101 Hikes in Southern California: Exploring Mountains, Seashore and Desert by Jerry Schad

Jerry Schad wrote the best regional hiking guides period.  He died too young.  I miss his weekly columns, his indefatigable energy and overall zest for living.  This particular guide of his, 101 Hikes in Southern California: Exploring Mountains, Seashore and Desert, at the time of its first publication, was the only trail guide published that included detailed information about the hardest and most dangerous trek in the state: The Cactus to Clouds hike. The "Cactus" denotes the trail head at sea level on the outskirts of Palm Springs in the desert. While the "Clouds" denotes what you'll be in once you're at the top: the summit of San Jacinto Peak, a mere two miles-plus above sea level at 10,804 feet.

To put the hike into perspective, consider the Empire State Building. Roughly 1,000 feet high. Think about taking the stairs of Empire State all the way to the top. Not once. Not twice. Ten times. More than 1,000 stories.

Now, imagine you had to do the Empire State's stairs ten times to the top but there weren't any hand railings nor easy-to-follow steps one right after the other.

Imagine having to begin your journey to the top of the Empire State Building x ten at midnight in order to avoid the horrible heat over the first half of the hike. Imagine prickly cholla everywhere on those steps to the top of the Empire State Building that had to be carefully navigated through in the dark with either a headlamp or flashlight, lest you get pricked or impaled!

Imagine the steps to the top of the Empire State Building x ten being loose granite and dirt, ultra steep, difficult of footing even wearing lug-soled boots.

Do scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas and rattlesnakes abundantly inhabit the stairwells of the Empire State Building x ten? Didn't think so. But they're out and about (and on the hunt for warm blooded critters like hikers) on the Cactus-to-Clouds "trail". Sound fun? It is! Especially when you get to the top.

I applaud Jerry Schad (and his publisher) for being the first to have the guts to publish a description of the hike that U.S. rangers with the San Bernardino National Forest Service strongly discourage anybody attempting. More people have been rescued (and been killed) on this trail than any other trail in Southern California. In fact, there are warning signs at the top of the trail (not the summit but the top of the tram) declaring not to attempt hiking down the trail, because it's so steep and loose you might not be able to stop your downward momentum and take a fatal tumble like your body was a runaway boulder!

Forget the Empire State Building x ten, the hike is more difficult than doing Mt. Whitney in a single day, elevation- and incline-wise, and equally as rewarding, in my opinion. The views from the summit of San Jacinto Peak are sublime on a clear day. The views are sublime even if you don't get to the top from the very bottom, but take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and cut out the hard "Cactus" part of the hike, having heeded the U.S. Forest Rangers advice. But beware! The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is no guarantee you'll avoid trouble.

If you do decide on the hike, don't ever do it alone, and let a ranger know you're not heeding their advice (the trail's on public land, they can't stop you from doing the hike) and be sure to have enough water to last you for two days ... just in case.

And watch out for snakes!

More info, maps, and blow-by-blow images of the hike: Cactus to Clouds.

Troubled Hiker Rescued from Cactus to Clouds Trail July 9th, 2010.