Winter Climb San Jacinto from the Tram

8 miles 2400 ft gain  - Out-and-Back Trail

Added by Forrest MacDonald

This is a challenging day-hike, made all the more difficult in the snow! The perks include less people, great views, and feeling like a bad ass.

  • Intermediate: No snow.
  • Advanced: Lots of snow.
  • Expert: Snow w/ high winds and low temps.


San Jacinto, at 10,834 feet, is the second-highest peak in the Southern California. It's unique in that it has a rotating tram car (think slow motion disco floor) that runs from Palm Springs up to the Mountain Station (8,516). From there, you can escape the crowds on an extensive array of hiking trails -- the best of which is to the San Jacinto summit.

This trail is your best bet if you're doing a winter or spring attempt at reaching the summit (without backpacking). The overall distance is about half of the other popular trails (thanks to the tram), you don't need to pack for warmer low-elevation conditions, and there's ample water/restrooms at the Mountain Station available at the start. Note: call the Long Valley Ranger Station before you go to get a sense of the conditions and recommended gear.

To start, find your way to the Palm Springs Aerial Tram. It's $5 to park, and $25.95 to take the tram. Enjoy the views and mind-boggling steepness of the terrain that you're quickly flying over. The ride up takes about 15 minutes. At the top, make use of the bathrooms and water fountain with the 'bottle filler' (still unclear on the official name).

Take the paved switchback path down the Ranger Station and say hello to the State Park's Peace Officers. These guys are great. They know the mountain thoroughly and can provide heaps of advice based on the conditions at that moment. Fill out your free wilderness permit, talk routes, load your GPX track for reference, and get going.

The trail starts to the left of the Ranger Station. Hike about 2.3 miles towards Round Valley, where you can camp if you have the requisite equipment. You'll find a seasonal ranger station and open space that's a scenic meadow when there isn't 5 feet of snow covering it (still scenic, not much evidence of meadow-ness).

Note that if you're doing this in the winter or spring, as we were, there are an abundance of trails and lack of signs which make for difficult navigation. We navigated using a GPX file for reference as well as a paper map and were often fully off the 'beaten path'.

From Round Valley, continue on the trail towards Wellman's Divide. Looking at the map, you'll see that the trail makes a sort of 'V' into Wellman's and then north towards the summit. One of the many pleasures of winter hiking is that you can blaze your own shortcut offtrail, which we did. Instead of going all the way to Wellman's, we bee-lined NW and reconnected to the trail. WD has a great vista, though, so if you have the time (or lack the skills to navigate fully off-trail) then it's worth checking out.

Continue your way along the trail to the summit. If you're looking at a topo map, you may realize that those contours are awfully close together. Another observation may be that the trail switchbacks towards Miller Peak and then back around San Jacinto around the 10,400 mark. Guess what: the slope IS really steep and, in the snow, that switchback is nearly impossible to find! Which means it's time for an important note about this trip...

IMPORTANT NOTE: This section is very STEEP. The Miller switchback is highly avalanche prone. If this face is snow-covered, it is in your best interest to take the sometimes 45% grade head-on.

After about half a mile of pain and suffering, find your way to the summit and (after a moment collapsed on the snow catching your breath under the guide of making a snow angel) enjoy the views! You did it! Check out close-by Gorgonio and the sweeping view of the Coachella Valley. 

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