Cactus to Clouds
“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others-the living-are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it. They pulled back, or slowed down or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still out there.”
Hunter S. Thompson
Impulsive Hiking Decision
Tuesday afternoon my phone lit up with a text from one of my good friends, “Can you do Cactus to Clouds tomorrow?”
My friend, Russ, and I had been casually talking about doing the strenuous 22 mile hike a few months prior, but we had never worked out the details.
I knew it was a tough hike, but I had done tough hikes before. I had the gear and the time off, so why not? I don’t have “yes” tattooed on my body for no reason (seriously, I have “YES” tattooed on my body)!
Getting to the Trailhead
Russ is a pilot, so we decided against the 5 hour drive and instead took a Cessna 172 over to Palm Springs.
We started the morning flying over the mountains at sunrise while relaxing and taking in the views the desert had to offer.
We arrived at the trailhead a little after 0700 where the usual signs greeted us: “stay on the trail,” “pack out what you pack in,” and our personal favorite “hiking beyond your ability can result in injury or death.” After all, the best hikes are the ones that warn you of death, right?
Commence Hiking – Skyline Trail
The trail started out pretty well marked considering the portion of the hike from the desert floor to the tram isn’t maintained by the state. Though as we gained in elevation, the trail began to lose clear markings of where it truly was.
We lost the trail several times and had to boulder over massive rock piles in the general direction of where we were going in hopes we’d find the trail again. Although this was actually pretty fun, we didn’t take into account how much extra energy we were expending.
We were still smiling at 5,700 feet (1,737 meters) when we stopped for lunch, patted ourselves on the back for how much we had climbed in elevation, and how good we felt.
5th hardest hike in North America? Yeah, maybe to some people we thought, but not us. We fueled up on good food and an equally good view at flat rock. Then figured we’d reach the top by sunset, take some sweet pictures, and be back to the airport by 2000. Oh man, were we wrong.
The Traverse from Hell
Shit got real, real quick: the stops for pictures thinned, the GoPro stayed in the pack, the climate quickly changed from sunny desert to snowy alpine, and the grind really began.
2,000 feet (610 meters) of elevation gain over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) is no joke: the temperature dropped into the 40’s, the sun disappeared above the trees, and the dirt trail started accumulating more and more snow. It was when the trail started handing us 60% inclines that we started cursing at ourselves for thinking we were too good for trekking poles.
Those 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) took us two hours! But when that glorious patch of blue sky appeared in the distance, marking that the traverse from hell was finally coming to an end, we felt rejuvenated.
Tram to Summit
Only 5.5 miles (8.9 kilometers) left to the summit. 10 miles (16 kilometers) down, 11 miles (17.8 kilometers) to go. Wait, what? We had been hiking for over 7 hours and we weren’t even halfway? Thank goodness this thought didn’t sink in. We were just happy to be on a flat trail, for now.
Despite the trail being completely covered in snow, from the tram to the summit the trail was clearly marked since we were now in the state maintained portion of the hike.
As we passed the ranger station we paused to layer up, fill out our permits (these are required from the tram to the summit and they’re free), and head out into a winter wonderland.
The last stretch! I kept thinking we could still reach the summit by sunset, but 5.5 icy miles (8.9 kilometers) in 2 hours was not going to happen.
However, we did get a sunset over Wellman’s Divide, which was 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) from the summit. It was insane! That remarkable sunset will forever be burned into my memory – not only because of how beautiful that desert sunset was with our birds eye view, but because of how hard we worked to achieve that view.
The last little bit of light in the sky was leaving as we broke through the trees and revealed the twinkling lights of Palm Springs where we had started some 12 hours prior. 10,834 feet (3,302 meters) was so close!
The wind was brutal once we scrambled the last little bit to the top, but nothing to that point has been more satisfying than holding that San Jacinto peak sign with our barely working, frozen hands.
Summit to Tram
After slipping and sliding on the way up, we decided it was best to throw the crampons on for the decent down especially since it was pitch black now.
Ten minutes into our descent Russ turns back to me and says, “We really should’ve put these on 4 hours ago.” All I could think to myself was, we also really should’ve brought trekking poles…
Even though we were now heading back down in elevation, altitude and exhaustion was hitting us hard. Full blown headaches, hallucinations, tunnel vision… I think all the bravado of making it to the top had left our bodies, and we were just ready to be done.
I kept zoning out until my headlamp would catch a snow drift, and I’d think I saw something moving out in the woods. My head was on a constant swivel despite telling myself that nothing was out there. Rocks were turning into animals, trees were turning into people… I was tripping hard.
Russ was speaking complete nonsense, or my brain was incapable of understanding any meaningful conversation at that point. Likely a combination of both. The only thing I could make out besides the routine grunting were variations of the F bomb.
Hitting the 1.7 mile (2.7 kilometer) marker was almost a better feeling than reaching the summit.
