The Skyline Trail forms the bulk of the "Cactus to Clouds" hike that goes from the low desert to the summit of San Jacinto Peak (10,834’ /3302m), gaining over 10,000'/3000m! My trip today covers only the Skyline Trail portion of the Cactus to Clouds route.
|Shadow of a hiker on the Skyline Trail
|The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway as it passes by prominent Coffman's Crag
If it is helpful, here is my Skyline Training Plan, that is, the activities that I undertook to prepare for doing Skyline. An appropriate level of fitness is essential prior to tackling the Skyline Trail.
One last word of warning about Skyline before I describe my ascent: This is a committed route. What do I mean by "committed?" There is no way to abort a hike once you start. In other words, once you get onto Skyline, you're committed. If you go up, but get too tired to continue, you (in hot weather) can't just head back down. As you head down, the temperature will increase. You're essentially descending into an inferno. From what I've read, this seems to be the pattern for most of the people who have died on Skyline. They started up, got into trouble, headed down into the firey furnace of the desert, and succumbed to the heat. Again, I'm not trying to scare anyone off who knows what they're doing; I'm just trying to be responsible and present what are the very real objective dangers.
OK! Enough "mother hen!" On with the hike.
There are several ways to get on to the ridge that the Skyline trail follows (hereinafter called "Skyline Ridge"). I chose the trailhead that starts at the west end of Ramon Road in Palm Springs.
|Ramon Road dead ends into Skyline Ridge
|Trailhead sign at the end of Ramon Road. Note that this section is called the North Lykken Trail.
|The route starts on an old dirt road
|Leave the dirt road at the sign and start up the trail.
|The trail is easily discerned.
|The rocks along side the trail are marked periodically with large dots
|Sign on the North Lykken Trail. Very groovy. :)
|Sign marking the upper end of the North Lykken Trail
|A large rock pile (cairn) marking the upper end of the North Lykken Trail. Turn left here.
|The first painted rock
|Another painted rock, but God only knows what it once said
|The "Reality Check" rock
One of the advantages of starting pre-dawn is that one gets to watch the eastern horizon grow progressively brighter.
|Palm Springs, pre-dawn
|Sky, brightening in the east
|Sunrise, Coachella Valley.
|Early morning light on Skyline Ridge
Ascending further, we come to the first of two rescue boxes at about 2455'/748m.
|The first rescue box. The solar powered light on top comes on at night.
But grim reminder aside, the boxes (along with other distinctive landmarks) also serve a useful purpose to those who are prepared and ready for the trail: They serve as waypoints by which one may gauge one's progress and positively identify one's location. The So Cal Hikers have put together a nice map (click to enlarge) that shows the general route of the trail and the location of several easily identified landmarks.
|A very useful map compiled by the So Cal Hikers (click to enlarge)
One of the great attractions of the Skyline Trail are the varied terrain and fabulous views. Here I'm looking at a wind farm from far above.
|Rocky terrain and desert views
|The Salton Sea aglow in the morning sun.
|A family of deer browse their way up the mountain near the Skyline trail.
|The dreaded cholla (pronounced cho - yuh) cactus. Stand clear!
|Mini barrel cacti
|Banana leaf yucca
|The intense desert sun
|Ascending steep terrain on Skyline Ridge
|The quintessential "Cactus to Clouds" shot. In the foreground, cholla cactus. In the background, the pine forests of San Jacinto. Can you spot the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway?
The next land mark we pass is the "4300" marker emplaced by none other than Doreen the Skyline Queen.
|The 4300'/1300m marker.
|Doreen, the Queen of Skyline. Note the steepness of the terrain.
This section of the hike is comparatively mellow, and is a nice respite in a way, but there's a problem. Take a look at this photo shot just beyond the 4300 marker and see if you can determine what the problem is.
|The long, flat section of the Skyline Trail known as "the Never Ending Ridge." Note how the terrain gets steep like a wall at the far end of the Never Ending Ridge.
Looking back down from the start of the Never Ending Ridge, we can see we've climbed a heck of a lot -- over 4000'/1200m, the equivalent of climbing Mount Baldy via the ski hut, but we're only about half way there, elevation gain wise.
|Looking back from near the start of the Never Ending Ridge
|The San Gorgonio Wilderness lies to the north of Skyline.
|High country peaks clearly distinguishable from Skyline
|Pinyon Pines (Pinus monophylla) at about 5000'/1500m
|The terrain steepens considerably after the Never Ending Ridge section of Skyline
|Steep terrain to the north northwest of Skyline
|Florian's Bucket, 5800'/1760m
|Water (what's left of it) in Florian's Bucket
|Flat Rock. 5890'/1795m.
|Hikers passing through the manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) section of the Skyline Trail.
|A scrub oak (Quercus spp.) on the Skyline Trail above Flat Rock
|Looking back down the Never Ending Ridge
|Mixed oak and pine in the Boreal Zone.
|Ascending the Skyline Trail at about 7000'/2130m.
|Looking back from just below The Traverse. Note how much steeper the terrain is above the Never Ending Ridge.
|A tram car ascending to the Mountain Station
|The beginning of The Traverse
|Coffman's Crag as seen from near the start of the traverse
|Beautiful view from the forested slopes near the Traverse
|A steep chute below The Traverse.
|The gully at the base of Coffman's Crag
|Hikers ascending the extremely steep terrain above The Traverse
|Final approach to Grubbs Notch
|Looking back at Grubbs Notch from Long Valley
|Heading through essentially flat Long Valley
|Ascending the ramp to the tram. Almost done!
|Forested Long Valley, as seen from the ramp leading to the tram. What a difference compared to where I started!
|Best. Beer. Ever.
