologically depressing about having to gain back all the elevation you just descended, but we also knew there wasn’t much of an alternative. In retrospect, it would have been less mileage and elevation gain to go over the San Jacinto summit saddle again, but we also wanted to see some new parts of the park.

View from Outcropping Near Strawberry Cienega

View from Outcropping Near Strawberry Cienega

View Southwards from Rocky Cliff New Strawberry Cienega

View Southwards from Rocky Cliff New Strawberry Cienega

Maybe the breaks we took along the way gave us a better chance to soak up the sights, but this was actually my favorite trail of the weekend. It clung to steep mountains, giving unobstructed and sweeping vistas to the south. The rocky cliffs of Strawberry Cienega were neat to walk out on. As expected it was a difficult slog uphill but we paced ourselves, kept eating trail mix and drinking Gatorade, and kept visualizing that saddle up ahead that we needed to get to. Throughout this portion of the trip we could see the valley where our car was parked and Idyllwild’s giant green water tanks.

View Along Pacific Crest Trail

View Along Pacific Crest Trail

Once we hit that saddle junction we had completed our grand loop and all that remained was returning to the car. That was still 4.3 miles and 2,600 ft down, but it went by relatively quickly. The soreness of our legs was mitigated by our eagerness to return home and taste some real food.

On the final stretch we ran into several groups that asked us “how far is it to the junction ahead?” like we were the experts with our dirt-stained legs. Others would ask “did you summit?” We could impress them with “yes, two days ago”. One group was amazed we could fit a tent in those backpacks and that we “looked so clean” (obviously she couldn’t smell us). I felt a great sense of personal accomplishment at having completed the most difficult climb I had done. In addition it is cool to know we had done something that very few people are able to do.

Summary

Day Distance Elevation
Saturday, May 23 9.3 miles +4434 ft / -934 ft
Sunday, May 24 4 miles +1000 ft / -1000 ft
Monday, May 25 10.4 miles +1000 ft / -4500 ft
Total 23.7 miles +6434 ft / -6434 ft

What we learned:

  • Acclimatize to the elevation before beginning the hike. Sleep overnight near the trailhead!
  • Bring extras of things you don’t want to run out of. You know, like food, toilet paper, aspirin, and sunscreen. This is not something to learn the hard way.
  • Bring the water filter. It requires less planning ahead than chlorine tablets (and tastes better)
  • Break down the hiking segments. How do you eat an elephant? Amanda had created a spreadsheet of each segment, including how many miles, elevation change, and elevation per mile. This helped us see progress and set expectations for what we’d be undergoing.
  • Bring something fun to do. Cards? Books? Alcohol?

What went well:

  • Summiting the first day, so we could relax the second
  • Salami and aged cheese is the way to go for camp meals
  • Starbucks DoubleShots taste awesome, and if you leave them outside your tent in 35 degree weather then it’s like they were refrigerated
  • Taking our time. It’s not (necessarily) a race.
  • That first slice of pizza at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto was absolute heaven

What’s next?

I want to hike San Gorgonio this summer, but I’m still debating whether to try it as a big day hike (15.6 miles and 5,60o ft) or camp mid-way through. I know I have to watch out for altitude sickness regardless of how I do it.

I decided to tackle San Jacinto first.
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5 Responses to San Jacinto Backpacking Trip

  1. Chris says:

    Great post Chuck. It looks like you guys picked a perfect time to go. Regardless of the fact that the mountain is in a state park these are tough climbs, very impressive. Beautiful pics as always.

  2. Pingback: In Which My Hiking Boots Fall Apart « The Hoppy Okapi

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  4. Pingback: 101 Things In 1001 Days: One Year Later « The Hoppy Okapi

  5. Those are some amazing shots! Thanks for sharing them. You’re making this desert-dewller jealous of all the beautiful pines!

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