As beat up as my body felt at that moment, I was ready to run to the tram. I even calculated how much time it might take us based off the trail conditions and the darkness. It could all be over in less than 20 minutes if we just ran… (Later on we both talked about how we thought about asking the other if we just wanted to run it out, but between altitude sickness, ice, and pure exhaustion neither one of us suggested it out loud).
Tram to Airport
FINALLY the ranger station!
We dropped off our permits so they would know we were alive in the morning and saw the sign for “TRAM 0.3 mi.”
It was almost over! Then the most soul crushing part of the hike hit. The last 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) were a zig-zagged, concrete ramp. That’s one lap around the track plus some change straight up.
At this point it was 2100 and for whatever reason I had convinced myself that the last tram was at 2115 (it’s not, it’s at 2145). I was in full panic mode.
Russ had really slowed down due to the altitude sickness, and there was no way I was letting us miss the tram. I didn’t even pause to take my crampons off my boots. I just started running up the hill from hell using my arms to pull myself up the railings. There was no way we were spending the night on top of this mountain. Side note: if you do get stuck on top, the ranger station keeps its heated bathrooms unlocked and that’s where you bunker down for the night.
I burst through the doors to an empty room, and ran up a flight of stairs nearly colliding with a group of housekeepers. One read my mind before I even had the chance to ask. He looked at me apologetically and said, “It just left, I’m so sorry you missed it.”
My heart sunk. Just as I was about to burst into tears I heard a voice behind me say, “Don’t worry. There’s another one at 2145.” The voice behind me belonged to Jodi, the woman who was our saving grace for the night.
The problem with there being another one tram down at 2145 was that we had to be at the airport no later than 2200, otherwise we weren’t flying out that night.
It’s an 11 – 15 minute tram ride down, and another 15 minutes to the airport from the bottom of the tram parking lot. No matter what you do, 26 – 30 minutes of travel time cannot turn into less than 15 minutes.
Jodi, our tram angel, called for a special tram to come up just for us so that we could make it to the airport (potentially) in time. Shout out to Jodi! You were our MVP that night, and we’ll never forget you.
We called an Uber just before boarding the tram and kept our fingers crossed that the Uber would be waiting for us at the bottom since you lose service immediately once you start going down the mountain. Luckily another angel in disguise was waiting for us.
Our Uber driver knew service in the area was bad, and she waited for us instead of taking off when we didn’t answer our phones. As soon as we got in the car, Russ politely asked her to drive as fast as she was comfortable with since at this moment we had 12 minutes to make it to the airport on time. Her response was perfect, “Don’t worry. I used to drive an ambulance.”
Holy moly did that woman take off! We were estimated to arrive at the airport 4 minutes past closing, and she got us there 2 minutes before 2200. That woman was a road animal!
We burst through the doors at the airport, checked out, and were at the plane by 2200 exactly.
Hiking Cactus to Clouds – Not the Best Impulsive Idea Even for the Most Advanced Hikers
I would not suggest doing this hike on a whim.
Everything that needed to go right, went right for us, but we were lucky. We were reliant on factors outside our control, which can always go sideways.
That being said, Cactus to Clouds is an epic adventure! If you’re in good shape and you have your gear in check, go for it. It may not be enjoyable the entire time, but you’ll be stoked you did it.
What was in my Pack, and What did I Wear?
Always, always be prepared for long hikes!
Seriously, you cannot be over-prepared. We went through all of our water and food, and put on all of our layers before the end of the hike. If we hadn’t packed the way we did, we might’ve not made it – sometimes being lucky just isn’t enough.
Cactus to Clouds Packing List:
- Day Pack (I have the Gregory Jade 28 Pack)
- Salomon Women’s X Ultra Mid 2 GTX Hiking Shoe
- Darn Tough Wool Socks
- Crampons (I used Kahtoola MICROspikes and they were so worth the $70)
- Layers: SmartWool Mid Layer, Patagonia Better Sweater, Kuhl Down Jacket
- Ball Cap for the Skyline Trail
- Down Beanie for the rest of the way
- Gloves (SO SO happy I brought these)
- Black Diamond Headlamp
- Snacks: Shredded Chicken, Turkey Roll Ups, Sweet Potatoes, Rice Cakes, Kind Bars, Honey Roasted Peanuts, Bananas
- Water! (6L, and yes I drank all of it)
I couldn’t find my trekking poles that morning (again, impulsive decision) of the hike otherwise I definitely would’ve packed them. So, below is the list of items I should’ve packed:
- Trekking Poles
- Thicker Gloves (My hands were barely working at the summit)
- Salt Tabs (shout out to Russ for bringing some, however I would bring more next time)
- GU’s or some other quick carbs
Reminder to Just Say Yes!
And, more importantly as always, say yes to experiences that present themselves to you! Life is full of fun and wonder – don’t be stuck at home wondering what life could be like, should be like, would be like… drop that nonsense! Get out there, say yes, and never look back!
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