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A stepping-off point to explore the wilds

The Palm Springs tram speeds you to higher ground where the going is hard or easy, depending on the trail.

October 11, 2005|Mary Forgione | Times Staff Writer

FROM the bottom of the tramway in Palm Springs, you can't see the top of Mt. San Jacinto. In fact, you can't see farther than the pale rock faces at the foot of this stunningly vertical mountain, about 500 feet above the station. But what you can see is a shortcut to Southern California's second-highest peak.

The tram whisks you roughly 8,500 feet up the mountain in just 10 minutes -- avoiding the eight hours it takes to slog up a steep, waterless route that starts in blistering heat. During the ride, you can marvel at close-ups of tilted boulders and scree chutes whose flora changes in the blink of an eye. Scrubby desert cactus and yucca give way to junipers and finally dense pines at the top, where the temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler.

On an early fall day, I exited the tram and headed out the back door. A couple of hundred feet from where visitors are shuffling through gift shops or stopping for a bite at the station's restaurant, I took a few dizzying steps down a cement sidewalk into the thin air of Mt. San Jacinto State Park.

And that's the beauty of this fast pass to the wilds: The $21.50 boost makes hiking in this high-altitude playground doable without a taxing daylong climb. Here, novices can roam a few miles through forests that resemble the High Sierra and average hikers can conquer the 10,804-foot peak.

On the trail, I ran into a 5-year-old with a broken arm who was delighted to have completed her first overnight just a few wild miles from the tram.

A short walk to the Long Valley ranger station (wilderness permits are required for day hikes and overnights) leads to the main trail that accesses a network of other trails. One takes you to the peak; others to Idyllwild or Humber Park on the south side of the mountain, and another even to Oregon, via the Pacific Crest Trail.

I set off on the 5 1/2 -mile trek that climbs 2,300 feet to the summit. Less than half a mile down the trail, the tramway vanished and I skittered across a creek along the spine of a downed tree. The trail wound past a meadow with tall grasses and remnants of corn lilies whose leaves had yellowed since summer. I stopped to sniff the bark of a few trees until I found one with the telltale butterscotch scent of a Jeffrey pine. (For years, I confused this tree with sugar pines, which also grow here but don't emit the sweet smell.)

Water rushing through creeks provided a steady soundtrack along the way to Round Valley Campground where campsites hidden among the big rocks offer privacy and protection from wind that can blow fiercely in late fall and winter.

From the Round Valley intersection, a trail to the left completes a 4-mile loop back to the tram; hikers who continue on the main trail come to a second intersection and a spur trail which leads to the Tamarack Valley Campground, half a mile away.

Wellmans Divide a mile up, which offers a window onto prominent Tahquitz Peak in the San Jacinto range and a shining Salton Sea at a distance, is also a jumping off point to Saddle Junction and part of a long 12-mile loop back to the tram.

I continued on the main trail where trees ebb and woody manzanita dominates the traverse across one side of the mountain. After a few uphill miles, the trail turns sharply and -- just below the summit -- ends.

I paused at a small stone shelter built by the California Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s that holds bunk beds, a stove, some food and the all-important trail register that's traditionally hidden in a can somewhere atop the peak.

From here, the last push to the top means clambering up a sea of boulders. I got off track a few times, but the sound of voices from the top guided me to the true summit.

Here, landmarks are easy to spot: Diamond Valley Lake, Lake Perris, and much closer to the east, Mt. San Gorgonio, which towers less than 1,000 feet above me. I think I can even see Catalina Island, though others around me dispute this.

But I can take my time and study the panorama below because the hike back to the tram is an easy downhill glide and a 10-minute ride into the valley below.


Alternate hikes

If you aren't up for the 11-mile round-trip hike to the top, the $1 "Hiking Map of the San Jacinto Wilderness" available at the tram's gift store provides some alternatives. Here're a few:

Desert View Nature Trail: A great 1.5-mile route for families or newcomers to the high life with payoff views for little legwork. The trail begins close to the tram off of the shorter Nature Trail.

Round Valley Loop Trial: This 4-mile loop starts at Long Valley and highlights the pine forests and grassy meadows of this wilderness area. Add a mile and a half if you continue on to Tamarack Valley Campground before circling back to Long Valley.

Wellmans Divide: If you don't want to go to the top of San Jacinto, take this out-and-back hike that climbs about 1,000 feet in 3.1 miles and comes with terrific views to the south and east.

Saddle Junction Loop: The hard 12-mile hike follows the route to Wellmans Divide and then drops toward an intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail to Saddle Junction. From there it's a climb beyond Willow Creek back to the tram.

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