Cactus to Clouds: The Hardest Hike in America?

Skyline Trail.
Skyline Trail. Craig Pulsipher
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Hardest hike in America? That's a bold claim, but one that hikers of the Cactus to Clouds trail can certainly make with a straight face. Starting in Palm Springs, Calif., the trail offers an extreme physical challenge while also providing a unique outdoor setting with amazing views. It's a day hike that puts your skills to the test, and it should certainly be on the bucket list of any serious hiker.

Let's break it down: The hike is actually a combination of two trails, the Skyline Trail, and the trail to the San Jacinto Peak. The Skyline Trail is approximately 10 miles long and features 8,000 feet of elevation gain from the desert floor of Palm Springs up to the Long Valley Ranger Station. You are home free once you get to this point—or are you?

The hike up to the San Jacinto Peak is much easier (but by no means easy). You want a challenge, yes? The trail up to the peak is an additional 5.5 miles long with 2,600 feet of elevation gain from the ranger station. Remember, at this point you have just finished hours of one legged squats with each step up the Skyline Trail. Intrigued?

A Palm Springs Sunrise on the Skyline Trail.
    Craig Pulsipher
A Palm Springs Sunrise on the Skyline Trail. Craig Pulsipher

Such an attempt requires dedicated preparation. Most reviewers say this hike is not for the faint of heart. I'd take it one step further and say that it is custom-designed for those looking for an extreme challenge. Most veterans recommend starting the hike at 3 a.m.; I began this trip up at 4:15 a.m. The important thing is that this hike is started several hours before daybreak in order to get through as much of the steep grade climbing as possible before the sun starts beating down.

Increases in altitude will provide a nice cool breeze. The landscape of the Skyline Trail is very representative of the desert from which you will start, and the trail offers many amazing components that make for a fun adventure. The rock formations to climb up, over, and around provide an interesting and stimulating course. Overlooking the entire Coachella Valley, you will see the lights, wind farms, and highways as the sun rises to peak over the eastern mountains.

After trekking further up the trail, the terrain changes from a dry desert landscape to a wooded forest of pine trees. The air will begin to taste crisp and cool. The shady canopy is just in time for the steepest grade of the day finishing off the Skyline trail up to the Long Valley Ranger Station. Mission accomplished.

This is the place to take a much deserved recovery break, eat some food, refill water bottles, and prepare mentally to get back to it. The rest of the way is mostly forested with plenty of tree coverage, and the climate feels magnificent. This point of the trail has plenty of foot traffic from fellow adventurers in quest of the spectacular view from the peak.

There are several things to take into consideration before starting this hike up the Skyline Trail. First, think about the season. The summer months will increase the risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Winter months will result in extreme lows, especially when you get farther up the mountain. If there is any snow coverage, there will be parts of the trail that will be very difficult to follow.

The Aerial Tramway will give hikers a ride back to down the mountain.
    Craig Pulsipher
The Aerial Tramway will give hikers a ride back to down the mountain. Craig Pulsipher

Other seasons will provide temperature extremes of both hot and cold. Next thing to consider is the fact that the first bail out point is not until you get to Long Valley, which is 10 miles from the trailhead. If you get half way up Skyline and decide it is too much, it is safer to continue up to the ranger's station for a ride back down on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

Another thing to consider is the chance of injury. I was personally scolded by the ranger because I did this hike alone. A twisted ankle, a pulled muscle, snake bite, or inadequate water supply could have been disastrous. Use the buddy system. My journey was in the end of summer, and I went through six liters of water heading up the Skyline Trail. Some advice: Plan for weather fluctuations, pack a first-aid kit, and carry plenty of food and water. Preparation is key to making this adventure a positive experience.

Cactus to Clouds is an accomplishment. Completing it will be a defining moment in life. Consider the reward. Think of the peace that follows such physical and mental exertion, the challenge itself, stunning views, being one with nature, bragging rights, and the satisfaction of conquering one of the most difficult hikes in America.

So, is Cactus to Clouds the hardest hike in America? Hmmm. A total of 20 miles, 10,600 feet of elevation gain, temperature extremes on both ends, and 10-14 hours on the move. Putting this hike to the test is the only way for you to know for sure.

Originally written for Greater Palm Springs CVB.

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