Thanks for joining me,
Some Final Thoughts
- Weather. Get in shape of course, but the weather factor is HUGE on this hike. Pick a cool day (typically early spring or late fall), and make sure there's no snow or ice on the traverse.
- Water. Bring more water than you think you'll need. Four liters was fine for a cool December day with an early start. Seven or eight liters is more typical in warmer weather.
- High gain, steep training hikes. Make sure you do a couple of steep hikes with about 5000'/1500m gain prior to doing Skyline. You really don't know that you can do the hike until you've done some steep, big gain hikes first. See Appendix C, below, or my Skyline Training Plan for some ideas for good training hikes.
- Taper off. In the last couple of weeks leading up to Skyline, I really took it easy. I still did regular hikes, but no high gain, high difficulty hikes in the last couple of weeks before Skyline. I think tapering off is as important as training, water, and weather.
Appendix A, My Times:
Ramon Road -- 0430
Painted Rocks -- 0530 (1.5 mph)
Rescue 1 -- 0640 (1 mph)
4300' Marker -- 0840 (1 mph)
Rescue 2 -- 1015 (1.25 mph)
Florian's Cache -- 1040 (0.75 mph)
Flat Rock -- 1105 (1 mph)
The Traverse -- 1235 (2.1 mph)
Coffman's Crag -- 1305 (0.8 mph)
Grubbs Notch -- 1330 (0.6 mph)
Tram -- 1350 (1.8 mph)
The steepest sections are above Flat Rock. Pace yourself accordingly.
Oddly, my fastest section was the steep section from Flat Rock to The Traverse. However, "Zippety Dude," who is a trail runner joined me for that section. I may have been hiking faster just so I could continue in his company. Overall, I was very pleased with a 9 hour time for Skyline for a first effort. I did very well, and at no time was I "dragging" (struggling) as I progressed. I had never done 8000'/2400m of gain in a day before. It's nice to know that I can.
Note: I'm basing the above speed calculations on the mileages on the map from the So Cal Hikers. I have not validated these mileages.
Appendix B, Gear
Here's what I carried. It worked for me.
- Water -- 5 Liters total. 4 liters in soft sided bladders, 1 liter in a standard Nalgene bottle.
- Food -- Hard candy, various trial bars, Clif shot blocks, Gu shots. NO PROTEIN. Protein takes a lot of oxygen to digest. Protein does not work for me on ascents. YMMV.
- Clothing (worn) -- "convertible" nylon pants, long sleeved nylon shirt, midweight hiking socks, trail shoes (not boots), broad brimmed sun hat.
- Clothing (carried) -- Lightweight fleece turtleneck, down vest, ultralight WPB (waterproof breathable) shell, ultralight wind pants, ultralight wind shirt, fleece gloves, fleece hat, spare socks.
- Emergency gear -- The traditional 10 essentials, 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), space blanket, whistle, various other small items.
- It was December, so I carried a fair amount of clothing just in case I got caught out after dark for some reason. I used none of it, but I was glad to have it along. It was cold on the Traverse, even at 1300 in the afternoon.
- I carried 5 liters of water, but I really only needed 4 on the cool December day I did the hike. In the summer, 7 or 8 liters is more common for hikers. Soft sided (Platypus type) containers are much lighter than the traditional Nalgene bottle. A Nalgene bottle weighs 1/4 pound (0.1 kg) empty whereas my Platypus hydration bladder weighs 6 oz (0.17 kg) but carries three times as much water.
- Despite it being December, I was really glad to have a sun hat and sun glasses. The desert sun was still fairly intense.
- I carried not one but two head lamps so I could make maximum time in the dark. I used a flood type head lamp (diffuse beam) affixed to a belt around my midriff to provide contrast. A light shining at the same angle as one's eyes does not provide contrast. I used a spot type head lamp (very focused beam) worn in the typical fashion on my forehead for distance vision. I've used this two head lamp combination a number of times when I've wanted to travel full speed in the dark. I have found the two head lamp combination to be very effective.
Appendix C, High Gain Training Hikes
Here are some fairly steep hikes that have at least 4000'/1200m gain. Obviously, you don't want to start a training program with these hikes, but you should work several of these hikes into your training regimen prior to attempting Skyline. I'm sure there are others, but these came to my mind.
- Mount Baldy (Mount San Antonio) via the ski hut. ~4000'/1200m of gain.
- Newton Drury Peak or San Jacinto Peak via the Marion Mountain Trail. ~4000'/1200m of gain.
- Momyer Creek Trail to East San Bernardino Peak or Anderson Peak. ~5000'/1500m of gain.
- San Jacinto Peak via the Deer Springs Trail. Go by way of Wellman Divide. ~5000'/1500m of gain.
- Mount Baldy (Mount San Antonio) via Bear Flats. ~6000'/1800m of gain.
- San Gorgonio Mountain or Jepson Peak via the Vivian Creek Trail. ~6000'/1800m of gain.
- Iron Mountain from Heaton Flat. ~6000'/1800m of gain.